24 September 2004
by Brian Fitzgerald
Carolyn Norris had no prior teaching experience the first time she stood in front of a class of wide-eyed Romanian schoolchildren. What she did have, in abundance, were butterflies in her stomach.
“I was absolutely petrified,” recalls Norris, the director of Boston University’s (BU) Student Activities Office in the United States. And she calls this a vacation?
In 2003, Norris took a three-week-long “volunteer vacation” in Romania through Global Volunteers, which offers such opportunities throughout the world. Despite her initial nervousness in the classroom, she found the experience so rewarding that this past July she flew to India, where she taught math, science, and English at an orphanage.
Norris, who has also served as director of the Wellness Center and Community Service Center at BU, had wanted to get involved with Global Volunteers ever since she read about the Minnesota-based nongovernmental organization a few years ago. She thought the volunteer vacation was an extraordinary concept: experiencing the culture of a far-off land and at the same time helping the country’s underprivileged citizens.
Bright and motivated
In Romania, Norris taught conversational English at a middle school three blocks from her hotel in Barlad, a small city in one of the poorest areas of the country. She was more than a bit apprehensive about the assignment, but before she left, her confidence was boosted with encouragement from Karen Boatman, a clinical associate professor at the university. “I didn’t have a lesson plan — I was worried that I didn’t know what I was doing,” Norris says. “But Karen talked me through it. I was still scared the first day, with all the students looking at me, but I got over it quickly. And the kids were great. They were bright and extremely motivated. It was their summer break, and they showed up to school 45 minutes early every day.”
Romanian teachers train their students in English grammar adequately, but because it’s so difficult for young people to eventually get a good job without a strong command of the language, the benefit of working with native speakers is immense. It’s an enormous challenge for a country where talking to a foreigner was banned until 1989, when the Communist regime of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown.
Norris’ students were eager to learn not only English, but also about U.S. culture. She found that their perception of the United States was somewhat distorted by Hollywood. “One of my students had just seen the movie Donnie Brasco on TV, and he wanted to know if everyone in America was a gangster,” she says with a laugh. “I assured him that wasn’t the case. They thought that we all drive expensive cars. I hated to disappoint them, but I told them that I drive a Toyota Corolla, and that we aren’t all as rich as Bill Gates.”
Each afternoon after school Norris took a cab to the nearby village of Tutova and with a volunteer team of 14, helped care for infants and toddlers in the Tutova Clinic’s “failure to thrive” ward. In a country that struggles with an abundance of neglected babies, the children in the clinic are generally scheduled to stay for about a year and then be reunited with their families. In a quarter of these cases, however, the parents never return, and the clinic has become overcrowded and understaffed. “Not a lot of aides work there, so the work the volunteers do is crucial,” says Norris. “With a little extra attention and nurturing, these kids can progress developmentally.”
Norris instantly bonded with a six-month-old named Cezar, and she says she would have adopted him, but the country has banned the adoption of its children by families from other countries except under rare circumstances. It’s obvious as she gazes at a picture of the brown-eyed charmer that she still misses him terribly. She continues to care for Cezar through Global Volunteers’ Child Sponsorship Program, through which she buys him food, medicine, diapers, clothing, toys, and health care.
“I hope to get back there sometime and see how he’s doing,” she says.
Teaching at Dazzling Stone
In July, Norris put her newly acquired teaching skills to work at the Dazzling Stone Home for Children, a privately funded orphanage run by Deva and Joy Dhas outside Chennai, India. “I taught fifth grade science, fourth grade English, and second grade math,” she says. “Math was never my strongest subject, and my parents laughed when I told them I was going to teach it, but it was simple addition — carrying the numbers — and the kids picked it up quickly.”
Before Global Volunteers got involved with Dazzling Stone, the orphanage was about to shut down. Back then it consisted of just an open veranda covered with blankets. Global Volunteers helped the Dhases rent a building, and get running water and electricity — and teachers like Norris. “It’s impossible not to connect with these children,” she says. On her last day she found it tough to leave her new friends. It was an emotional scene for the entire volunteer team, just as it had been in Romania. “The older kids tried to comfort us, saying, ‘It’s okay, it’s okay,’ ” she says. “They know the deal — that the volunteers are only there for a month — but it was harder for some of the younger kids. And of course, for every one of the volunteers, it was excruciating.”
Norris says that the volunteer vacations “are a great way to experience a different culture. You get to see what life in a city or village is like, and you’re not going to see that from inside a four-star hotel.” While the guesthouse Norris stayed in near the Dazzling Stone wasn’t exactly the Ritz-Carlton, it was comfortable. “And you have the weekends off to do ‘touristy’ things,” she adds.
The volunteer experiences are also contributing to Norris’ education. She plans to write her doctoral dissertation on the problem of orphaned children. Romania has more than 50,000 children in orphanages, and India has millions of them living in orphanages and on the streets.
For some, humanitarian efforts by organizations such as Global Volunteers may appear to be a Band-Aid remedy for countries that need a large-scale solution to the issue of abandoned children, “but volunteering definitely helps,” Norris says. “Volunteers keep the programs running. There is a cumulative effect — it adds up.” And, as Norris can attest, no experience is necessary.
Photo shows Carolyn Norris with two friends at the Dazzling Stone Home for Children near Chennai, India. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Norris.