Students gain precious experience from a summer in Sri Lanka

Fri, 08 Nov 2013 08:25:00 GMT

Occupational Therapy BSc(Hons) students, Rebecca Stewart and Jennifer Houghton both spent their Summer in Sri Lanka, voluntarily working with underprivileged children in homes and orphanages.

Based in Horana, a town in the Western Province of Sri Lanka, are a number of orphanages and homes which house children of all ages with varying backgrounds. Some have been abandoned or abused and others suffer with learning difficulties or special needs, many of which haven’t been diagnosed.

Jennifer and Rebecca, who are now in their third year of the Occupational Therapy BSc(Hons) course, jumped at the chance to visit these homes and orphanages in order to aid and help these dependent children.

“We first heard about the opportunity when we attended a presentation from a member of the Alumni”, says Rebecca. “She had been to Sri Lanka and worked with the children herself and had then come back to the University to talk about her experiences. Jennifer and I were keen to learn more, so we researched how we could make it happen”.

Through making contact with SLV, an organisation that works with students and graduates in securing placements and work experience abroad, they signed up to their five week project in Sri Lanka.

Moving away from home to another country for the summer is not an easy feat for anyone, especially to a country you’ve never visited. Rebeccca and Jennifer didn’t know what to expect. Both of them however, were immediately welcomed on their arrival and throughout their stay, formed a respectable and close bond with their host families.

“We stayed with a Sri Lankan family and we all became really close over the summer. On leaving, our family’s Grandma was very upset and throughout our stay, we were called ‘sudu akki’ by the youngest child, which means ‘white older sister’. We named her ‘nangi’ which means ‘little sister’”, says Rebecca.

‌Pictured: Rebecca and Jennifer with their 'nangi' (little sister) during a sari party

They participated in various activities with both adults and children at schools and orphanages; these included teaching English, workplace preparation skills and how to write a CV to those aged 18 to 25 years old. For children aged 5 to eighteen years, they taught swimming classes and held arts and crafts workshops.

‌Pictured: Playing musical instruments that were made using plastic bottles, elastic bands and rice

Although working with these children was very rewarding, it also posed a few challenges. Jennifer in particular reflects on her time communicating with children who had special needs. 

“Here, we can acknowledge a symptom, diagnose the illness, identify the needs and from that develop ideal ways to communicate with the particular individual in the most beneficial way. In Sri Lanka, we were working with children that hadn’t been diagnosed, so we had to work out how to communicate with them in the best possible and most beneficial way, by quickly thinking on our feet.”

Pictured: Children and fellow volunteers at a chilren's special needs school

Rebecca also reveals the differences in working environments compared to the UK, “the facilities were limited and also very dirty. It did limit what activities we could take part in but we tried to make the most of everything we had”.‌

As well as this educational involvement, Rebecca and Jennifer also delved deep into the Sri Lankan culture by taking part in group activities at home with their host family. Sri Lanka Youth, the only voluntary organisation which is recognised by and works with the Sri Lankan Government, informed them both on Sri Lanka’s cultural background, advised them what to wear and trained them on how to be respectful to the residents.

Pictured: Jennifer and Rebecca pictured with their Sri Lankan host family and other volunteers

‌‌Both students speak highly of their time spent in Sri Lanka and only over a five week period, have improved their confidence and various skills including communication skills, the ability to think on their feet and also how to make the most out of poorer resources.

Jennifer reflects on her experience as an invaluable time that she would highly recommend to anyone thinking about volunteering in this way: “I would definitely recommend volunteering to anyone who is thinking about doing it. There’s a great support network to allow you to make it happen and it’s all done in a positive environment. The experience is amazing and the skills you learn are invaluable.”

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