Former volounteers

Lien and Karen


Taking the plane in Belgium, the two of us had no idea about what was awaiting us in Prithipura. Before we had carefully screened the website, looked at the pictures and contacted the Prithipura administration. For our courses in Orthopedagogics –which deals about people with a disability- we have to do a practice. We had the choice to stay in Belgium or to go abroad. In December we already decided to broaden our horizons and than we found Prithipura on the internet. Our choice was easy made.

Being here now for six weeks many things can be said but the experience you can only be felt by working here. There are many differences with our home country. We are better equipped –even though the many donations from overseas- and have more staff. In Prithipura every Akka does the cleaning, washing, cooking… where in Belgium we have specialized staff for that. Still many things here are done with less means as in Belgium.

We both volunteered in different groups. Karen went to Usha and Lien went to Maithree, the two youngest groups. One of the most striking things is the hard work that comes along while working with these children and the dedication that can be found among the Akkas. There aren’t words to describe this enthusiasm. We also tried to put in some energy of ourselves. Karen, for example, practiced standing and walking with Ama, next to daily activities such as feeding and washing the children, cleaning… Lien introduced Ishare to the play-house.

Our University asked us to fulfil a project. Both of us work around attitude and approach of people with a disability. Because Prithipura has so many visitors, we thought it would be interesting to give them a clear view about what’s going on in Prithipura. This aim resulted in a PowerPoint presentation and a flyer about the history, target group and working of Prithipura.

Both of us we lost our heart to the lovely and charming children of Prithipura. It will be very hard to explain our friends and family about this wonderful experience. We hope our pictures will say more than words. We had a great time being here and would like to thank all children, residents, Akkas, staff… for the wonderful time and experiences given to us.

Penny

Almost a year on from the devastating Tsunami, BBC Radio Solent's weather presenter, Penny Gower has just returned from a very intense, at times difficult, but rewarding three months in Sri Lanka teaching at a special school near Kandy.

Describing her experience, she wrote:

After two charity treks, raising nearly £8,000 for Scope and Breakthrough Breast Cancer, I felt I couldn't ask people for any more money, at least for a while.  But I still wanted to do something with what little spare time I have. I had this crazy idea last summer that I could go and do voluntary work overseas for three months, and I expected my boss to agree that it was … crazy!  But she didn't, she actually encouraged me.  So what to do?

On my return from Thailand just before last Christmas, I started investigating voluntary projects in Nepal or Sri Lanka, with little success. Then, on Boxing Day, the tsunami devastated coastal areas in Thailand, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka, so that made me focus on the island – the teardrop off the south coast of India. However, it wasn't so easy to give my services.  Some organisations seemed to want people for two weeks or two years, others only wanted people with experience in relief work.  It was also going to cost me about £1,500 plus my air fares, and in some cases, accommodation too.

I have since discovered that, if I had just gone straight there, I could have been put to work on a number of rebuilding, re-housing projects.  But, in order to go, I had to have a visa, and a letter from the organisation I would be working for, so I was in a real catch 22 situation. In the end, I met a fellow journalist whose family runs a group of children’s homes in Sri Lanka, some of which had been affected by the tsunami.  Finally, it was decided that I would be useful working in their school, with 60 “differently able” children – that is, children with severe learning difficulties, some with Down's Syndrome, and some with physical disabilities as well.


That’s how I came to spend three months at the Cotagala Special School, in Hemmatagama, near Kandy.  I taught a little English, and lots of arts and crafts.  The youngest student was about five, and there were a few in their twenties too.  It was very hard work, especially at first when I couldn't speak any Sinhala, and many of the children had speech problems anyway.  But we had a lot of fun too.  People always ask about the food – it was primarily curry, and Sri Lankan people prefer to eat with their fingers, they say that’s the only way you get the best flavour.  I think they're right, so for three months I ate rice and curry with my fingers, breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Dry fish curry for breakfast is an acquired taste! I was the only volunteer at the school, and therefore the only European, so it was quite a lonely experience at times.  Cotagala is pretty Spartan, with no electricity, just a generator in the evenings providing a little light. It was very remote, situated at the top of a hill, about 40 minutes by three wheeler from the nearest town, and 20 minutes from the village at the bottom of a four kilometre track.  I made several expeditions into Kandy, visited the other homes, one near Negombo and one just outside Colombo.

I also travelled down to the coast a couple of times to see the results of the tsunami nearly a year on, and the work in progress to try and rebuild peoples’ lives.  Talking to the volunteers, I was surprised to find that one of the most important things for survivors of the tsunami was replacing lost family photographs. An Australian guy I met had bought a camera and had already taken hundreds of photos which he'd had framed and presented to the families.  He said the smiles on their faces made everything worth while.

