Balmandir is a non-government network of orphanages across Nepal, founded in 1964 by the Nepalese Royal Family. Its properties were donated following an appeal by the Queen Mother. The largest by far is the Kathmandu Balmandir, set up in a disused, run-down former palace in the northern suburbs of KTM. It currently houses around 180 orphans. These include babies, toddlers, boys and girls under 5 years and older girls up to the age of 16 or 17.
Older boys are housed at other Balmandir orphanages in KTM, including one at Techo, near Chapagaon, on the southwestern outskirts of KTM for teenage boys.
As far as I know, Balmandir receives no government funding and is totally reliant on donations by overseas sponsors, foreign NGOs and fees paid by overseas adopting parents and volunteers. Volunteers are asked to pay $20 US for the duration of their participation at Balmindir, as part of the required registration at the commencement of their volunteering period.
Volunteering at Balmandir, Kathmandu
It is possible to simply apply at Balmandir in person on a working day, Sunday through Friday. However, it is better to ring in advance to make an appointment with the Director or Deputy Director. In my case the extremely helpful current Deputy Director, Bal Krishna Dongol, was available and happy to meet me, show me around and accept my registration form and payment on the spot with the minimum of fuss.
Balmandir staff may suggest a particular way you can best assist but they are also eager to learn what skills you have to offer and your preferences. In my case, I began taking some drug education classes for the teenage boys at Techo orphanage. Bal Krishna took me there on his motor bike to meet the young men and suggested some of the topics that we covered (mainly tobacco, alcohol and party drugs).
After three sessions at Techo, I returned to Balmandir’s main centre at ‘The Palace’ where I spent 3 weeks assisting in the Toddler Class (15 girls and boys around 2-3 years) and in the Babies Room (20-25 babies and toddlers under 18 months).
This class runs six days a week, except Saturday and public holidays, from 10.30 am to 3.30 pm. It is taught by an excellent, expert and very kind and patient teacher who welcomes volunteers and visitors (preferably with a little notice as there are sometimes several potential volunteers and visiting groups from overseas). Most days in October-November (the peak volunteering season) there were 2 or 3 volunteers helping in the Toddler Class.
The classroom is very well equipped and is a pleasant, cheerful environment for the children. This is in marked contrast with the bleak environment of the rest of the building. The many donated toys, games etc. are secured by a locked door when the room is not in use. This is to prevent the theft of equipment that seems to bedevil some of Balmindir’s other areas of operation.
The children revel in the attention and affection of their teacher and volunteers. Some of the more emotionally distressed or disturbed children show remarkable improvements in their participation, behaviour, learning and enjoyment in only a few weeks. Volunteers will find their involvement immensely rewarding and very moving emotionally. The children will touch you deeply and you are likely to find you want to spend even more time with every child, so intense and immediate are their responses and needs.
The class begins with simple prayers (Hindu, Buddhist and Christian), songs, practices in English and Nepali (days of the week; numbers; colours; simple Q and A re: childrens’ names, how are you, etc.). Then children wash their hands before having morning tea (fruit and milk). After morning tea children do a craft such as Playdough modelling or drawing. This is followed by free play indoors in the Toddler Room.
At noon, the toddlers break for their midday nap. This provides an opportunity for volunteers to have a break, move on to the Babies Room for the afternoon, or leave to do other things. I usually moved on to help in the Babies Room until 3 or 3.30 pm, when I returned to Papa’s House 2.
The Toddler Class resumes at 1.30, after the children’s nap, for further playtime until 3.30.
So another option for volunteers is to help in the afternoon session instead of the morning session, or to do both sessions, perhaps after a lunch break. The Palace is set in spacious front gardens that are little used but ideal for a picnic lunch on the grass.
Balmandir’s Babies Room
Balmandir’s Babies Room was for me the most deeply moving and intense experience of my stay in Nepal.
The Babies Room has about 20-25 babies from 4 weeks to 18 months old. The mix of ages changes week to week, as newborn babies arrive from Kathmandu Hospital; some of the young, healthy and lighter skinned babies are adopted by Nepalese families; an occasional baby is ‘reclaimed’ by a family member who ‘surrendered’ it for adoption, etc.
