Four Incredible Weeks in Sri Lanka
Experience of Michelle Russo
I went on a four week trip to Kandy in Sri Lanka in June of 2018. I had never been on a programme like this before and I was nervous to be travelling on my own to a country halfway across the globe, but my mind was set when I found out about the Special Needs Programme. I was drawn by the description; a challenging yet rewarding programme set in a women and girl’s home in the centre of the city. Three months after signing up I was thrown across the world into a new language and culture, meeting new people with a new found purpose.
I was picked up from the airport in Sri Lanka with half a dozen other participants who arrived on the same day and driven to the lodgings in Kandy. We arrived late at night, however the woman who cooked our meals (who I later referred to as Amma, which is Sinhala for ‘Mum’) still prepared a dinner for all of us. It was a very kind gesture that I would experience often from the friendly and hospitable staff.
In my first week I joined an orientation to help get me accustomed to my new home. The other participants and I spent the entire week visiting temples, city landmarks and spice gardens. We also took part in Buddhism lessons, and various other culturally immersive activities. During this orientation week it was the perfect chance 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 different people from different cultures who held the same values as I.
When it was time to start the Special Needs Project I was apprehensive to go into the project, not knowing what to expect. But my overall feelings as soon as I arrived were family, warmth, and love.
The disabled home was filled with women and girls of all ages, all of whom had a level of physical and/or psychological disability. Many women were wheelchair bound and many more were mute. When I walked through the doors a young woman yelled ‘Aunty!’ at me and took my hand to bring me over to a group who wanted to introduce themselves to me.
My role while here was to teach life skills and academic lessons in the morning, feed lunch to some who were more severely disabled, and partake in hands-on fun games in the afternoons. Most important of all our tasks was to spend time with the women and girls, playing tag, singing or even just sitting together. I gained so many insights on what is important through these simple acts; the people of the home gave to me more than I can ever return. They helped me to realise that life is not about how people see us or what we do, but instead the hearts and lives we touch along our way.
A woman who couldn’t speak looked me in the eyes every day and touched her cheek to mine, which was a profound level of communication. There was a little girl who smiled and hugged me tightly every time I told her how much I loved her. My best friend was a blind woman I played the piano with on my last day. She asked me to sing, and although I can’t sing well she smiled brightly as if I had the most beautiful voice in the world.
On days when I felt emotionally drained my friends were always there at the end of the day to invigorate my spirit. Between staff and volunteers I was always surrounded by individuals who reminded me why I was there, not a day went by where I didn’t make irreplaceable memories. They became more than friends; they became family. They taught me about different cultures and languages, and taught me new lessons about growth and kindness. I learned so much from all these people and will be forever grateful for everything they gave me.
On my last day we had a party for someone who was leaving after six months in the home. It was a day filled with celebration and happiness which stands out as one of the best days of my life. The entire day was spent dancing and singing with the women and girls, with music and games. The other participants and I stayed past our working hours to partake in the festivities. When it finally ended I was already thinking about the soonest possible time I could return to Sri Lanka to do it again.