Last summer as part of my Masters of Counselling Psychology and Art Therapy program at Adler University, I spent a month doing volunteer social work and travelling in Southern India. I worked with OneVillage Community Service Foundation and my voluntourism experience took place in and around Mamallapuram. In the last installment of my 3-part series on voluntourism and travel in India, I’ll introduce you to the organizations I worked with and the communities I worked within.

OneVillage Community Service Foundation

OneVillage Community Service Foundation was founded in 2013 in Vancouver, BC. The foundation works to support local organizations worldwide, assisting persons of need in attaining basic needs, education and gainful employment.

OneVillage sends aid and skilled volunteers to assist local organizations focusing on education and vocation for women and children in need. Skilled community service volunteers work alongside local leaders assisting in issues identified with local communities.

OneVillage has worked with organizations in Masaka, Uganda and Chennai/Mamallapuram, India. We were fortunate to have been paired up with a local organization in Mamallapuram called United Community Action Network (UCAN).

United Community Action Network (UCAN)

UCAN has been operating in the Mamallapuram area for nine years. UCAN is a non-profit organization serving gypsy, tribal communities, widows and the destitute. As a non-governmental organization, they work together with the assistance of international volunteers to provide educational and vocational support to individuals in need.

Volunteering with UCAN

During our month with UCAN, we facilitated and participated in community discussions addressing strengths and growth opportunities. We also assessed unmet needs and brainstormed solutions and future goals. We worked with three villages: the gypsy village in Pooncherri, the tribal village in Nallan Pillai Petral and the tribal village in Thirukalikundram. It was surprising to see that each village was quite different in terms of energy and way of life, even though they are so close in geography.

Tribal Village in Thirukalikundram
Community discussion in the tribal village in Thirukalikundram.
CC Attribution: Photo courtesy of Lauren O’Keefe

But it wasn’t all hard work! We went on walking tours where locals showed us their daily living habits, including cooking, cleaning, hunting, education and community activities. As volunteers, we visited the Panchayat Primary Government School regularly; where we assisted in teaching spoken English, a vocational skill necessary to survive in Mamallapuram’s tourism-driven economy. We also created fundraising documents and a website for the organization.

Children at Panchayat Primary School in Southern India
Teaching English through songs and games with children at Panchayat Primary school.
Making gun powder in Southern India
A young man making a gunpowder mixture for hunting.
A place to raise pigeons in Southern India
The aviary for raising pigeons, a favourite past time of the children.

We were also treated to an Independence Day party at the school, where the kids performed skits, songs and speeches about the history of India. And as a special treat, they even performed a skit for us using the English we helped them practice. It was so heart-warming!

Children singing and dancing in Thirukalikundram, India
The kids in the tribal village in Thirukalikundram were excited to try to teach us their songs and dances.
Using art to teach English in a classroom in India
Teaching English through art. The children don’t have many opportunities to use art materials and were excited for our lessons.


Long-term goals for the villages

The long-term goals of each of the villages include more opportunity for education for their young people as well as sustainable self-employment for women. UCAN supports these goals by partnering with local and international organizations to provide training and supplies, as well as school uniforms, tuition assistance and school supplies for children.

Interested in voluntouring or volunteering? For more information or to see how you can help with UCAN’s mission, visit their website.

Related: 7 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Volunteering Abroad

beaded necklaces in Pooncheri India
A sample of the beautiful bead necklaces made by the gypsy women in Pooncheri.

Working and getting to know the people in these areas gave us a clear understanding of their needs from their perspective. Some of the younger villages in the area, like the gypsies, are still working on getting their basic needs met.

More settled villages which are able to access more government services and jobs are focused on the future of their children and self-employment, as they are able to meet their basic needs more easily. This shows how important safe food, water and shelter are, not only to individuals but also to an entire community’s mental health and wellbeing.

Houses in Nallan Pillai Petral, India
Some of the homes in the Tribal Village in Nallan Pillai Petral provided with help from UCAN.

My experience

The work we did was not what I imagined when going to volunteer as an Art Therapy and Counselling student. However, it’s important when volunteering internationally not to have an agenda. If you want to really make a difference, it’s important to be flexible and work with a local organization to do the work that is needed.

This was an excellent reminder for me. As a volunteer it was important to be flexible and ready for any challenge. Impromptu English lesson plan anyone? Since two of the villages didn’t have any English skills we relied heavily on our interpreter.

Children doing homework in Nallan Pillai Petral, India
Village children doing homework before dinner in the Tribal Village in Nallan Pillai Petral.

Smiles, simple signs and bowing to our hosts helped show respect. Everyone was excited to see us every time we visited and we tried our best to learn small bits of Tamil. I was able to successfully mispronounce “Thank you” every time, which drew big laughs. While we were able to get by quite well throughout our trip speaking only English, I wish I had more time to learn Tamil before my trip in order to connect better with the tribal people.

I am forever grateful for this experience and for the relationships I made while working with UCAN and would highly recommend partnering with them if you’d like to make a difference in and around Mamallapuram,India.

Nandry (Thank you).


Cassandra, Travel Blogger, TuGo Canada

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Travel India Part 3: Volunteering in Mamallapuram

Nov 25 2015