The Mithra experience

A University of Queensland student's heartfelt reflection
on his time in India

India was a truly unique, rich and colourful experience that showed me the depth of human love and compassion. I was part of the UQ St Leo’s India Immersion group that set off in late November 2016 for a month-long pilgrimage of travel, discovery and volunteering service. As a UQ student entering a third-world country for the first time, I was both excited and a little anxious as to what I would encounter. India has a culture that is completely different to our own, and poverty is a fact of life for the majority. However, it was the poorest of the poor that we set out to help. Doing this at Mithra Rehabilitation Centre in Chennai was not only our most challenging time in India but our most rewarding.

Mithra (Madras Institute to Habilitate Retarded and Afflicted) is the only institute of its kind in India, and provides care and rehabilitation to disabled children without discrimination of any kind. Mithra was established by Sister Mary Theodore - ‘God’s Donkey’ - from Brisbane in 1977. Sister Theodore continued her service there until her passing in 2012. Mithra relies on volunteer work and donations to survive. The remaining sisters’ mantra is ‘Challenge to Conquer’. They believe that every child’s situation can be improved, and therefore there is no such thing as a hopeless case.

In the Hindu religion it is seen as a curse on the family to have a disabled child. The afflicted children are usually hidden away or sent off to beg at a young age. It is at Mithra that these neglected children are given a chance at rehabilitation and independence. Children attend school in uniform each day and vocational classes are available for the older students. Mithra has qualified teachers and a physiotherapist who every day attempt to bring out potential in their children, even if it’s just a one per cent improvement.

When we arrived at Mithra, we were told the children may take a while to warm to us, as they had endured tough lives and were not trusting of strangers. Despite this, we were accepted instantly with smiles and hugs, even being pulled away to play games and asked for pushes on the swing. Volunteering at Mithra was very involved, with 12-hour volunteering days both in and out of school hours. The children of Mithra were the highlight of India for me. Getting to know each one by their distinct personalities, and forming bonds through barriers of language and disability was truly amazing.

During this trip, I discovered a quote by Mother Teresa - “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love”. This is, I believe, the essence of volunteering. It’s doing the little things that make a real difference. Mother Teresa also said that “The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved”. So while we may be disheartened that there’s nothing we can do to completely cure disabled children, we can take solace in the fact that we are there for them anyway and can show them that they are loved.

While Mithra is self-sustaining and doesn’t require volunteer work to survive, volunteering provides the children with social interactions outside of school and the chance to form and build relationships with new people. Sadly it isn’t always possible for volunteers to make it to Mithra. In 2015 Mithra was hit by devastating floods that took half of its infrastructure out of service. In 2016, on the day our group was set to arrive, a cyclone tore through Chennai and we feared we would not be able to fulfil our commitment to Mithra. Fortunately we were able to catch the next available flight and assist with removing the debris.

Needless to say, Mithra is always in need of assistance and the group Friends of Mithra would love to hear from anyone who thinks they could help. This group organises fundraising, sponsorship and volunteering, and has recently launched its official website www.friendsofMithra.org. For all those considering an immersion experience abroad, all I have to say is this: don't hesitate, don't doubt yourself, just do it. Throw yourself in the deep end and see what happens. You may discover part of yourself that you never knew existed.

- Patrick Lynch, third year Bachelor of Science student.

St Leo’s students were supported by UQ Advantage Employability Grants to assist with their participation in the India Immersion Program. Designed to promote student mobility, the grants offer financial support to subsidise student involvement in activities that will enrich their studies and university experience. More information about the grants is available from the Student Employability Centre.