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Giving back during a gap year

JANUARY 16 ― When someone mentions taking a gap year, visions of backpacking around the world absorbing different cultures, sights and basically having a jolly good time of it after years of hard study spring to mind. That is what I did.

But it’s far from what Matthew Morvan, who’s just turned 18, has planned.

We recently met in a noisy outdoor bar, warmed by heaters, the laughter of students and the lights of the town’s chateau. Not much had changed since our last catch-up when I reported on his trips to help refugees in the Calais Jungle before its closure in late 2016, except that he’s now picked up the notoriously tough French Baccalaureate “Scientific” with sparkling colours and an offer to study at the prestigious McGill University in Montreal, Canada this September.

Matthew quietly rattled off a bucket list of things to master during his gap year from learning computer programming, photography and shooting documentaries to spending more time with family (awww) and helping the homeless in Paris (ahhh).

But, the top of his list is a sizeable humanitarian project based in India called Kassiopé (gulp).

He explained how he and three friends created the Kassiopé project in 2016 to provide reading glasses to children of school age living in slums in and around Ahmedabad, northwest India.

A massive fundraising drive, and know-how from Matthew’s father, who works in ophthalmology, helped make this project happen: 700 school children were tested by Matthew and his project partners and provided with corrective glasses in the summer of 2016.

Now, Matthew wants to take this project one step further, and provide not just eye tests, but cataract operations too with the help of two French eye surgeons working pro-bono.

He left for India last Monday, initially to help with a farming project called The Gaïa Grid in Kerala, before arriving in Ahmedabad at the end of the month.

The urge to help others runs strongly in him, as it does with several other Franco-American families I have met here in the Western suburbs of Paris. But I found his candid introspection at such a young age, or what he describes as his “awakening”, extraordinary.

His desire to help other people was first triggered by a school exchange trip to India in 2015 set up with Manav Sadhna, a non-profit organisation based in Mahatma Gandhi’s first ashram (religious centre) in Ahmedabad.

Manav Sadhna was set up “to serve the underprivileged” and is guided by Gandhi’s unshakable principles of “love, peace, truth, non-violence and compassion.”

Teaching over a two-week period in the satellite slums around the Manav Sadhna hub prised open Matthew’s eyes to the inequalities between his life and that of his students'.

“It is was like piercing a bubble,” and when he returned home from India he says: “It felt like I was going back into my bubble where I was not confronted by such inequalities, and all my problems were superficial.”

It made him question everything: his place in this world? What he should do now that he had seen these inequalities? Why were these people — who had nothing — so joyful?

Matthew was struck by how the smallest of things made the people he met really happy. “For me, the answer was that having nothing, no material goods to carry around with them through life and worry about, left them happier with themselves.”

Matthew returned home struggling with these questions and the nagging sense that his impact in these Indian communities had been really small.

Also, he felt an overwhelming drive to somehow thank the Manav Sadhna community, as “in giving to them, I unexpectedly received a lot back.”

He felt enriched by his experience and had learned much about himself. These were the seeds from which the Kassiopé project has flourished.

Through crowdfunding, he and his project partner Albion Alban, an 18-year-old Brit, aim to raise €2,500 (RM12,098) by January 20, and when I last checked, they were a third the way there.

This will cover the cost of an optometrist to travel out to Ahmedabad on a two-week visit to identify and assess locals in need of cataract operations (in India instances of cataracts start at around 50 years old). Then the first French eye surgeon will arrive in late February to perform the operations at an eye surgery centre called Lotus Eye Clinic.

Long-term, his ultimate goal is to create a permanent centre for eyecare that is both socially and economically sustainable for the satellite slums served by Manav Sadhna. Matthew has inspired me to do my small part and contribute to the Kassiopé project, and by writing this article I really hope you might too.

But just to nudge you along with the process of clicking on this easy-to-use gofundme link, there is strong scientific evidence of why doing good is good for the do-gooder from Harvard and other universities. Apparently, the brain behaves differently “during an act of generosity” than it does during “an act of hedonistic activity” (of which we have had plenty this festive season!).

We are rewarded “by more enduring positive emotions” than the more fleeting ones enjoyed from self-indulgent behaviour. So give back and feel good shake off that sluggish slump these dark January days bring, and help a child to see properly (€2 buys a pair of reading glasses, €4-10 corrective glasses), or help a cataract sufferer see once again.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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