Each student makes a gift for a child from another school. They smile, share, break barriers and learn life lessons.

A group of young people employed in corporate jobs and NGOs, with students and home-makers came together a few years ago to organise an annual week-long celebration, a ‘festival’ of giving, in the week of Gandhiji’s birthday. They called it the Joy of Giving Week, but recently renamed it Daan Utsav.

Daan Utsav volunteers met some months back in Bangalore. At the end of the meeting they decided to pool a little money, make sandwiches and go out and locate people to respectfully share these with. They walked to the railway station around which numerous homeless people find refuge. They sat down with old men and women they encountered outside the station, chatted with them and offered their sandwiches.

There were still some sandwiches left at the end of the evening, and they wondered if they should offer these to the railway porters. “But they might throw these back on our faces,” one said. They were still standing around hesitantly, when some porters overheard them and walked over smiling. “If you want to share your sandwiches with us,” they said, “why don’t you?” One of the team members later recalled how grateful they felt that the porters accepted their modest gift so gracefully.

In Hyderabad, Madhulika Sagaram and her colleagues in Adhya Educational Society thought they would try teaching such lessons in giving to school children across social barriers. Their plan was simple. Each child in a school would be encouraged to make something to offer to an unknown child as a gift. Many worked with paper and waste and made birds, animals and flowers, some painted while rural children grew and picked fruit. The schools were paired in opposites, high-income schools with government schools, urban with rural schools, a madrassa with a convent school, a school for children with special abilities with a school that did not include disabled children.... They called these ‘buddy schools’. On the appointed day, children from the schools would visit their buddy school, offer each other gifts, share their packed lunches and talk and play together.

In these interactions, the children learnt many life lessons, just as the band of adult volunteers in Bangalore did. They learnt about giving and receiving with grace and respect. They learnt that under our apparent differences — of wealth, religion, language and caste — we are all essentially the same. Sagaram’s colleagues found that once they were brought together and shared their little gifts, children made friends easily with other children even though, in normal circumstances, their worlds would never intersect. They were curious, friendly and open, more than most adults would be in the same circumstances.

A student from an affluent private school observed later that the government school students from the buddy school were “more disciplined than us, more helpful, more creative and more down to earth”. Another student from the same school recalled, “we played, danced and enjoyed the trip. It was fun.” A third was happy to get to know about “village life, crops and plants”.

Some children became reflective. A student remarked that “our parents give us everything but still we are very stubborn, whereas the children in the government school hardly have any facilities.” Students from a government school said they “met new people, learned how to be happy and make others smile” and also learnt “that small things can make us happy.” One child said that it “inspired me to do some good in the world. We should exchange joys and divide the troubles.”

Volunteers from Daan Utsav are drawing up a list of ways of respectful giving. Their inventory includes: Go to lunch with your office peon, and learn his life story. Have a party with children of domestic helpers in your society. Talk to a homeless person. Gift a meal, or a pair of chappals. Make a pot of chai and serve it to night watchmen. Volunteer at an orphanage or a home for the elderly. Help a rag-picker collect and carry waste for an hour… Just some small steps for building empathy. (Is there something that you would like to add to their list? You could write to info@daanutsav.org).

I often worry about the ways we are raising our children — teaching them by our actions if not our words to be disrespectful of people who are different and less advantaged, and uncaring about suffering and deprivation. Daan Utsav volunteers are trying to show us small, modest, everyday ways to change this: by changing ourselves a little each time, with tiny, unpretentious actions from the heart, acts of giving, and that forgotten value — solidarity.