Erin Thomas - Care & Community in Sri Lanka
I have always been interested in volunteering overseas; it has always been a dream and a passion of mine, so when I first saw Projects Abroad advertisement looking for High School Students to volunteer in one of their projects, I was immediately interested in finding out more about the organisation and the work that they do. Projects Abroad were exactly what I was looking for, and when I looked through their website and when I saw that they had a project in Sri Lanka, I knew immediately that I was destined to go. Sri Lanka itself was so enticing to me; it played a huge role in my decision to go. The exotic culture and beautiful Island gave me a wonderful opportunity to go out into the world, to begin finding myself as a person as well as to try and ‘change the world’ as my goal was then.
My decision to go to Sri Lanka was easy, however convincing my parents to let their sixteen year old daughter travel half way around the world to a foreign country proved to be more difficult. As any parent would, their thoughts we immediately clouded with concerns of safety, costs, and if I was mature and emotionally stable enough to deal with any indiscretions or issues that may arise once I was there, away from the safety and comfort of home. After a few weeks of powerful persuasion on my part, I finally managed to convince my parents and prove to them that this was the right decision for me. Shortly after, I got in contact with Projects Abroad and soon enough, I was a member of my group, the 2014 High School Special, along with eight other students like myself.
The months leading up to my departure were both exciting and nerve racking. Projects Abroad were very helpful in organising the trip and making sure that I was prepared with everything that I would need. I began talking to other members of my group who I contacted on Facebook, and soon enough we were friends, talking with each other about our excitement and nerves, and planning together for the upcoming trip. December quickly approached, soon enough I was getting on a plane to leave for this life changing adventure I was about to experience.
I was very nervous at first, of leaving Australia. Personally I was not accustomed with much experience with flying, let alone international airports. I was required to take three flights to get to Colombo from Canberra, and I honestly have never been so nervous about anything in my life. Stepping of the plane in Colombo though, my nerves immediately turned into excitement- with a side note of total exhaustion. As soon as I walked through customs however I was greeted with the biggest, most welcoming bear hug of my life, attached to the body of Aruni, our trip advisor, body guard, and personal confidant. It was there that I met the first of my group and Lucy, who soon became my family.
Sri Lanka is a beautiful country, full of incredible scenery and remarkable people. Personally I didn’t really have a bad experience with culture shock- rather, I absorbed everything about it. During the two weeks spent in Sri Lanka, my group and I worked in Sandimini Montessori in Wadduwa, the town next to Panadura where we stayed. On the weekdays, we worked at the Montessori, were we split into two groups. During the morning, the first group worked with a group of Mothers, who were the kindest and most eager to learn women I have ever met. The other group would be in the Montessori, working with about forty cheeky preschool aged children, who we adored. During the afternoons we would again split into two different groups. One would work on painting a multitude of different murals we decorated the school with. The other group would teach an afternoon lesson for older children, who were more advanced in English than the mothers and younger children.
Our days would start around 6:30am. We would all wake up and get ready for our day, which would include getting all our prepared activities and resources for the Montessori, and heading downstairs to a delicious Sri Lankan breakfast that our Host Mother made. Usually it would consist of a variety of jam and coconut Roti, Dahl, fruit, yoghurt and tea. Our van arrived around 7:45am, and we would all head out to the Montessori for morning lessons. We would come home for Lunch, which was served at about 12:30pm. Lunch was easily the most anticipated meal of the day, and our host mother always cooked plenty of delicious authentic Sri Lanka dishes to feed the nine of us, plus Meghan, an older volunteer who also stayed in our home. We normally has rice, dahl and an assortment of vegetable and chicken dishes. We would then have about an hour break to relax, normally spent doing any last minute preparations, reading or taking a quick nap. Sometimes we would sit on the balcony of our home and play cards, or observe the bustle of the street below. Our van would once again arrive and take us back to the school for afternoon classes and painting. I particularly spent the majority of my afternoons painting a large peacock on the side of the school. Our afternoons were normally very relaxed. The older children were very easy to get along with, often showing us around their small village after class. We met their families and the showed us their homes, giving us an authentic taste to Sri Lankan culture. We would then leave the school and often we would go do a cultural activity, such as visiting markets, temples or taking a cooking class. Then we would return home to dinner, and spent our evenings planning and preparing tomorrows lessons, and spending time with each other. Some of my most treasured memories are from those nights we sat around playing cards and talking, we got to know each other, our dreams and ambitions, plans for the future and lives back home. The nine members of my group; Sean, Gabi, Steph, Caitlin, Hannah, Ariel, Olivia, Mikayla, Hannah and Myself (Erin), came from Australia and Canada. The eight girls came from all over Australia, and Sean came from Canada. We are all roughly the same age, give or take a year. It did not take us long to go from being nine strangers living together, to becoming our own little Sri Lankan family. Yes, we did have occasional disagreements, and it was awkward at first, sharing rooms and a home with people we didn’t know. But by the end of two weeks, we wouldn’t have traded each other for anything. From teaching with each other, painting murals together, travelling to Kandy for the weekend, and just lounging around on the couch talking late at night, we all had a special bond, which I don’t think any of us will ever forget. It was very emotional having to say goodbye to each other, as we had all grown to be a great little family, with memories together that we will never forget.
For anyone who is considering applying for a project, I say do it. Projects Abroad have given me one of the greatest, most rewarding experiences of a lifetime. I have now travelled and immersed myself into an entirely new culture, made a family with strangers who I now know and love. I’ve seen a part of the world I never thought I would, I’ve helped people I never thought I would have the opportunity to meet. In Sri Lanka I found a part of myself previously undiscovered, I found a yearning and a desire to leave my comforts and go out to travel the world. When I left for Sri Lanka, I wanted to change the world. When I was in Sri Lanka I soon discovered, that it was virtually impossible to change the whole world. But by changing the life of one person, one child or their mother, I was changing their world. And I will never be able to fully describe the feeling in my heart that has come from that- the gratitude for life I now have, the satisfaction and fulfilling feeling that sweeps over my body as I remember the memories from that trip that I will have for the rest of my life. If you are thinking about going on a project, I urge you to do so, to go out and find a whole new side of yourself that I, and many others before me, discovered while working our own projects. You will never regret doing it, the only thing you will regret is not doing it while you can.
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.