A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is more than three University of Utah students bargained for this summer as they worked in the crowded and dirty streets of New Delhi.

"I didn't know what to expect," said Katie Calvert, one of the three Hinckley Institute of Politics interns who earned a half-scholarship that took her to India to work for a nonprofit aid project there called Maitri. "I hoped in coming here that I would feel like I could help someone out."

That "someone" Calvert hoped for turned into thousands as she taught English to many children being raised in the region's dangerous slums, performed health checks on grown men and helped gain funding to push the organization's empowerment focus to more struggling communities.

"It's really frustrating because you want to do something, but you don't know what to do to make it better," she said.

Calvert, along with Emily Bennett and James Egan, also Hinckley interns, spent three months during the sweltering heat and humidity of summer in the slums of a once bustling city, working with the organization to perhaps better the lives of some. Little did they know they'd learn and take home more than they could ever teach or provide.

"There are a lot of problems that academics is not going to solve," said Egan, who is a senior studying political science and English at the U. "To relieve the proximate misery around me, I need to be those things that policy can't be."

Egan's trip was his second to India, as he previously served a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He said the new assignment was daunting but it also required the human element learned during his missionary service.

"When you walk through the streets as a missionary, you know these people need help," he said. "The only thing I can bring them as a missionary is a message, some theology, and that was definitely not what all of them were looking for. Some of them, they just need food and some doctor to help them out." He said the country relies on nongovernment operations to provide services they really need.

"A lot of these people have recourse to nothing that will really help them," Egan said. "They don't get it from family, they don't get it from the government. They need these nonprofits to make a difference."

The three otherwise privileged Americans aimed to help grow the Maitri organization and soon realized there was only so much they could do, that a Band-Aid approach couldn't solve everything.

Maitri began several years ago with a mission to contain and arrest the rampant spread of HIV in the country and surrounding region. It started with testing rickshaw drivers and uniformed personnel for the sexually transmitted disease, and later included education as part of the project, beginning with children, teaching them basic English and proper use of their native Hindi language, along with the basics of human respect and hygiene.

Founding chairwoman of the United Nations' Nongovernmental Organization, Winnie Singh said the education gap is really strong as poverty is widespread and 80 percent of men are alcoholics.

With the help of volunteers from all over the world, and specifically the U.'s Hinckley Institute where Singh's own daughter once studied, Singh teaches small groups of Hindu children in a basement classroom and hopes the education sticks.

Local university professors and prominent doctors offer their expertise on occasion and have shown to be quite productive in increasing math and learning scores of the children and grown-ups who voluntarily participate in community health clinics.

Among the region's nearly 11,000 people, Singh also provides empowerment opportunities, teaching life skills like sewing and finance to women who are not generally respected in the culture. The income-generation project, she said, helps them to have economic independence, which in turn helps them to be able to fend for themselves and give their children a better future.

"My life is so easy compared to theirs," Bennett said. "I want to know what I can do to help them in the long run, but it is so overwhelming."

Bennett spent a good portion of her service in India writing grant proposals for Maitri, something she had never done before. She said it was a difficult skill to learn but something she knows will be beneficial when she accomplishes her future goals of working with kids at local nonprofits.

"When you work with the kids there, you see how rough they have it," she said, noting many things that children in the U.S. take for granted. "It's actually strange to be back and be able to see the sun through the pollution."

She brought home some small trinkets and books, but really got attached to the people and children she worked with.

"In the children, you can see what small difference I'm making to them, and I hope that I really am," she said. "It made me a lot more grateful for what I have and the opportunities I have." The chance to grow from nothing over there, Bennett said is "pretty much impossible." But with help from more developed countries, she believes the social stigmas that hold the nation back can and will change over time.

"Really what they need is somebody to make them feel loved and give them the attention they need," said Calvert, who is pursuing a degree in international studies. "You can tell every day when they come that they're so happy to see you, they want to come home with you. It makes you feel like that maybe the hour you spent with them every day has made a difference to them."

e-mail: wleonard@desnews.com