Catherine

In August of 1995, Catherine Mole, then an eighteen-year-old English girl arrived in Sri Lanka with the trademark rucksack on her back and a yearning for adventure and the exotic. Having just left the safety of home and family, she had no idea that the next year would have such an impact on her, and on the course of her life. For that moment there was the excitement of palm trees and beaches, crowded buses and temples, and freedom from parents, education and the cold of England. Within a month, she arrived at the top of a hill and was faced with Cotagala and a horde of inquisitive faces wanting to meet the new arrival.

Not only had she never left home, but she had never spoken Sinhala, washed a child, taught English, eaten curry for breakfast, lived among such an array of insects, or bathed at a well. Despite the differences though, there was an overwhelming feeling of sameness and despite language difficulties she found herself rapidly becoming addicted to a life of caring and teaching at Cotagala.


Speaking of her time she said:

"It is the closest I have ever come to finding a real sense of commitment to each other and living as a community - each member with their own role, and their own special contribution to make. I doubt I will ever find another place in the world that can rival the warmth and devotion of Cotagala and I feel so lucky to have had the chance to meet so many wonderful people, whether they be staff or children. My memories will stay with me for the rest of my life and I am sure that even when I have children and grandchildren of my own I will still make sure I can return to the place that I fell in love with when I was eighteen."

Sanul

My name is Sanul Wilmer. I am a Dutch Sri Lankan and have volunteered as a nurse at Prithipura for five months. I have tried to capture the warm and easy atmosphere of Prithipura for you in these few words. These words though, are never enough. I really think that, if you really want to know what it’s like, you should go and see for yourself… I’m sure you’ll fall in love with it just like I did!  

For five months this is what my day was like. Maybe saying it like that makes it seems boring but it was really not. The warmth of the children, the smile of the akkas, the fun that you have, they all are perfectly good reasons to keep enjoying every day at Prithipura Infant Homes. Especially when you get to really know the children, akkas, and nangis, you really feel like you are part of a warm and close community!

5.30 in the morning. It’s still dark at Prithipura Infants Home; the 85 children that live in the five different buildings are all still sound asleep. I wake up from the sound of someone sweeping the leaves from the playground. I quickly get dressed,  work starts at 6. I go downstairs to the kitchen where everybody is already up and running. Some of the akkas are already preparing breakfast; they got up at 4 o’clock this morning. I head towards the Usah room and start my working day.

Usha room is one of the five rooms at Prithipura Infant home. It is home to about 12 small children, none of them over the age of 10. All of them are fully dependant of the akkas that take care of them.

After I tore up the loaf of bread into a bowl, poured in some milk and divided the mixture over twelve plates I grab a small chair and put in a corner. I take one of the kids, and put her in a car chair opposite of me. With a small spoon, especially selected for this particular child, I feed the bread to her and give hear some milk to drink. The akkas that I work with do the same. After half an hour or so all of the kids are well fed and covered in bread and milk! Time to wash it all off...

In the back of the Usha room is a sink with a work top next to it. One by one we wash all the children with love and care. They need a lot of attention indeed! We then take them to the physiotherapy room.  After all the kids are in the physiotherapy room and their bedroom is cleaned it’s time for breakfast. I’m starving!

It’s about ten o’clock as I go to the kitchen where a big table has already been set. Rice, curries, bread and fresh fruit are part of everyday breakfast, Prithipura style. Some of the other volunteers have brought their own “western goodies” such as cereals to the table. 

After breakfast back to the physiotherapy room. For about an hour or so I stretch and bend the little hands, arms and legs of the children, play or just cuddle with them. In the morning only the smaller children  get physiotherapy. Meanwhile in another small building, one of the akkas is teaching the “smarter” children. They sing songs, make drawings and some even learn to write.

Soon it is time for lunch. This time it’s rice with dhal curry and some vegetables. After that it’s nap time for all kids at Prithipura and I take off for lunch in the kitchen.

After lunch there’s a two hour break (from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.). In that time the volunteers can take a shower, a nap, go swimming at a hotel nearby, or go to the supermarket to stock up on chocolate, fruit juice etc. 

After the two hour break I go back to the Usha room to find a big pile of laundry on the ground. It is the children's laundry from yesterday: I fold it  neatly so that it’s easy to put it away. Then I take the kids out of their beds to give them plain tea.

Soon after I hurry to the physiotherapy room where the older children are already waiting for my entertainment. After an hour of joking, ball tossing, and playing with blocks it’s time for the kids to be brought back to their rooms and for me to head back to the Usha room for the children’s dinner. After feeding, putting the children back to bed and having tidied up the Usha room the working day is over. It’s about 6.00 p.m. now.

The smell of rice and curries only increases my appetite even more and one full plate later I sit down on the balcony in front of my room just talking, laughing with other volunteers. At 10 p.m. I crawl under the mosquito net...tomorrow is another joyful, busy, fulfilling day at Prithipura!