It’s a Wednesday afternoon after a big exam and I walk into Rainbows’ Classroom 7, where a dozen heads turn to watch excitedly as I enter through the crayon covered door. I plaster a smile on my face, despite the physical and mental exhaustion of it being the third consecutive week of exams as a second-year medical student at Kansas College of Osteopathic Medicine in Wichita. A million thoughts about the recent test questions and my never-ending to-do list are running through my brain.
I’m helping the kids on a puzzle when one of them asks “Does the monkey still have your glasses?” while pointing at my face. For a moment, I pause. I’m puzzled as to what I’ve been asked. Then I laugh, remembering the story I told them several weeks ago about the mischievous monkeys in India that steal glasses from the parkgoers when they aren’t paying attention. “Wow, I told you guys that story so long ago” I say to Mateo. I often underemphasize my presence in other people’s lives, thinking I’m just another person on the street. As a volunteer that doesn’t get to see the everyday workings of the classroom, I’m practically a stranger. However, it took Mateo noticing I wasn’t wearing my glasses and assuming the monkey still had it, that reminded me, in a humoring way, how impactful I really am.
Over the past year, I’ve volunteered at Rainbows United. As a volunteer, I work alongside staff and directly with the children in their daily recreational activities. But what that really means is I just get to be a kid and replace my stressors with bubbles and laughter. I volunteer in different classes each week, ranging from toddlers that are just beginning to babble all the way to the 5–6-year-olds that could talk your ear off all day. Every week is a novel experience, and I never know what to expect, but that’s what I love most. Some days we play with cars, some days we read books and work on puzzles, and other days we sing and dance. Some kids practice walking with a walker, then holding onto my fingers, and eventually all on their own. It’s been a rewarding experience to see their progress and bask in their successes over the weeks.
Although I haven’t impacted their lives in a large way yet, I intend to. Before joining the volunteer community at Rainbows, I was a physical education leader for the Special Education class at my high school. Since joining Rainbows, I’ve been selected to participate in the RARE Compassion International Program that matches students with rare disease patients and allows for conversation and insight into each unique experience. I’ve also initiated a systematic review research project on available resources in Wichita for parents and caregivers of children with rare and chronic illnesses. This is an area of medicine I’m becoming extremely passionate about and I believe volunteering with Rainbows United has positively influenced my interest. I’ve truly gained a personal stake in this population through seeing the kids at Rainbows each week.
So when I reflect on my experiences volunteering this year, I believe the bigger question to ask is “How has the community made a difference in my life?” as opposed to the other way around. Personally, it has made a positive impact on my mental health in getting to spend quality downtime with kids, it has ignited an interest in an emerging field of medicine that needs more research and support, and it has given me an intangible sense of fulfillment, which is what volunteerism is all about. In this past year, I’ve picked up trash around the city, bought coffees for the homeless, and cheered at 5K’s. Seemingly small contributions, but as Mateo reminded me – to some, it may just be about a monkey and a pair of glasses, but to me, it means so much more.
By Kajal Thakkar, Rainbows’ Volunteer. Kajal is a second-year medical student at Kansas College of Osteopathic Medicine in Wichita, Kansas. She’s an avid foodie, dancer, and travel enthusiast. In terms of medicine, Kajal is striving to become a physician that values the art of patient care and is dedicated to promoting equity and inclusion within her community and beyond. Kajal has enjoyed volunteering with several Rainbows’ classrooms over the past year. Her favorite thing to do with the kiddos is play with bubbles and magnets!