Editor's Note: This is another in an occasional series profiling Harbor Springs High School graduates pursuing unique and interesting paths in life. If you have a suggestion for such a profile, please email us at email@example.com
Following graduation from Harbor Springs High School, Will Dart was all set to attend Michigan State University in the fall of 2010. He'd even made it to orientation when he realized he wasn't ready to commit to four more years of school just yet. So before hitting the books again, he opted to see a bit of the world, and make a positive difference in the process.
Dart, who was 18 years old at the time, had never spent any time out of the country. In deciding where to travel, Dart simply did a search online for volunteer opportunities abroad and came across a small orphanage in Kolkata, India. It was almost exactly on the opposite side of the world from Harbor Springs. Soon after, Dart packed his bags for India and didn't look back. He lived in the country for three months before coming home for a break, then traveling back for another two months.
"I didn't know what to expect at first, I just went for it," Dart said. "I like kids, but had never worked with them before.
"I had a little brother growing up, so that was all the experience I had," he joked.
"I arrived at the orphanage at night," Dart continued. "I went to bed that night and woke up to find 10 kids standing around me the next morning."
Bulbulir Basa Orphanage, located in a rural part of Kolkata, opened in 2000 to provide homes for local children who were either orphans or from financially overwhelmed families. According to Dart, the orphanage houses eight to 10 children ages four to 12. Dart spent his time tutoring the children after school and also helping out with various needs around the orphanage.
"A lot of these kids come from really terrible home situations," Dart explained. "They might have parents, but they already have too many children to care for them, or they could be children whose mother works in the red light district or they might just be orphans. The orphanage provides them with a great home and education, though."
Spending time with the children was a rewarding experience, Dart said.
"All the kids were pretty cool, but one of them, a four year old named Gullu, is who I spent the most time with. He was too young to go to school, so I hung out with him during the day and tried to teach him English, which could be frustrating at times," Dart said with a chuckle. "I definitely developed a bond with him, though."
Adapting to another country for the first time was a challenge sometimes, Dart noted. Homesickness, behemoth sized bugs and snakes and culture shock were among the experiences.
"Pretty much everything was different there compared to Harbor Springs. The heat was one of most difficult things to get used to. It was terrible and every day I just felt sticky. Spiders there were about this big," Dart said, pointing to his hand. "I don't really like spiders, either. There were giant mosquitoes there, too, so I ended up wearing bug spray most of my time there. I'm not sure if my skin has been quite right ever since," he joked.
"It was like living in another world," he continued. "It was completely unlike anything else I've ever experienced. After the first week I was really homesick, and I'll be completely honest-it was not fun at first. Living abroad can be an uncomfortable experience at times."
Differences (some good and some perhaps not so much) in food and traffic were other aspects of India that Dart had to get used to.
"Public transit was like a war zone. The first day I was there, I was riding on a motorcycle and we got hit by a car. I was fine, and that's something that often happens there; cars just bump into each other sometimes. Nothing can really prepare you for Indian traffic, though," he said with a smile. "The food was really great. It was one of the highlights of my trip. It wasn't too spicy and it had many diverse flavors that I'd never had before. The orphanage director's mother was the cook and always made something good."
Interacting with the Indian people was an interesting experience, Dart noted.
"Being one of the only white people there, I was stared at a lot," he said with a smile. "The Indian people were really great, they were very friendly. They love to talk to Americans. I'd go to the bank, and they'd bring me tea, or I'd get on the bus and everyone seemed excited to see me."
Another difference between here and there was the cost of living, Dart noted.
"Everything is very inexpensive. I probably spent around $50 the whole time I was there. Though I did have to barter for things a lot, which I'm not very good at," he said with a laugh. "One day, I ended up spending $18 on matches. Though I also bought my lunch one day for 50-cents, so I guess that made up for it."
During his time overseas, Dart's favorite experience wasn't actually spent in India. He was able to spend a week hiking through Nepal with the orphanage director who spoke the native language, allowing him to see places that tourists wouldn't normally have access to.
Dart noted the time he spent in India has definitely given him a different view of the world.
"After living in India, I'm more aware of what I have and where I come from," he reflected. "People don't realize the opportunities we have here in the U.S. Even the unluckiest American has it pretty good."
Recently, Dart shared his experiences with students at Harbor Springs High School, which prompted students to organize a family fun run to raise money for the orphanage. Dart said he was touched by how supportive the students and community members of Harbor Springs were in supporting the children in Kolkata.
"It's just the coolest thing," he said. "It's so great people here are interested in this, and are so generous toward people halfway across the world who they've never even met. The students at the high school were really great for organizing this. I'm just so proud of this town for all they've done."
Dart, who is now 20 years old and an English major at the University of Chicago, will be traveling back to the Bulbulir Basa Orphanage in August for three months.
"This has changed my whole perspective," he said. "I feel a lot older after coming back from this. It's like I've been to another planet, now that I have knowledge of other things out there."
"I know my life will never be the same after doing this," Dart continued. "I think it's important to get out there when you're young and to take chances and to see things, otherwise later you may never get the opportunity. By doing this, I was able to experience another country and I also now have a permanent connection with these kids and with India. I think everyone should have an experience at some point in their lives. Do something weird."
For those interested in supporting the Bulbulir Basa Orphanage, go to calcuttaorphanage.wordpress.com/donate/ or check out their facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/orphanagewestbengal