By Manshi Gala, YES’12 Alumni from Mumbai

“ this turned out so beautiful!… You are amazing! Wow, such a beautiful capture! Aee photographer I just have to look around and you are there. Oh my god! When did you click this? And many more comments…

All this was only possible with that one of the many Christmas gifts received on Christmas night. And that was the beginning of many more smiles to come, many more memories to capture… many more shutters to be released and pressed. That one faith and request to write a letter to Santa… I just asked Santa to help me save few bucks here and there, so that I can buy a camera, and my host family made it happen. I was so dumb! I wanted a camera with a long lens, with good zoom but didn’t know what it was called! Well now, I know it’s called a DSLR. I had only described it and my host family gifted me the real one. They had all the gifts mentioned in my letter and many more which I could take back. They waited for me to open gifts one by one and asked me to open that little box last. I was least expecting. My first ever American Christmas, which I had only seen in Hollywood movies, was now real! It was one of those precious nights! 

Yes it was a beautiful Canon SX500 IS SLR, 16.0 Mega-pixels, with 30X IS zoom…it was so precious that I didn’t use it for a couple of days, my family thought I didn’t like it or it wasn’t working. They asked me if I needed a battery. I said it’s new so I’m saving it for good and grand memories. They made me realize that it’s time that I start using it and make every little thing grand. The moment I started using it, I went to my photo professor Mr. Marietta at High school and showed him my extraordinary Christmas gift. He said that it’s beautiful and that now onwards I will have lots of fun with it. I used it all the time; it was around my neck like a part of my body. I tried all kinds of shots, clicks, angles, and experimentation. I took it everywhere, so I could capture and build on my memories. All worked out perfectly well.

So, I was back home and the exchange year was over. My little camera continued to be with me in my hometown and everyone who saw it loved its design. I also got comments like – I am like one of the foreigners in my own country as I was moving around with my camera. 

Kids posing with their portraits

Well, so I was at college and it was my last year with 6 weeks of internship to finish before I graduate. I was placed with this NGO named Muskan in Mumbai and they were working on child mental health. These kids were under trauma; they had witnessed an accident. It was a tragedy in which they lost every single thing in the huge fire. All they had were memories of their times. They had seen everything nice and shining to all burnt black ruins. They described that it was black and fuming that they couldn’t locate their homes. All they had were memories and with time they were recovering.   

After this tragedy, I met them after a good six months. I had known all their experiences. I had to plan activities for them which involved some kind of psychotherapy, learning, attention and everything I could use to involve them and help them. They wouldn’t trust any outsider easily, nor would they smile or anything.

Well, my precious gift helped me get their smiles captured making it their first memory after all the unwanted negative things that happened in their life. I wanted to involve photography, so all I decided was to fund the entire thing. I clicked single portrait shots of these kids. They were informed earlier about it, parents consent was taken before getting them printed. They were asked to create their own beautiful photo frames. They stuck it on card paper made designs with marker and wrote their names and date. It turned out to be so successful and positive. There was a smile on everyone’s face including me. I was glad I could use both my skills, it was only possible because of the camera my family gifted me.  It still is precious and the only camera I use and I own until now! It’s been 4 years now…the camera brought smiles on so many faces, captured all sorts of moments. It’s with the same battery; never knew that one precious Christmas gift would do so much in my life!

It’s been a year since I have graduated, I had been a volunteer from the time I have returned home. Also, I have been selected as a National Qualified Trainer (NQT) in India, therefore sharing exchange stories all throughout; there has never been a single day that I have not missed my exchange year, or those times. Sure, that I do the same things differently in my day-to-day life, which sometimes stands out in my home country and is noticed and appreciated by people around. I continue to give my heart to my experience. CIEE has played such a major role throughout my exchange, all those successful monthly contacts and timely counseling have helped me and made my year a great success! I am proud to be a CIEE & AFS Alumni. I still remember the feeling of happiness that I felt to see my Coordinator Pam  came to receive me at the Airport and the CIEE package which reached before me and was in my cupboard with the welcome brochure and t-shirt as soon as I reached my host family. Thank you so much for all your love and support!! Thank you YES & AFS Program!”