Working for Mother Teresa


For the past three days, we have been working in the morning at Daya Dan, an orphanage run by Mother Teresa’s organisation. It was quite an interesting experience – but not exactly what we expected.

Mother Teresa needs no introduction. Recognised and acclaimed throughout the world, she received many distinctions and awards including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her humanitarian work with the poorest of the poor in the slums of Kolkata through the organisation that she founded the Missionaries of Charity. People who have met with her describe her as very charismatic and there is no doubt that she has left a profound impression on everyone at Mother House – the headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity – in Kolkata.

While I knew who Mother Teresa was, mostly through documentaries on television in my childhood, I knew little about her organisation “The Missionaries of Charity” which mission is to care for:


the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone

At the time, in India, and in particular in the overpopulated slums of its big cities, this meant a lot of people and several centres were opened. The most famous centre is the Home for the Dying and Destitute, where those who came (or were brought) could receive medical attention and die with dignity – regardless of their faith. Most centres also work as basic dispensaries for people who need it.

Most volunteer organisations nowadays require interviews and provide some training before arranging placements, but the Missionaries of Charity is one of the few organisations that accept about anyone who just drops in to volunteer for help at Mother House – the sisters dispatch volunteers depending on how long the intend to stay, what they are able to do and what they would like to do. So we decided to go to Mother House and see if they could make use of our time in Kolkata.

When we first arrived at Mother House, the sisters were occupied with various menial tasks and asked us to wait in next to Mother Teresa’s tomb and reminded us the time for evening mass. Not long after we were taken to the volunteers’ hall where a dozen other people of all ages and background were waiting. The sisters told that we were waiting for group of Australian students from a Christian school. After the large Australian congregation arrived, there must have been nearly a hundred new volunteers ready to be briefed about basic issues to do with hygiene mostly.

Although everyone felt welcome, it was very clear that we were going to work for a religious organisation. During the brief, one of sisters said that even though we might feel we were not achieving much, as long as we were doing it with love, then we could be assured we were doing good. I later found that this sentence was representative of the charity’s view and also the main reason for its critics.

After a five minute interview with Kate, the sisters placed both of us at Daya Dan, also known as Gift of Compassion Home, an orphanage for mentally and physically handicapped children aged between six months and twelve years. The children there suffer mostly from cerebral palsy or some form of handicap. The roles of the volunteers vary. Short-term volunteers generally remain with the children, change them, given a morning bath, cloth them, take them to the bathroom if necessary; we were here to ease the workload of the sisters. Long-term volunteers are taught how to take care of the children in more depth such as doing therapeutic massages.

On our first morning at Daya Dan, there were over twenty volunteers – a lot given the number of children, about 15 boys – so inevitably, most of us did not have much to do. They needed someone to play the guitar at mass and possibly have a music class later, I volunteered. The sister handed me the list of Christian hymns and asked whether I could play them, I must admit that I am not familiar with this kind of music and without score sheets I would have to somehow guess the chords from the melody… This centre was open in 1998, there was a guitar for me to use, donated by a former volunteer, but no tablature which I found surprising, surely in the last 10 years they must have had a couple of volunteers to play the guitar with kids that don’t know Christian hymns! Kate spent most of her time with a couple kids, taking them for a walk, sitting and playing with them.

What surprised me is the lack of instructions. All the volunteers arrive at the same time in the morning and somehow figure out something to do by watching other volunteers.

One particular child, Prince, was partially blind and mentally delayed. As we arrived in the morning, he climbed on my back, wrapped his legs around my waist and his arms around my neck. He held as long as possible. A volunteer told me that he liked to be taken next to the small fish tank; he seemed to find this reassuring, so I took him there. After a while, I had to put him down; he immediately started to look for another arm to grab and found Kate’s. We were told a day later not to let him climb on our back but to get him walk – but he only wants to be held, he has no interest in walking. Who knows what is good for these children? I was happy to be loving and compassionate but uncertain about how this should translate in this situation. All the kids loved to be touched, but was is acceptable to rub his back? Did he understand any of the words that we were saying? How do you deal with naughty kids who are mentally disabled?

Everything was fine when we were there, but things could easily go wrong. No one really seems to check what we are up to. The sisters did ask us to report any unusual behaviour from the volunteers, but apart from the obvious most of us did not know what was OK and what was not as we had no idea what was best for these children. So I can see how some volunteers could let unacceptable things happen without blinking an eye as investigative journalist Donal Macintyre describes it. Macintyre went undercover in Daya Dan a couple of years ago and fiercely criticized the way the orphanage was run in an article in the New Statesman.

I must admit, we saw nothing of the like. Most volunteers were conscious that their contribution was limited and none was as naive as the article portrays. The sister in charge, who was constantly busy with requests, was obviously delighted that many volunteers were here. It looked obvious that she loved the children too, and there was absolutely no sign of neglect.

Several long-term volunteers commented that the standard is well below that of comparable institutions they had seen in Europe, there was a group of medical students from Spain – some Indians also argue that there are better organisations to deal with these children in Kolkata. The usual answer is that if these children weren’t in the home, they would be in the streets, is this good enough nowadays? This was probably true in India when Mother Teresa started her work with the charity in the fifties. But over the last fifty years, many other specialised organisations with trained staff have appeared and I doubt that tender loving care is stuff and volunteers’ goodwill is sufficient to address these children’s needs. I must admit that I am uncomfortable with the dogmatic stance that the organisation sometimes takes.

Doing some research into the organisation itself, I also realised that there is also a clear lack of transparency. Most reputable NGOs publish their budget and plans; this is a natural expectation from both members and donors. In the case the Missionaries of Charity, I hardly found any conclusive information. I am sure that the charity has earned its place in Kolkata, and I can see some its benefits, but from my experience I also understand why some people voice their concern.

To know more, have a look at the Mother Teresa Wikipedia page which links to interesting articles. As every time the religious is involved, it is difficult to find balanced arguments.