I have always wanted to volunteer abroad. My whole life.
So, for four years, I saved the money I made from my photography business so I could do it. Eventually, I had the money, but I had no idea where to go or what organization to go with.
I researched a bunch that advertised amazing opportunities: working with elephants, turtles, or exotic birds; building houses, schools, or wells. They all sounded incredible — amazing work that needs to be done and in beautiful countries no less. But they weren’t me.
Then I remembered SLV.Global, an organization my friend had volunteered with, which is a psychology placement providing community-based mental health support and educational opportunities in Sri Lanka, and now in Bali and India as well. That sounded more like me.
I’m a social work student with a background in sociology and psychology, so you get why I loved the idea. It would be valuable work experience that would be helpful to the Sri Lankan community and be educational for me.
Harmful, not helpful
One day, before I had settled on a placement, I was continuing my research and scrolling through blogs and found a post about something called “voluntourism.” I’d never heard of it. Essentially, voluntourism is the act of going abroad for volunteer opportunities, but actually getting a vacation instead.
Often, voluntourism initiatives are actually harmful for the communities in question, not helpful. The voluntourism agencies are often those who advertise photos of happy, white volunteers holding a smiling African or Asian child or a group of enthused volunteers releasing turtles before heading to a wild beach party.
“I actually did want to make a lasting change, I actually wanted to learn.”
Google voluntourism for more information on how harmful it actually is. This new knowledge made me feel really guilty about wanting to volunteer abroad. I actually did want to make a lasting change, I actually wanted to learn.
I started frantically researching SLV. I read their website, read reviews, chatted with my friend who had gone and then called the organization and started asking questions. They were so helpful.
After a lot of research, there were three main things that made me feel comfortable and confident in my decision to apply: 1) they had a focus on sustainability in the communities they work in, meaning they do not initiate new programs, they only support ongoing local programs and they minimize the impact of a high volunteer turnover on their service users; 2) there are criteria and minimum levels of education you must have to attend — not just anyone can go; and 3) the staff were so passionate and helpful.
So I applied, had an interview, and I got accepted, yay!
A big responsibility
In the months leading up to my placement, SLV was professional and organized beyond my wildest dreams. I got my own portal login, a webpage I could visit to pay my fees, upload my documents, communicate with staff and get information about my placement (from packing to needles to cultural requirements) all in one place. It made an intimidating process a lot less scary.
Finally the day had arrived. I was off to Sri Lanka by myself, my first time going to Asia, my first time further East than Rome. I was excited, anxious and nervous all at once, but I felt good. “Voluntourism” was still lurking in the back of my mind, but I had firmly decided that no matter what happened, I’d make the best of my placement.
My first week in-country was filled with thorough training, experiential learning, practice and supervised sessions, and educational workshops with Sri Lankan mental-health professionals. I felt completely prepared to begin my work with the service users on the projects.
Volunteering with SLV is no vacation. It’s hard, emotionally and physically. It is intense and important and you hold a lot of responsibility. Do not take that for granted.
That being said, it is very rewarding. Plus, they give you the weekends to travel.
There are two reasons why this is important: 1) it is part of learning about a new country and culture, and 2) if you worked the whole time, you’d burn out really fast – we needed that weekend to wind down and decompress after the challenging work we did during the weekdays.
Service users included, but were not limited to, religious community groups, college students, primary school students, differently abled individuals and psychiatric inpatients.
Some examples of the work we did with service users at various projects are drawings, collages, and shakers to work on fine motor skills; self-portraits, family trees, and role playing to learn about identity; memory games and number games to work on cognitive skills; and yoga, volleyball and hopscotch to work on gross motor skills.
SLV gives you accommodation with a local family and several other volunteers. I loved the homestay experience– living like a local in the community added a whole new degree of authenticity to the experience. The home was clean and comfortable and the food was incredible. It was really nice to have a cozy, happy, home-away-from-home.
I was also super impressed by the level of support that was available to volunteers 24/7. There was always someone to reach out to in case of emergency or just to talk to if someone needed it.
The permanent staff were always eager to help and shared their personal contact information with us to use anytime, and some permanent staff even live in the homestays with you. In all homestays there are peer mentors, who are other volunteers who stay in the country for at least 12 weeks and receive additional training to provide peer support.
At the end of the placement, we were invited to purchase sarees to wear to a going-away beach party.
This was a chance to have a final bit of fun with our fellow volunteers and the staff members before we parted ways. I made so many memories in Sri Lanka with so many incredible people. I made lifelong friends.
During my time in Sri Lanka, I learned more than I ever thought I would about global mental health, mental health in developing countries, and community-based mental health initiatives. Sri Lankans have some really great perspectives that I hope to implement here at home one day.
The experience benefitted me and changed me in more ways than I thought it would — in more ways than I’d ever be able to express here.
Most importantly, SLV is doing really great work in Sri Lanka by supporting initiatives designed by Sri Lankans themselves, by creating jobs in the community and by working tirelessly with local professionals and organizations to reduce the stigma that exists around mental health in Sri Lanka.