Traveling alone in Sri Lanka
Michelle’s Experience of volunteering in Sri Lanka
I joined for a four week stint in Kandy, Sri Lanka. I had never joined such a program before and was quite nervous to be traveling alone to a foreign country halfway across the globe, but my mind was set as soon as I read about the Special Needs Program online. I was drawn by the description of the program: an emotionally challenging yet indisputably rewarding program set in a woman’s and girl’s home in the center of the city. I signed up for the program and just three months later, I was thrown across the world into a new language and culture, new people and a new purpose.
The Green Lion staff (local company) picked me and about half a dozen other participants who arrived on the same day up from the airport and drove us back three hours to our lodgings in Kandy. Although we arrived late at night, the woman who cooked our meals (who I later affectionately referred to as Amma, Sinhala for ‘Mom’) still prepared dinner for all of us. It was a kind gesture that I would come to experience often from the hospitable staff.
On my first week with The Green Lion, I joined an orientation to get more accustomed to my new home. The dozen or so other participants and I spent the entire week visiting temples, spice gardens and other city landmarks. We also had Buddhism lessons, and other various activities to immerse ourselves more in the culture. The orientation was an excellent opportunity for the participants to bond with each other, and I was struck by how amazing it was to be able to spend time with so many other people from countless different cultures who held the same life values as I did. Soon, it was time for me to start the Special Needs Project. I was very apprehensive to go to the project, not knowing what to expect or if I would be able to make a difference once I got there. But what were my overall feelings I experienced once I arrived?
Warmth, family, and love.
The disabled home was filled with women and girls of all ages, from infancy to late adulthood, all of whom had some level of physical and/or psychological disability. Many of the women were wheelchair bound and even more were mute. As soon as I walked through the doors, a young woman yelled, “Aunty!” at me, took my hand and brought me over to a group of women who wanted to introduce themselves.
And so began the next three weeks of one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had in my life. My part as a participant was to help teach life skills or some academic lessons in the mornings, feed lunch to some of the more severely physically disabled, and partake in a hands on fun game in the afternoon that varied by day. But most importantly, those of us joining with the disabled home were asked to just spend time with the women and girls, whether it be by playing tag, singing, or even just sitting together hand in hand. I gained so many insights on what is important in this world just through these simple acts; the women and girls of the home gave to me more than I can ever return. They made me realize that life really isn’t so much about what we do and how people see us, but instead the hearts and lives we touch along the way.
There was a woman who couldn’t speak, look me in the eye everyday and touch her cheek to mine. Communication at the most profound level. There was a little girl who smiled and hugged me tight every time I told her how much I loved her. While I was there, she would never let go. And neither did I. My best buddy was a blind woman who played the piano with me on my last day. She asked me to sing to her but I can’t sing well. I sang anyway and she smiled brightly as if I had the most beautiful voice in the world. A young girl did not speak English and I did not speak Tamil. She was leaving for a boarding school, so I knelt down to her and signed that our hearts are always together. She understood and it took one look from her to me to realize that deep down, she helped me understand too.
And on days when I felt emotionally drained, my friends at The Green Lion were always there at the end of the day to invigorate my spirit. Between the staff and the volunteers, I was consistently surrounded by individuals who always reminded me of how pure and selfless the world could be, and not a day went by where I didn’t make irreplaceable memories. Honestly, they became more than just my friends; they became my family. A family from all over the world and different backgrounds. Family who taught me about different cultures and languages and about kindness and growth. Family who showed me that there is no amount of time that you need to know someone before you are able to give to them. I learned so much from these people and I can never thank them enough for all that they gave me.
On my last day at the home, we had a party for a participant who was leaving after a six month stint in the home. It was a day of celebration and of pure happiness that still stands out months later as one of the best days of my life. The entire day was spent singing and dancing with the women and girls amongst music and games, and the other Green Lion participants and I even stayed past our working hours to partake in the festivities, not wanting the day to end. When it finally did and we had to say our goodbyes, my brain immediately started turning to figure out the soonest possible time that I could find my way back to Sri Lanka to do it all again.
Today, I write about my experience thousands of miles away from my home in Kandy. On my nightstand sits the dried flowers that the women in the Home gave me for my birthday along with birthday cards written in four languages from my other friends. My desk holds the drawings made for me by my one of my dear friends at The Green Lion, as well as my completely filled journal documenting my experiences. My room is filled with mementos from my experiences in Sri Lanka, but even so, I find now that my heart is the fullest of all.
I went to Sri Lanka with no expectation to save the world. And I was right; I didn’t save the world, but the world saved me. It showed me that love truly exists in every corner of this earth. It’s like the stars: even if you can’t see them when you look for them, are always there. It makes me want to be a better me, a better human and to always find the light in the dark.
We are all here with different circumstances, abilities and opportunities. Different talents, different faults, different loves and different dreams. But we all have the same choice that we can make through it all: to be more than we were the day before. Not by what we do, but by who we choose to be.