Ashleigh Russell - General Care Projects in Samoa
For as long as I can remember I have been telling my parents that I wanted to volunteer overseas. Over the years I had done a fair bit of research in regards to the different types of programmes and what they each individually involved and what kind of experiences I would get out of a programme.
I also looked at who would be best to go through and I chose Projects Abroad. Their website was easy to use and everything you needed or wanted to know was answered on the website or by a quick email sent to the head office.
Projects Abroad provided me with everything from insurance to booking my flights, providing me with information about my host family, information about my placement and the kind of things I would be doing on a day to day basis. I was always able to communicate with a staff member in the country by email or phone which was really helpful.
I had originally chosen to go to Fiji however this ended up not being possible as I had run out of time to get a visa for when I wanted to go. So I chose Samoa as I did not need a visa and I was able to book my placement just a couple months before I wanted to go away.
My Care Placement
Along came February and I was off on my month long programme to volunteer in Samoa for Samoa Victim Support Group (SVSG). Samoa Victim Support Group provides support to children who have been neglected by family and been abused physically and sexually.
SVSG has 2 shelters - the first for children from 0 to 12 years old and the other for teenagers from 13 up to 22 years of age. I was based at the younger shelter where there were 24 children, 9 of them babies under 1 year old. 4 children slept in one room and the babies would sleep in the common area in cots with the matron on a mattress next to them.
A typical day for me at the shelter would start at 9am (after a 25 minute walk to work) where I would walk through the door and the children would all come running to get their morning cuddles. Next I would pick 2 children each day to help me bath, dress and feed the babies. We would play outside on the play gym, run around playing tag, play soccer or volley ball. While outside we would sing songs and just laugh and have a great time.
Lunch would come along and I would sit with the children and eat with them (the food was mainly very basic rice and fish most days). After lunch the children broke into groups of 3 based on age and I would conduct English and maths lessons with all 3 groups at the same time, while also looking after the babies. To do this I needed to be super organised and able to multi task all at once and know what my plan was for each day. After schooling, the children would get free time where they would read books, play outside, colour in, play in groups anything they wanted to do.
My last hour each day I would spend time with 5 children where I would spend quality time with them and get to know the children and shares stories, they wanted to know everything about me and I had come prepared and was able to show them pictures of my family and friends, animals, house, sports I play and what Australia looks like.
When it was time for me to go home at 3pm the children would sing their goodbye song and each give me a cuddle and walk with me to the gate to wave goodbye. This is something I will never forget, it was a special moment we shared each day as there were always tears. The hardest day was my last day as I knew I would not be going back.
What the children did in the shelter was very basic so I wanted to do different things with them. Two of the activities I chose were painting – I had brushes and stamps for the children to use and all different coloured paints – and baking.
Baking cupcakes was the children’s favourite activity especially when it came to icing - they were very creative! It was such a joy to see the children really enjoy doing these two activities as they were new things for them and their faces were all beaming with the biggest smiles!
Another fun thing I loved doing each day was learning how to speak Samoan. This was a challenge for me especially as the children sang lots of songs and tried to teach me! We had many great laughs together about my pronunciation. The children were very proud of me and it was so lovely to see their excitement when I walked in the door one day and spoke a full Samoan sentence.
I spent some quality time with the matron at the shelter and got to know her and we talked about how to care for the children and I gave her some new activities to do with the children. As I have a childcare background I spoke with the matron about little things that can be changed so the children get the best care possible and how to get the older children to help out.
My Samoan Host Family
I had a lovely host family which consisted of a mum, dad, nana and two younger brothers. My host mum was a volunteer for SVSG which was wonderful as I was able to learn lots about SVSG before I even met the children for the first day. When the boys got home from school I would help them do their homework and my host mum asked me to read with them daily.
On weekends my host family would take me to different places. I got to go to the other side of the island where it had been damaged by the cyclone; this is where my host dad’s family lives. It was so different from where I was staying as my host family lives in a normal brick house with doors and windows that can be locked. My host dad’s family lives in an open house which consists of poles and a tin roof. They have tarps which they pull down if they need or want the privacy or if it is raining. We helped them to rebuild a shed that had been destroyed.
I also went to the Samoan museum, Robert Louis Stevenson museum, Papaseea sliding rocks, found a natural water fall while on our drive around the island, went to a church service and spent time with the family on weekends and playing games together.
My favourite place which I got to visit was the Piula rock cave pool. It was such a relaxing day which I spent with my two host brothers and their cousins as my last weekend in Samoa. The rock cave pool and ocean were only a few metres apart and we were able to go and swim in both. My brothers made it a wonderful last day that I could spend with them and share gifts with each other.
Overall I had an amazing time in Samoa, I learnt a lot about their culture, learnt lots about SVSG and what they do, seen some beautiful places and experienced some challenging situations. I would not change a thing about my time in Samoa and just hope that one day I can return to see more of the island and visit my host family and the children at SVSG.
I would recommend anyone to volunteer abroad as you learn about a different culture, experience something new, make great friends and also make a difference whether it be for a group or just a single person. My time in Samoa was so rewarding and something I will never forget and I will always want to share my story with others.
This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.