..Barbara DeGroot..


Searching for one word to describe India, Dorothy Nielsen settles upon a rather unlikely choice -- "generous."

After all, one is more prone to think in terms of "needy" and "troubled" when considering this nation plagued by overpopulation, poverty and religious clashes.

But Nielsen, who recently spent three weeks volunteering in India, explains:

"I came to realize that India is incredibly generous -- generous in its heat, rain, prayer, poverty, cruelty, generous in its beauty, kindness, smells and sounds."

"What I realized was that, for me, it's completely a matter of how you want to perceive it. Either your cup is half-full or half-empty. For me, it was incredibly full. I felt full when I was over there," says Nielsen who lives in Basalt, Colorado.

In October, Nielsen was part of a Global Volunteers team of seven North Americans working at Dazzling Stone Home for Children in the community of Porur, located about 30 minutes outside of Chennai (Madras) in southern India. Global Volunteers is a nonprofit organization that offers short-term service programs throughout the world.

For three weeks, Nielsen and the volunteers befriended the Dazzling Stone orphans -- reading to them, singing songs, taking them on outings to the park and the beach. They also put the finishing touches on a newly renovated orphanage building for Dazzling Stone and helped with the ensuing move. Says Nielsen: "I felt I was in a very safe environment and secure. I felt like I was surrounded by extended family. They're providing so much nurturing love for those kids. They really want the best for them."

Seeking to be of service and experience India on a personal level, Nielsen lived out Mahatma Gandhi's words -- "We must be the change we wish to see in the world."

For Nielsen, the experience offered lessons in the universality of the human spirit and what really matters in a world of shopping malls, designer pets and $5 cups of cafe latte.

"This experience will be with me for life. It really made me stop and think...I've learned to differentiate between my needs and my wants, which will never be fulfilled. As I listen to people, a lot of their frustration in life comes from not knowing the difference between needs and wants. Being in India helped solidify the distinction. I really feel fortunate," says Nielsen, a single mother of two grown daughters who is employed in customer service at Aspen Base Operations airport.

Dazzling Stone Home for Children is a privately owned facility that now cares for 50 youths, ranging in age from 3 to 16 years. It was founded by concerned citizens of Porur, and is run by a tireless couple, Deva and Joy Dhas, who both work full-time jobs to keep the facility going. The Dhases asked for assistance from Global Volunteers and the organization followed through by offering to send volunteer teams several times a year.

Thanks in part to the efforts of the volunteers on Nielsen's and a previous team, Dazzling Stone was able to move into comfortable newly renovated housing.

The volunteers worked hard and gave a lot of themselves. But they received much in return. Team leader Kitty Huesner of Fort Myers, Florida, says, "Dorothy worked and played with great energy and enthusiasm -- working with the children, scrubbing floors to prepare for the move, teaching English. She raised money to bring many supplies for the project (including) art supplies and lots of vitamins and Band-Aids."

India can be challenging to even the hardiest traveler, and there were times when Nielsen wondered out loud what she was doing there. "There was suffocating heat and incredible smells and sometimes it was hard just crossing the street with their crazy traffic.

"I found myself saying, 'Dorothy, just breathe, relax and surrender.' I had to realize that I was in unknown territory and I had to stop wanting to control everything."

One experience symbolizes Nielsen's cultural surrender. "The girls at the orphanage were helping me scrub a floor. I had purchased SOS Pads and was working away. Well, the girls just went out and got dried palm branches to scrub with. It worked so well they should have been selling them in hardware stores.

"That was symbolic to me. I realized my way is not better. I learned from that experience so much. It was like a message from the universe, saying, 'OK, Dorothy, open your eyes and be willing. You're here to give of your time and to learn. Just be part of this experience, wherever it takes you.' It was an incredible lesson."

Global Volunteers charges a service program fee for participation that covers food, lodging and program expenses. Nielsen's fee was paid through generous donations from friends, family and acquaintances throughout Colorado. It's the same way she raised money to travel to Romania independently on four previous occasions to work with at-risk babies in that struggling country. She even contracted typhoid on her second Romania trip but that didn't deter her from going again. To borrow a phrase from philosopher Joseph Campbell, she calls it "following my bliss."

"I do all my trips by fundraising through friends and acquaintances," explains Nielsen. "It's really a lot of work. I find myself involved in this process months before I go. I like to say this isn't a 'me journey.' It's a 'we journey.' It takes the generosity of so many people to make this happen."

Nielsen's pluck and courage has not gone unnoticed. U.S. Representative Scott McInnis from Colorado, in fact, publicly lauded Nielsen during remarks before the U.S. Congress in 1999.

"People say to me, 'How can you do this?' And I say, 'How can you not?'" says Nielsen.

"I think people are afraid of the unknown. I see a lot of people whose lives seem empty or they're bored. How can you possibly be bored in this life?"

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For more information on Global Volunteers go to: www.globalvolunteers.org