The Freedom to Contribute; The Freedom to Change

A returning volunteer from Germany, Johanna has learnt many important lessons from her time at Tender Heart. She reflects on some key takeaways, as well as what keeps her coming back

The first time I visited Tender Heart was in 2015, as part of an international volunteering programme. I returned in 2016 and now, in December 2019, I am back for yet another visit. Naturally, people around me wonder what exactly it is that keeps drawing me back to this organisation (FYI, I live in Germany, which isn’t exactly around the corner). There are of course multiple reasons: the brilliant work the NGO does and the ideational freedom given to volunteers to contribute hereto are definitely significant factors. However, it is the essence of the organisation and the nature of its people that, albeit difficult to put into words, stands out above everything else.

Renu Bali, the director of Tender Heart, has a soft spot which shapes her entire organisation and gives rise to the backbone of its essence: her inability to turn people away. Any and every person entering through the gates of the NGO in search of work is almost certainly provided with an employment opportunity. In the event that there is no job vacancy available, a vacancy is simply created. Those in need are embraced with open arms, provided that they are willing to work. The most desperate are additionally provided with shelter at the NGO until they are able to stand on their own feet again. This is why at Tender Heart, every employee has a story and a deeper reason for turning to Tender Heart in search for a job. For the more privileged, it could be the desire to contribute towards society or the urge to find a more meaningful and fulfilling occupation. Financial considerations are certainly more prevalent amongst the less privileged employees — those who turned to the NGO in times of desperation. They have all faced hardships throughout their lives and while some display their scars openly, others bury their wounds and stories. Either way, the narratives of poverty, loss, lack of acceptance and depression are always lurking beneath the surface at the NGO – after all, they are the reasons for the organisation’s existence in the first place. This is true not only for the men and women whose main livelihoods depend on Tender Heart, but most certainly also for the children with disabilities that attend the organisation’s ‘special needs’ classes – many of whom have faced discrimination by society or even their own families for being differently abled. Being confronted with all these narratives can be overwhelming at times. However, it is not the stories of hardship that define Tender Heart. Tender Heart is a place where people from all paths of life come together. It is a place where unique yet similar stories converge and bind their narrators together through a shared understanding of hardship on the one side, and strong resilience and optimism on the other. It is a place where people cry and laugh together in the face of difficulties. An air of humility surrounds its grounds, a humility that only people whose life hasn’t exactly been an easy walk in the park can possess. It is precisely this humility and rawness that keeps pulling me back and that has been instrumental in teaching me how to approach my own difficulties whilst simultaneously placing them within a grand perspective. 

The most important quality of Tender Heart therefore – its essence – lies in the firm belief that every man, woman and child deserves an opportunity to pull the strings of their own life rather than just being subjected to restrictions beyond their control. The NGO works to provide the means with which this self-control can be realised and therefore it is no surprise that education, employment and skill training lie at the heart of its efforts. However, sometimes all it takes is providing a simple platform and an opportunity which in itself has the potential to be life-changing. A recent example and perhaps the most touching for me is the story of 25-year-old Kavita, who had been given the opportunity to run a small canteen at the NGO. For its one-year anniversary in early December, she organised a celebration and invited all the teaching staff for some snacks she had prepared. Halfway through cutting the cake, teardrops started running down her face. Slowly and just about visible at first, until she could no longer hold back her emotions and burst into full tears – tears of happiness. As she was trying to regain control and find her words she muttered something that was so simple yet heartfelt, it almost left me in tears: “Thank you for giving me independence.” Other than providing the facilities and some initial funding, the NGO had done very little in contributing towards Kavita’s success. All it required was an opportunity, which came at a small cost for the organisation, but had a huge effect on Kavita’s life. it is in moments like these that the full force of Tender Hearts’ moto – “Dreams begin when opportunities are given… And when dreams are realised – life begins” – can be understood.

At the end of the day, being at Tender Heart is a constant reminder of the biggest injustices we face today, living in a world where some are presented with a never-ending abundance of opportunities for self-realisation whilst others are deprived of both, opportunity and self-control over their life. Some of us write our own stories, whilst others can only stand by and watch their stories being written for them. Non-Governmental Organisations stand at the forefront of providing the less privileged sections of society with the resources required to regain the authority over their stories.

Ironically enough, they also shape the stories of those that come to volunteer at their institution. Tender Heart has left a mark on me in so many ways, not least through confronting me with my immense privilege. I know for a fact that many other volunteers feel the same way. If you think my cycle of return to the NGO is short, you are yet to meet the hardcore returnees, some of whom pay a visit every year in order to catch up on the stories that have unfolded in their absence. At Tender Heart, we are a trans-national community and as such we cross the boundaries of gender, age, background and socio-economic status. And most importantly, we are an open community which is always looking forward to accepting new members in our ranks.

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