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Do Your Eyes Light Up?

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When was the last time you felt really uncomfortable? I mean crawl out of your skin, get me out of this moment uncomfortable?

For me, it was on a chilly February morning, just a few short weeks ago. The day started so well, a cup of steaming, fragrant chai; a fascinating ride through cars, scooters and bicycles jockeying for space on the clogged streets of New Delhi; and the slow opening of the wrought iron gates as the Cross-Cultural Solutions SUV slipped into a leafy enclave of trees and flowers.

As soon as I stepped onto the freshly washed asphalt and heard the sounds of clanging metal and nonsensical yelling ricocheting off the walls of the building's inner courtyard, my pulse quickened and sweat gathered under the arms of my new Indian style tunic.

My tour guide for the day -- a veteran volunteer at Mother Teresa's -- signaled for me to follow her and like a reluctant teenager, I buried my hands deep in the pockets of my rain coat while I watched her dispense hugs. She called out "Namaste" as she greeted women without limbs; women with drool on their shirts; and women with the blank stares of the mentally vacant.

What if I can't do this, I thought? What if I can't spend the next three weeks volunteering at Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying & the Destitute? What if working with these women - all abandoned because of their mental or physical handicaps - is too much for me?

Sure, at 32 years old, I have experienced plenty of strife. I've lived through breast cancer and its three surgeries, four rounds of chemotherapy and unexpected psychological turmoil. I've witnessed the appalling conditions of cancer hospitals in Vietnam and cleaned up the "running stomach" of a scared little boy in the Townships of Cape Town. But, to spend three weeks working face to face with women who have missing limbs or giggle like maniacs or demonstrate less mental capacity than my six-year-old niece? I wasn't so sure. Even though I wished it didn't unnerve me, the desire to crawl out of my skin told me otherwise.

My fellow volunteer saw me shifting from one foot to the other and handed me a set of nail clippers from a crinkled plastic bag. She led me into the courtyard where the women had gathered on metal benches or blankets strewn out across the almost-dry cement.

A patient approached me, her bracelets jingling along her tiny wrists as she took my hand to lead me to a patch of sunlight. As we settled onto the ground, she offered each nail to me like a gift and when I finished, pure delight ignited in her eyes. Although she couldn't speak, she hugged me and the background chaos and noise of the other women faded away.

Every day for the next three weeks, I watched her eyes brighten when I rounded the corner into the building. As I settled into the rhythm of daily nail cutting, feeding and spending time with these women, I began to look forward to their hugs and the simple joy on so many of their faces when they saw my eyes light up, just for them.

Thanks to the generosity of sponsors like Cross-Cultural Solutions and GoOverseas, I'm on an incredible volunteer journey around the world. As is so often the case, I finished my volunteer placement at Mother Teresa's feeling like I had gained so much more than I'd given. My time with this beautiful group of resilient women reminded me of the lesson I keep learning. The lesson that regardless of our language, culture, age or mental faculty, we are all the same. We all experience fear at the unknown and we all want to see someone's eyes light up when we walk into the room.

Terri Wingham is a 32-year-old breast cancer survivor from Vancouver, B.C. She is currently on a six month Volunteer Trip around the world where she is traveling to nearly every continent and volunteering with at least 7 different international volunteer partners. She will use the information she gains to establish a framework for the Fresh Chapter Foundation, which will create opportunities for other cancer survivors to heal from cancer by volunteering internationally.