This post is part of a fifteen-day series covering my trip to Kolkata, India in May 2013. Some entries have been slightly edited for length or content, but they are mostly copied directly from my journal.

Hotel Circular, Kolkata
Room 44

First day of work at Shanti Dan. It wasn’t what I expected. Sister Mercy Maria’s statements at orientation about women struggling with depression and mood disorders? That’s not what I witnessed today.

Shanti Dan is large. I don’t know how many women and children live there, but the ward where the women live had numerous rooms with at least 50 beds in them.

Shanti Dan facility (photographed with permission)

Shanti Dan facility (photographed with permission)

There are two floors on the women’s ward. The layout is a large rectangular open air corridor, with both floors opening onto a big interior courtyard, so that the women spend much of their time in a sheltered outdoor area. The residents have a range of abilities–in the sick room are women who are new to the facility, very sick, or very old. That’s where I spent much of my time today. I was doing a variety of jobs, from cleaning floors and scrubbing toilets to drying women who had just bathed and helping to feed women who couldn’t feed themselves.

Shanti Dan corridor (taken with permission)

Shanti Dan corridor (photographed with permission)

The day wasn’t easy. I often felt completely clueless about what to do or how to do it. I was given little instruction, and Emily and I found ourselves trying hard to know what we should do next. At the mother houses, there is a certain moment where you just have to act on what you suspect is right. If it’s not right, someone will yell at you. The good news is that neither Emily nor I were yelled at by the mashis (employed support staff).

We asked Steph, a long-term volunteer at the home, for information about the home. She’s already been here for a year and a half, so I trust that her information is pretty solid. She explained that many of the adult residents have been brought here by the police, Missionaries of Charity volunteers, or the sisters. Some have wandered off and gotten lost from their families, so the nuns search missing person reports and try to help the women get home and reunited with their families if possible. If a child with a disability starts life a Shishu Bhavan orphanage and ages out of it, he or she is sent to another home. Boys go to Daya Dan, and girls go to Shanti Dan. They can stay there forever if there is nowhere else for them to go.

I was struck by the calmness of the property. It was very well staffed, and although I sensed some roughness at the hands of the mashis, it seemed no more rough than the way I have seen patients in hospitals and nursing homes treated by the decent but hurried nurses. The facility was incredibly clean, from what I can tell. Beds appear to be changed daily. The mashis work in shifts, so of course someone is there 24/7.

Dormitory at Shanti Dan (photographed with permission)

Dormitory at Shanti Dan (photographed with permission)

It was a good, long morning. I feel good about my decision to go there for my volunteering. I am hopeful that in the days to come, I can feel more like I know what I’m doing and how best to do it.