I am a self proclaimed "city boy" and normally would not have considered doing something like a volunteer trip to a developing country such as Sri Lanka, but I am forever greatful that I did.
When a VP of my company speak about Developing World Connections (DWC) at a work function I attended, it struck a chord in me and inspired me to learn more. I thought to myself, 'Wow! I really dont know if that is something I could do! That's really great that he did that!'... It was that very sentiment that made me think that this was something bigger than myself and that I NEEDED to do it, especially since it would be out of my 'comfort zone'. After all, you really don't get to see much of the world when you vacation on cruise ships and resorts in the Caribbean...
I left Sri Lanka in April 2011 feeling as though I had made a difference in the lives of the people in the community where I worked. Although my group and I did not personally complete all the work for the entire project, the fundraising we completed beforehand, in conjunction with working for the two weeks when we visited, we were able to jumpstart the project and help fund it to completion for the workers who would continue on after we left. We worked with tradespersons, teachers / mentors / monks, as well as studens of the school that we were repairing. I am the first one to admit that I have a pretty blessed life and I am lucky enough to have all the things I take for granted in my day to day life. Admittedly I am pretty selfish and enjoy my material possessions and charmed life. I walked away from this experience feeling so thankful and blessed in so many ways. It sounds very cliché, but I am so thankful for everything that I have, having now seen how "the other half" live.
The accommodations and food were spectacular. DWC has done a great job of building relationships with locals and business owners alike which greatly helped my level of comfort (in being associated to well-known and well-liked people of DWC's organization). Our hotel (Moonstone Villas) was very accommodating and had great food and lodging. Not only did we eat at and visit our hotel, but also other hotels from previous volunteer trips. We saw a broad spectrum of places all the way from high-class resort hotels and restaurants to rustic, charming local establishments.
I would definitely participate in a DWC trip again. I don't think that I would need to travel as far as Sri Lanka to feel the sense of accomplishment that I felt on this trip. The supporting staff of DWC were consistently available for answering questions and helping with agenda related items while we were in Sri Lanka. There were also repeat volunteers who were able to show us "the ropes" when it came to where to go, what to do, what to eat (and not eat/drink), and general social norms.
The work was phyiscally difficult and tiring, but in doing the work I felt a greater appreciation for the hard work that tradespeople do, such as my father.
This program changed me because I never really had a compass for what it was like to do difficult physical labour, nor to do something selfless to help others in need. Granted, there are many volunteer organizations in my immediate city and neighbourhood which would allow me to do selfless work, but there is something to be said for being removed from your comfort zone and environment and thrust into a foreign place and doing new things and trying new experiences. I became emotional and upset to a point of tears a few times when the locals would do selfless things for us. One such example of this was when we visited Ketakellawatta to see some of the previous trips' work. We were walking along the street and a little boy came running out of his family's house. His face was bright and beaming with excitement to have visitors in his village. He would quickly dart his glance at one visitor to the next, seemingly taking a visual impression of each one of us, or maybe count us... He then ran back inside and emerged moments later with a store-bought bag of cookies. He wanted nothing more than to "host" us and offer us a welcome treat. I broke down crying immediately. How could this little boy want nothing more than to welcome us to his village and home by offering us a cookie? ... These people clearly do not have much in way of material possessions, but they make up for it in heart and compassion. It was a very tender moment that I will never forget.
I felt very safe and attended to as we had local business owners giving us tips on where to go and where not to go. Our drivers were very accommodating and quick to respond to our needs for transportation. The local community was very welcoming and seemed to enjoy having foreigners visiting. It seemed like it was a 'special visitor day at school' every day because they were so excited to see us. We would play games with local children every day at lunch such as frisbee, cricket, catch, and they would wait patiently for us to have lunch before getting us to play with them.
I dont think I would have done much differently. I think I got more than I bargained for, but also some of what I expected as well. I wish I could have done MORE, however. I would have liked to stay for another week or two. It seemed like once we were into a groove of working and getting days off, it was time to go home. Before I left for the trip, I wish someone would have told me how emotionally draining (and sometimes difficult) this would be. Seeing the people living in (what we as Canadians would likely consider) difficult circumstances was very upsetting and enlightening.