Bonnie Swart was a volunteer at Seva Mandir for 7 months in 1990. She caught up with us via phone from Geneva, Switzerland, where she is currently based, to tell us about her volunteer experience, her ongoing relationship with the organization and the impact that Seva Mandir has had on her life.
How did you get involved with Seva Mandir?
It was all completely by chance. I met [current Seva Mandir President of the Board] Ajay Mehta by accident. I was working in New York at Citi as a trader in the late 80s. Ajay came into Citi to have lunch with one of my colleagues. My colleague introduced us because I had just been to India as a tourist and was headed to the Peace Corps. It was a 5 minute conversation, and Ajay and I exchanged contact information.
My role with the Peace Corps got postponed, and so I got in touch with Ajay. He invited me to come to Seva Mandir and work as a volunteer – the plan was that I could stay on campus and do whatever I could to help out across the organization.
During what period did you volunteer with Seva Mandir in India?
I was there in 1990. I arrived in February and stayed for 7 months.
What inspired you to get involved?
As I mentioned, I had recently traveled to India right before I met Ajay and had a very positive experience on that trip. And ever since I was a very young girl I had wanted to be a Peace Corps volunteer. At the time, I was planning to leave my finance job and it felt like a really huge leap. When the Peace Corps got delayed, I reached out to Ajay because I saw an opportunity to work with a great grassroots development type organization that caught my eye. I was just really lucky to have met Ajay because I didn’t know anything about Seva Mandir before that.
What was Seva Mandir like back then? How did you help out as a volunteer?
It was very loose and flexible back then – when I went they hadn’t had many foreign volunteers, and so I tried to help out wherever I could. I spent a lot of time working with Neelima Khethan on forestry and natural resource management issues prior to when she became the Chief Executive of Seva Mandir. One of the projects I worked on was a presentation to several hundred villagers on Earth Day. It was a very interesting experience to put the materials together to communicate the concept of Earth day to these villagers, many of whom were not literate.
Another area I helped out was helping writing grants and proposals since I was a native English speaker. I worked with Dr. Lodha, who was soliciting funding for traditional birth attendants. I also wrote several articles on natural resources for publications that were passed around to NGOs at the time – this was in the pre-internet days. I remember we would sit in an office at a wooden table and write pieces by hand.
There was also another project that I worked on with a couple of colleagues where we interviewed people in a very remote area of Rajasthan in an effort to record the oral history of these people.
How did you enjoy working with the people at Seva Mandir?
I was met with tremendous kindness. The people I worked with, including Ajay, Neelima and Ajay’s father, were just so kind, incredibly passionate and gentle. I was so impressed by being there. I fell in love with the whole mission of the organization.
What did you do after your time at Seva Mandir?
I did the Peace Corps after in Mali in West Africa for two and a half years.
How did the Peace Corps compare to your time at Seva Mandir?
Seva Mandir was a point of reference for me as a Peace Corps volunteer. Coming from Seva Mandir, where things worked fairly smoothly, I had similar expectations in Mali. It could be frustrating at times in Mali because I was just one person there and didn’t have an entire organization supporting me. While the environment was similar, the culture was very different. I ended up doing a lot of healthcare-related work in Mali that I had learned about while at Seva Mandir, so that was helpful in setting up mobile pharmacies and other antenatal care in Mali.
How have you stayed in touch with Seva Mandir over the years?
The organization seems to have grown by leaps and bounds over time. I’ve stayed friends with Ajay and Neelima over the years. As a family, we’ve donated to the organization on several occasions. I’ve tried to stay up to date on Seva Mandir by reading the newsletter! I’ve also tried to refer other folks who might be interested to the organization.
What impact has your experience with SM had on you?
It completely changed my life. My way of looking at things has been forever touched and shaped by my volunteer experience. So much of who I am today has to do with that time in Seva Mandir. It’s an amazing, one of a kind organization with wonderful people, and I am very grateful for my experience there.