A group of students travelled half-way around the world to make a difference in the lives of people here and in their own.

Last Sunday, 17 high school students from the U.K. finished constructing three rooms for a widows' centre in Vayalur, near Kalpakkam. They lived on site for two weeks volunteering for ‘Acts of Mercy', an NGO that is building a training centre and housing for young widows. The students were from the schools, Barrow and Ulverston, two hours from Manchester, U.K.

Two weeks of no Internet, no TV, sleeping on floor mats, bucket-showers, and platoons of mosquitoes! That's eyebrow-raising news, but here's the jaw-dropper; they not only raised funds for their travel, but also enough money to add to the kitty for the building costs! NXg caught up with them to find out what makes these 17-year-olds tick?!

How did all this work out?

Ailsa Mackensie: Malcolm, our geography teacher, connected with ‘Madventurer' who organised this whole project. We collected money to come here by helping pack bags in the supermarkets and we also went out to companies with a letter. Construction is a lot of fun! We are not the “always wear make up” kind of girls; we also carry the heavy concrete bricks with the boys; we also sweat and get dirty! Where else can we get an opportunity to do something like this! This building is a part of me and I will come back!

Rosie Gard: My brother had gone to Tanzania last year where they built toilets. I've been excited since and grabbed this chance! Everyone in the village are so content with the little they have! We have everything back in the U.K., and yet we don't even smile anymore!

What is Madventurer?

Liesel Bakker: Madventurer was started by John Lawler, a student-traveller from the U.K. who got stuck in a village in Ghana and was made Chief of Development! That was 12 years ago and the simple objective since then has been to give small travel groups, life-changing experiences. Madventurer also has a charity to help fund these community projects. I'm from South Africa and studied architecture and, yes, my classmates back home even recently did work on the FIFA buildings! I'm here working on Real Projects that affect Real People! I wouldn't trade this for anything!

How do you choose projects?

Madventurer chooses projects that have a long-term vision, and not build and run projects. The point is to give back to the community, to ‘live the life' so to speak, play games with the children, dance with the village folk; it's the only real way to connect with the land and people! We met John Christian last year, checked out Acts of Mercy, and understood the depth of his vision for this widow rehabilitation project. It's a great project and looks like we will be back! (www.madventurer.com)

Duncan Littlechild: It did not cost too much to do this and it was to help the poor. It's amazing to be able to live here, eat Indian food and see how people exist with so little! I also go to the Achiever Academy School in Mahabalipuram also to teach Recorder flute. It's altogether fantastic!

Chris Hitchings: Being here has really opened my eyes to reality. In the U.K we have so much and yet we complain about life. Here, the people live in thatched huts, eat simple meals and yet they are so happy! I want to be a journalist and this experience has changed my perspective on life! Think I've found my purpose for life here!

Where did you guys sleep? What do you eat?

Paige Birkett: We sleep on the floor on mats, carry water from the outside pipes to shower and wash clothes. We have been eating amazing Indian food. Raghu is our cook and from his makeshift tent he has also given us stir-fried noodles, pasta. We even had a barbecue one night!

Roseanne Wilson-Parry: I like the fact that I don't have to dress up, get my hair done and look pretty all the time! Here, there is work to be done and all of us have to pitch in and sweat it out! It's about getting real!

Pete Binfield: I've just offered two weeks of my time to be here and we have built three rooms! How much more can be done if we can give more time? I admire John Christian and the world needs more guys like him!

A word from the teachers…

Malcolm Haley (Barrow, 6th Form College, Geography teacher): I've done seven trips like this in the last eight years to places like Tanzania, Peru, Sri Lanka, France, Morocco and others. We get caught up with the academic curriculum, the exams, but never get to know the students. Here, after the tough days work, we just sit around and chat — that never happens in the modern day. This kind of experience opens the eyes of the students for a better world perspective and they mature into better individuals.

Jeanette Huntington (Ulverston, Victoria High School, Chemistry teacher): I love to travel and in fact, that's how I met Malcolm - in Morocco! This is our way of giving back. Also as teachers, we are concerned about the overall development of the children. The younger they are impacted, the better. This trip helps the community and the volunteers too! We like to work with self-sufficient projects like this because it is long-term and it will make a big difference to this community.

So you're saying that today's virtual generation actually wants to do stuff like this?

Malcolm: In my class, only about 20 per cent, but that's great! In the West, it's all so materialistic! Most of these students have their own cars! So, it's a rare opportunity for them to get this grassroots experience. What they take back to the U.K. is your values of family, community, hospitality, and generosity. Those values are lost in the West.

For more info, look up www.actsofmercy.org or mail info@actsofmercy.org or call 9551050831

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I tried getting on a crowded bus with my backpack on and got pushed off! It was so crowded! - CHRIS HITCHINGS

The watchman's wife made me wear a bright sari and paraded me around the local village!! Everyone was smiling and inviting me inside their thatched huts for tea! It was wacky and yet overwhelming to see the joy in their faces. - ROSY GARD

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Why not us?

Why does it take teenagers from the UK to do community work in India? NXg asked some students and working individuals what they thought was wrong. The argument continues.

Berty Ashley (Scientist, Duke of Edinburgh awardee): We have become immune to the poverty around us! If a westerner sees a child working in a tea stall, he will be shocked and want to build a school! We would just look over and say, “Oru tea, oru Bajji!” Also, a 17-year-old in the West is independent and can take a year off to work in an Indian slum if he wants to. An Indian parent will have a heart attack if their child suggests something like that! “Do engineering like your brother, you ungrateful boy!” Too many issues, man!

Dhiya Kuriakose (in College): A majority of college students want to do community service; but most don't know about opportunities like this. I would say the problem is simply awareness! If you can assure the student and their parents that it's safe, almost 90 per cent will sign up for it!

Anand Shyam (Name changed!): I used to volunteer with my company's CSR projects but find that it's more about publicity for the company, than helping the poor. It's better to give a water packet to a thirsty beggar than to give him a branded energy drink and publicise it! There is so much need out there and corporates have funds allocated, but the motive needs to be cleaner!

Rahul Shankar (Engineering, Duke of Edinburgh Awardee): I help teach slum kids in Triplicane. It took a Swiss lady to start this school and inspired me to continue. I think the biggest problem is that young adults always ask ‘what's in it for me'! It's sad, but it the truth. Also consistency is another problem — we may start something enthusiastically, but keeping it going is another story!

Whether it's callousness or ignorance, the fact remains that our days are also getting spent on Facebook than facing the reality around us; life is getting real busy just like the West! If the hearts of these UK kids can be so impacted and enriched by serving our poor, our lives can be to! Think. Act.

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