by Grace Handley
At the beginning of summer I travelled to Sri Lanka to complete a 10 week Special Needs Placement with the organisation SLV. Set up 6 years ago, SLV is based in three local communities just outside of Colombo, and works with the National Youth Services Council, the division of their government focused on enhancing the youth and community, to provide students with hands-on experience in a challenging, foreign environment. It is often very hard to find ethical psychology work experience, and this inspired the co-founders Lucy and Yasintha to start SLV. Throughout Sri Lanka, there is a large stigma surrounding mental health, and therefore it is not common for members of the community to seek treatment for fear of everyone else finding out, and being considered as somehow weaker. Part of SLV's presence is to fight this stigma, and show them that asking for help is a sign of bravery, not weakness.
Whilst out there I was working as a volunteer English and Special Needs teacher. The former involved running classes for enthusiastic members of the community, ranging from 5 to 50 years old; classes were run in primary schools, technical colleges and temples. Sri Lankans are expected to have a basic level of English, with all job interviews being conducted in English rather than Sinhala or Tamil, their two national languages. As a result, we focused our teaching on the practical aspect of the language, such as running practise interviews and learning hospital and illness vocabulary to work towards doctor-patient role-plays. The other aspect of my role was as a Special Needs teacher, organising motor and sensory stimulation sessions in often understaffed and under-resourced Special Needs Homes. One of SLV's core values is to ensure that their presence in the community remains sustainable and ethical, and a key part of this is through establishing longer term plans that extend past each volunteer's own placement. A record of all previous session plans is on hand to allow the progression of both our skills as volunteers, and those of the clients we work with, so that we're providing a service and benefits for the future, as well as today.
Another key aspect of my placement with SLV was the importance they place on integrating with the community. When you arrive you are greeted by the amazing Sri Lankan team, who introduce you to the culture and take you to your accommodation. Whilst you are there, you live with a local family in a homestay with other volunteers, travelling to projects on the local buses and eating the glorious local food. I was lucky enough to stay in one of the original homestays, where all the Ammas (mothers) cook together for nearly 40 volunteers in the area. By nature, Sri Lankans are wonderful, kind and welcoming people, and they soon become a key part of your time there; I miss coming home to my Amma sitting on the front porch and asking me how my day was, and then chatting over their amazing curries at dinner time after a hard days work. It's also an opportunity to meet like-minded volunteers from all over the world, bonding over tired laughter and shared hardships, like being hit in the face by flying cockroaches.
As well as learning from the community every day during the working week, we travelled around the beautiful country on our weekends off. Sri Lanka is referred to as the 'Pearl of the Indian Ocean' for a reason: it is full of natural and cultural landmarks, and the amazing people that you meet throughout your journeys want to help you in any way they can, and teach you about their culture. From visiting the cave temples in Dambulla, or the Sacred Tooth in Kandy; relaxing on their gorgeous beaches on the southern coast or hiking up 5000 steps at 3am to see the sunrise over Adam's Peak. Sri Lanka has everything you could ever want and more.
My time in Sri Lanka was some of the best of my life. I learnt so much about myself in my short two months out there, and I don't think I can ever repay all of the people that I met along the way for the value they brought into my life. I pushed myself in my role as community teacher, discovering my own capabilities as a leader and learning how different cultures tackle problems that everyone across the world faces. The people I met along the way will forever hold a place in my heart, and I can't wait to apply all of the wonderful knowledge and skill that I've learnt from this experience in my future jobs. None of this would have been possible had I not pushed myself outside my comfort zone and set off on an adventure of a lifetime.