Volunteering in India. Interview with Lola about volunteering at the Sambhali Trust in Jodhpur
Volunteering in India is a popular way to learn more and get immersed into the incredible Indian culture while giving something back and womens empowerment is something close to my heart so I was excited to interview Lola about her time volunteering on a women’s empowerment project with the Sambhali Trust in Jodhpur.
Lola Méndez is a full-time traveler who shares her adventures on Miss Filatelista as she adds to her collection of passport stamps. She travels to develop her own worldview and has explored 53 countries. Passionate about sustainable travel she seeks out ethical experiences that benefit local communities. You can follow her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest.
Hi Lola, so you volunteered at the Sambhali Trust in Jodhpur, India, can you tell me more about the work you did there?
During my three months volunteering with Sambhali Trust in 2017, I worked pro bono as the Communications Officer. My career had been in the New York fashion industry where I worked as a publicist and did everything from media outreach to branding strategy. I used my high-level skills to support the Sambhali Trusts sustainable long-term initiatives through communication efforts and business development. Day to day I pitched stories to international publications, contacted brands for potential partnerships, reached out to retailers, managed marketing initiatives such as creating the monthly newsletter, established best practices for the Sambhali Trust blog, and made suggested edits to the website and external communication documents.
My favorite project was making their social media channels more engaging. We participated in the Global Giving #SheIs campaign and the Fashion Revolution #IMadeYourClothes hashtag. I also created opportunities from existing partnerships with Photographers Without Borders and Deepa Mehta. I developed a case study of all the work I did during my tenure and hope that the NGO will continue to use my examples as tools to continue to expand their communication efforts.
It was also my first time fundraising which was challenging but luckily extremely successful due to the other volunteer’s tireless outreach to loved ones and past supporters commitment to the cause. We raised over 6,000 euros in less than a month and surpassed our goal.
I created a women’s empowerment workshop after the Women’s March for beneficiaries. I wanted these vulnerable women to know that their female peers around the world face similar issues and that the whole world is ready to defend them and every mother, sister, daughter, and wife around the world. You can learn more about the workshop here: Lessons from the Women’s March at Sambhali Trust.
I also took every chance I had in the evenings and on weekends to discover beautiful Jodhpur. Don’t miss my guide to India’s blue city on my travel blog, Miss Filatelista.
And what made you decide to volunteer here and how did you make it happen?
I’d been dreaming of volunteering with at-risk women in India for as long as I can remember but never found a gap in my career path to be able to commit to a long-term opportunity. After leaving my job in Italy I decided I finally had the chance and started researching NGOs. There are hundreds in India and it’s so difficult to vet them. Sambhali Trust was one of the first NGOs I discovered and from my initial look at their website, I knew that they’d be a wonderful grassroots organization to contribute to.
Sambhali Trust has been operating for over a decade in Rajasthan and has already impacted the lives of over 10,000 women and children. I felt confident in my decision to accept a role with Sambhali Trust as they’d been certified by the UN. Their main program is vocational training in textiles, clothing manufacturing, handicrafts, embroidery, and block printing. My career had been in the fashion industry and I felt confident that my skill set would be relevant and helpful. I saw many opportunities for growth when studying the nonprofit’s website and social media channels.
In addition to free vocational training, each graduate from the year-long sewing program receives a sewing machine so that the woman can create her own business and have financial independence. This income allows them to find a means to alleviate poverty and afford education, shelter and medical aid for their families. Sambhali Trust had clear revenue channels (in addition to donors) by selling the products the beneficiaries make (at fairtrade wages, of course) at the Sambhali Trust Boutique and investing the revenue back into the charity but hadn’t seemed to have done much to market these beautiful artisan made goods.
I had a phone meeting with the Founder to go over my ideas and brainstorm on how I could assist the org. This was in July 2016, a few days later I accepted the role and booked my flight from Paris, France to Delhi, India for December 2016.
What do you like the best about volunteering at Sambhali?
I loved being able to apply my expertise for something good. I believe strongly in the work that Sambhali Trust is doing and was able to use my marketing skills to further expand their reach to potential donors, media opportunities, and volunteers. Although I didn’t work directly with the beneficiaries every day the time I did get to spend with them was life-altering. These women are fierce. They’ve persevered through obstacles that most western women couldn’t even imagine. Although they’ve seen some of the darkest aspects of mankind, they’ve prevailed. The female beneficiaries of Sambhali Trust are so full of joy, color, and life. Their resilience is something I will never forget. I even got a tattoo in Hindi to commemorate my time with them. It says Nari Shakti, which means women’s strength.
But nothing’s perfect right? Are there any downsides?
There were things that I witnessed which made me feel uneasy. I was uncomfortable with the way management treated volunteers and staff during tense moments. Most volunteers were unqualified to be English teachers. However, I believe Sambhali Trust is doing the best work that they can and that they’re evolving each and every day. I hope someday they’ll have the financial security to be able to hire trained English teachers, ideally local Indian women.
Do you have one standout highlight or biggest achievement?
There were many highlights during my role at Sambhali Trust! I led the fundraising efforts to purchase sewing machines for the graduates. In less than a month we raised €6,313 through 57 donors.
I created a tourism activity with Visit.org that will give travelers the chance to learn about the organization as well as culture and crafts from Jodhpur, India.
During my time at Sambhali Trust, the Founder arranged for the incredibly talented producer and activist Deepa Mehta to visit the charity to screen her latest film, The Anatomy of Violence, for the beneficiaries. I was thrilled to be able to secure a few articles in which Deepa Mehta spoke about why she believes in Sambhali Trust. I think this sort of exposure will have major long-term benefits for the NGO.
Through my work as a travel writer, I’ve also had the chance to feature Sambhali Trust in various articles I’ve written for Thrive Global, Travel Fashion Girl, and Travel Massive.
I’m also very proud of the workshop I created, as I could see first-hand the way the empowering messages affected the women as we shared stories and joined forces to remind ourselves of just how powerful and important each and every woman is.
And what has been the greatest challenge?
Adjusting to life as a volunteer in India was somewhat challenging. I was told I shouldn’t travel around India, stay out past 9 PM, or have local friends. As a very independent woman in her late 20s who is quite well traveled these concepts weren’t well received. I know they had my best interest at heart but I had some difficulty differentiating myself from the European teenagers who might have needed more guidance than I did. I had no troubles traveling alone and made lasting friendships with locals.
What do you wish you had known before you started volunteering at Sambhali Trust?
Although it’s not a reflection of anyone at Sambhali Trust in the future I think I’d only work with women’s empowerment organizations that are female-founded and operated.
So, what are your plans and ambitions for the future?
In the Spring I will go to Chiang Mai, Thailand to work with an organization that helps pair highly skilled volunteers with NGOs and nonprofits that could benefit from their expertise. In the meantime, I will continue to seek out community-based travel experiences everywhere I go. I share my stories of responsible travel on my blog, Miss Filatelista. You can follow me on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, all with the username @MissFilatelista.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what tips would you give for people wanting to follow in your footsteps?
First, try to understand why you want to volunteer, and if you’re qualified to do so. You should be able to offer something valuable that will enhance the nonprofit in some way. You shouldn’t provide a skill that a local could provide, otherwise, you’re taking a job opportunity away from a local. Always do your research to make sure the organization you want to work with is reputable. GivingWay.com is a great free database of highly vetted volunteer opportunities. If you’re looking for something a bit more organized VentureWithImpact.org arranges coworking trips for professionals to work with social enterprises, NGOs, and nonprofits overseas.