With the recent decision to recommence overseas adoptions to some countries there are likely to be renewed visits by interested foreign families. This may provide new opportunities for those children overlooked for local adoption, including some older toddlers or those with some disabilities.
The Babies Room never closes. With permission, and by arrangement with the very dedicated and caring ‘Didis’ (sisters) who look after the babies, it is possible to help there daily, even on Saturdays and public holidays. Normally, it is appreciated if volunteers arrive after 10am so as to minimise disruption to early morning routines including the period when babies and bedding are placed out on the balcony in the sun.
Volunteers who wish to be helpful rather than simply observers will change a lot of cloth nappies (they are washed by the Didis); apply lots of cream to nappy-rash bottoms; bottle feed the smallest babies; carry and play with as many of the crawling and toddling babies as can reasonably be taken out of their cribs at one time; be puked and peed on repeatedly; be constantly crawled over and played with by the very active babies; and generally have an amazing time that is at once totally absorbing, deeply moving and emotionally and physically draining. Perhaps I got too emotionally involved, but I felt the strongest bonding with any children since I began helping to raise my own 16 years ago. It is so inspiring and touching to see the extraordinary growth and improvement, physically and intellectually in a sick four-week-old baby with just three or four weeks of basic health care, loving attention and stimulation.
The Babies Room is at the back of Balmandir Palace. It can be reached either from the main front entrance, via the Admin. corridor on the top floor; or through the side gate to the left hand side of the Palace’s front garden (for approved before or after hours visits or on Saturdays and holidays when the Admin. offices are closed). Sometimes there is a gatekeeper who will be happy to let you in or show you the way to the Babies Room.
There is a desperate lack of soft (or any other) toys in the Babies Room. Donated toys will often disappear overnight, especially if they are new. Older children can access the Babies Room and some will remove donated toys simply because they don’t have any of their own. The briefest walk around Balmandir will show you why donated toys go ‘missing’ unless kept under lock and key at night. Other children often have nothing to call their own.
Recently, overseas donors/volunteers have painted bright murals on the walls of the bleak and forbidding central courtyard where most of the older children play (they do not seem to be permitted to play in the spacious and sunny front gardens, perhaps for security reasons). Much more remains to be done...there is no limit to what your imagination, skills and a very little money could achieve.
It is very easy to find fault with aspects of the management, staffing or childrens’ services and welfare at Balmandir. This is especially so when helping care for small and sometimes very sick babies. It’s important to offer to help before volunteering advice; to try to see things (including hygiene) from a Nepalese viewpoint; to offer modest practical ways to overcome real problems (e.g., bring in bananas to supplement the childrens diet—Balmandir can’t afford them; bring in unbreakable plastic playthings...a plastic jar/bottle with a peg or coin inside makes a toy the babies will get hours of enjoyment from; bring disinfectant, creams, baby wipes etc...again, Balmandir can’t afford them).
The Didis are mostly overworked and grossly underpaid (it was rumoured they had been unpaid for several months during 2008). If you can earn their support and respect, they will be eager to make your visit rewarding, enriching and deeply moving while working with you to improve the conditions of the many babies in their care.
Among my most affecting experiences in Nepal: the blind and distressed toddler who clung desperately to me every time I passed her crib but who gradually relaxed into boisterous play sessions after several days of continuous interaction, and whom Balmandir sent with another blind baby to Mumbai for an operation to try to restore their sight; the tiny 4 week-old baby born premature who was on the verge of pneumonia and who we feared would die, who by 8 weeks was crying lustily for his bottle feeds like any newborn, waving his arms for attention, recognising our faces and vocalising happily, and enjoying ‘play’ sessions out of his crib, lying watching the other crawling and toddling babies; the wildest and strongest of the toddlers wrestling for ‘ownership’ of a plastic honey jar/rattle with a clothes peg inside; seeing the least active babies showing new excitement as volunteers and staff had more time to play with them out of their cribs; teaching Arvi, Arvat and Umunga their first words and ‘musical’ sounds (‘raspberries’ and war whoops).
All that and so much more...while constantly changing nappies for babies with diarrohea; swabbing pus from infected ears; wiping conjunctivitis-clogged eyes and endless snotty noses (or more often having them wiped on us).
Please give yourself to Balmandir’s Babies Room. You will grow and change into a better person.