I arrived at Jhamtse Gatsal a bit nervous and not sure what to expect, but when I left a year and a half later, I felt as if I was leaving my home and my family.
What makes Jhamtse Gatsal so special? Is it the eighty-five hugs that you receive every day? Is it the all-embracing environment where children are taught to love and care for each other in a way that becomes second nature to them? Is it the warmth and friendliness of the staff that accepts you unconditionally? It’s hard to say! What I can say is that the specialness of Jhamtse Gatsal comes from those immeasurable things like love, acceptance, and caring, which we often take for granted, that flow so consciously and naturally here.
After deciding to take a gap year after high school and finding Jhamtse Gatsal on a volunteer website, I arrived in February 2013 and made it my home until July 2014. At first nervous, I was shy and quiet. I was embraced and welcomed first by staff and then by the kids. I had arrived during winter vacation when most of the children were away. The kids taught me to speak Monpa, play their games and make bracelets. They asked me questions and told me stories. In turn, I taught them games, shared my own stories, and told them about my home in Jamaica. For me, life at Jhamtse Gatsal became as much about living in a community and being an active community member as about teaching science and math. I became more and more invested in the children’s education and the community as a whole, and, come August 2013 when I was supposed to leave, I decided to stay for an extra year.
Spending time with the children outside the classroom was just as important to me as spending time within the educational setting. I wanted to get to know them, and I did. They showed me pictures of their sponsors and asked me questions about what life was like in ‘USA’. We went for walks and they showed me all the plants that were used in their villages, and what they were used for. We played volleyball, football, cricket, seven stones, we did cartwheels and handstands, and the boys showed off their breakdancing moves. With each day and shared experience I felt lucky to be a part of their lives and to share these moments with them.
But it isn’t just the children that make Jhamtse so special. It is also the hardworking staff who are always ready to throw a party and laugh at themselves and each other. The Ama-las taught me how to hand wash clothes and accepted me as if I was one of their children. The kitchen staff taught me to speak Hindi, and patiently waited while I struggled with sentences or said the opposite of what I was actually trying to say. They fed me chai, and indulged my growing love of chilies and ‘chamin,’ Monpa chutney.
The teachers took me in, teased me, and enjoyed correcting my growing but broken Hindi while I helped them with their English. Four in the afternoon often found us in the kitchen, drinking chai, sharing teaching tips and talking about classes. It was their support that helped me when I was struggling with a particular class or topic.
I often look back on my time at Jhamtse Gatsal and wonder – who learned more, me or my students? I have come to the conclusion that the privilege of being part of such a loving and caring place is something so special, that no matter how much I taught, I have learned infinitely more.
(This lovely reflection by Amma, also appears on the new Jhamtse International blog, with more photos. Go check it out!)