Genai Smith - 2015 Program Participant

Mountain view in Sri Lanka

One of the breathtaking views - pictures do not do it justice

Why did you decide to volunteer abroad?

Volunteering abroad is something that I have always wanted to do. My aunt volunteered abroad when she was my age and said how it changed her life and that was something that I wanted to experience. All throughout high school and university I volunteered doing different things that would either help people in our community or the students themselves. It has always been in me to help others. I volunteered for Cystic Fibrosis Canada, Shinerama, which helps to raise money and awareness about this awful fatal disease. The money raised will benefit everyone with CF when a cure is found. Being a part of this was amazing, but I wanted to take my helping others international.

I'm a strong believer in living life to it's fullest; instead of me always saying how I want to volunteer internationally, I decided that I would finally take the first step and apply, and make my dream a reality.

Why did you choose IVHQ in Sri Lanka?

When I was doing my research about different volunteer programs, I was looking to help somewhere where they really needed help. I stumbled upon IVHQ and liked how they had so many options. The organization itself seemed organized, safe, and cheap, which was nice. I also knew a few people that had volunteered with the organization and said how great they were. So just like that, I was sold on the organization.

Now it was time to pick a specific program and country, which proved to be difficult. What I first did was look at how much flights were to some of the countries and eliminated the ones that I would have to sell all of my belongings to get to. Then I started to look at pictures of volunteers from each country, and eliminated the ones that there were a ton of; I figured if they had a lot of pictures from these countries, they had lots of help already.

After narrowing it down to a few countries, I based my decision on the programs that they offer. I chose Sri Lanka childcare because I had the opportunity to volunteer at a disabled orphanage. My mom works with disabled people for a living, so I know how much hard work and love it takes to properly look after them. I knew they would appreciate all the help that they could get, so just like that, I was applying and booking flights for Sri Lanka.

Volunteer with child in Sri Lanka

This is my main girl Jacintha

What was your favorite part about Sri Lanka?

This questions is very difficult. Going to Sri Lanka, I had no idea what to expect. I Google-imaged pictures of the city I would be staying in, some of the tourist attractions, but what I actually saw cannot be done justice using a camera. There are tons of mountains in Sri Lanka, along with many waterfalls; it was absolutely breathtaking. I'm the kind of person who really appreciates natural beauty and this place was absolutely beautiful.

Along with the beauty of the country, I loved how most of the Sri Lankans were very kind and willing to help us if we asked. So, I guess my favourite part about Sri Lanka was its beauty. The beauty of both the natural landscape and the beauty of its people.

What makes IVHQ’s Sri Lanka childcare program unique?

What makes my program unique is that you can't go using your head, but instead using your heart. When you first walk into the disabled orphanage, it is a little shocking. Inside this orphanage, there are 27 children, over 70 women/girls, seven sisters (nuns), and around 28 staff. The ratio of help to people who need help, is not in their favour. The people will just walk up to you, hold your hand, and smile. There are many people who need to be changed because they've wet themselves, people falling out of their wheelchairs, people screaming, crying, and many smiling, but it is amazing; although they need so much, just you taking the time to say hi and hold their hand makes their world a little brighter.

Unlike what many people think about an orphanage, this one houses people from the age of three months to well into their 50's. They take in everyone who has been abandoned. There are many things I could say that make this program unique, but the biggest thing would be how much help you feel you've done in just a day.

There are so many things to do, so many people to help, and it is probably the most rewarding thing I've ever done. I don't think there is a placement like it.

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

IVHQ teamed up with a local team in Sri Lanka called Green Lion. The staff at Green Lion did an amazing job looking after us and ensuring that we had everything that we needed. They accompanied us on our daily travels to and from the orphanage, brought us lunch every day and they were able to help us if we had any questions. Unfortunately, a few of the volunteers in the volunteer house fell ill. The second the staff heard that, they had the car ready to take everyone to the hospital immediately. When it came to our health and safety, they did not mess around. If we needed anything, they would either take us there, or go get it for us themselves. Any concerns we had could be voiced either privately with our coordinators, or at our weekly meetings. Everyone here was very supportive and I always felt safe.

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

The only thing I wish I could have done differently was stay longer. I only did a three week volunteer experience and I wish I did at least double. That's the one and only regret when it came to this trip.

Holding hands

All it takes to make someone's day

Describe a day in your life as a volunteer in Sri Lanka. 

After breakfast, we took the city bus to the orphanage. Once we got to the orphanage, we were always greeted by some of the children and adults there before we went to sit with the head nun for morning meditation. After meditation, classes started. Everyone in the orphanage was divided into a class based on their capability levels. In my class, Hope, we had many of the people in wheelchairs and the people who do not speak.

Every day was different, but my favourite was Tuesday because it is "beauty day." For beauty day, we wash, moisturize, and powder everyone's faces, apply lipstick, and then paint their nails. The ladies absolutely love being pampered!

After class, we take them into the eating hall for lunch. Everyone gathers here while lunch is served. Those of us volunteering each take a plate and feed those who cannot feed themselves. After feeding them, we have a lunch break ourselves, while those in the orphanage have nap time. After lunch, it's basically play time.

Every day I try to bond with someone else, but I've sat with the older crowd and held their hands, I've sang songs to those who can't move/speak and a lot of the time, I played with the children outside and in the nursery. The children love to sing (they know English songs), play patty cake, and be pushed on the swings. Some of the other children like to just be talked to and have their hand held.

There are so many things that we can do during this program that it's hard to pinpoint a day in the life. Everyday you're basically guaranteed to make a new friend. When it's time to leave, we always had people trying to hold us back and stay, and those who speak asked us when we were coming back. When we’d say tomorrow, they’d smile and say bye. The hardest part was always leaving.

What did you enjoy doing on your free time?

My favourite activity was traveling around Sri Lanka. It was interesting to see the different cities and towns. Every place was just a little different. We were often given the opportunity to jump into the Buddhist culture, which was also fun. We got blessed by monks and visited temples (which we were often welcomed to). Shopping in the central market was also interesting; local spices, leathers, and handmade clothing were all at our fingertips.

International volunteers visiting a temple in Sri Lanka

One of the best parts was making new friends

What was your accommodation like in Sri Lanka?

We lived in a volunteer house, which at the time had about 40 of us. Each room has a number of bunk beds and its own washroom with a shower attached. It was a three-story house and each level had bedrooms and a lounge, so when we made friends, which didn't take long, we could all sit and talk. The thing that I liked best about this accommodation was that although it wasn't the fanciest or the most comfortable, it didn't matter because we got to make friends from around the world. I'm from Canada and I now have friends from all across Europe, a few from China, Isreal, the States, and even the land down under (Australia). All of these people I wouldn't have had the chance to meet if we hadn't lived together, and I'm so glad and fortunate to have met them.

How has volunteering abroad impacted your life? 

My program has made me really appreciate those around me and everything that I have. I have access to a great healthcare system, a very supportive family, and an education. Helping people who hardly have anything was incredibly rewarding and it was hard to leave them. I already want to go back. After getting a “taste” of helping those who really need it and appreciate it, I have the constant urge to continue volunteering. Leaving them has almost left a little hole in my heart. Although I feel blessed to have met them all, and all of the other volunteers, I miss everyone. My volunteer experience was amazing and something that I will never forget.