As part of my travels I was keen to find a volunteer position somewhere and Sri Lanka seemed like a good choice. Ideally, I didn't want to pay to volunteer as I'd been told that many of these projects are a bit of a scam. I wanted to give of my time and expertise to a group that are really helping a local community and assisting them in becoming self-sustaining. This wasn't quite as easy as it sounds.
Firstly I looked online and through a reputable website I made contact with a hostel for youths (not a backpackers) near Negombo. It all sounded good: a centre for disadvantaged youths to drop in, some of them homeless, and a group of adults who were trying to guide them to a better life. I had to have a police check done - I was impressed. For about six weeks I liased with one of the centre owners and I had my flights booked, all ready to go when one Saturday afternoon he sent me a message, asking if I would still be volunteering in Sri Lanka. I responded that of course, we had made all the arrangements. He said that no, they didn't have a place for me any longer. I was a little bewildered and told him so (obviously not using that particular word!). He tried to Skype me then but I refused, mostly as I didn't see the point. He then said he wanted to talk to me privately and I became wary. He asked if I was single and I stupidly replied that I was. He asked if I would like to have an affair? I was stunned. At my age, still naive. My retort was a curt 'No, thank you.' to which he felt he would improve things by suggesting we only have an affair for a month. Fabulous, well, of course, that completely changes things! I sincerely hope the sarcasm is noted. Needless to say, I told him I was going to report him and I'm still concerned about any young women that enters that hostel.
After that rather tawdry experience, I was lucky that a friend of a friend introduced me to Joy Butler-Markham. Joy runs a charity in Sri Lanka (and other places) called Manacare and it was quickly arranged that I would help Joy for the month of November. I didn't know exactly what awaited me but at least there were some personal connections and a network for me to escape if the situation went sour.
Any doubts I may have had were quelled after spending the trip from Colombo to Hikkaduwa in the back of a van with Joy. Although almost half her age, we clicked immediately. I had never met anyone who is truly the manifestation of their name until Joy came along. The woman is completely selfless, in fact I would say she errs on the side of caring TOO much for others. She cares deeply about the hurt and unfairness in the world and she fights everyday to make the world a better place. A mammoth task, anyone would say, and I often had to remind her to take baby steps, that at least she's changing something.
The following day Joy took me to the Manacare Village, outside Hikkaduwa. The place is immediately impressive - there are a number of buildings - housing a pre-school, doctor and physio offices, a gym, a clothing and textiles workshop, a candle and soap making workshop, a maid-training school, 5 houses for disabled families and plenty of garden space where Daisy the cow lounges on the grass and some rescue dogs run around. Daisy had a partner, who unfortunately died from a snake bite! All the people here were orphans, many orphaned by the Tsunami, who were thrown
onto the streets once they were 18, after probably a horrible time in a Sri Lankan orphanage. There are some wonderful stories, Nilantha - a 14 year old with cerebral palsy was brought from an orphanage by Joy in December 2012. He had been lying in the same spot, often soiled, staring at the ceiling and it was advised that he would never walk to talk. Through full-time care and attention, even a dip in the water therapy pool, Nilantha now makes noises, smiles and laughs and is moving his limbs! The pre-school children are a dream - singing, laughing and showing off and all the ladies who work 9 - 5, sew and chat happily, delighted to be able to make a living. Newan, another young boy, who burned his legs badly escaping during the tsunami, walks and chats and is learning new skills in the soap and candle making room. 15, 000 soaps a month are bought by Jetwing hotels. Free classes in computers, music, dance, crafts etc run in various parts of the building and grounds and many people avail of them. Everyone here will have a better life because of Joy.
I stayed in Joy's house and my job was to assist with administration, marketing etc. No other volunteer had offered this kind of service and it's really a necessity. In order to apply for grants much paperwork needs to be provided and there wasn't enough in place to track incomings and outgoings. All we know is that the village isn't self-sustaining yet. The teachers, doctors, everyone who gives their time to the site do so for free, and many people are helpful but electricity, medical supplies etc cost money. Joy's phone rings all day long - whether it's 11pm at night or 7.45am in the morning. I took the phone off her to try and create some routine, to give her a break, but running a charity is a 24 hour job. There are always things to be done, from creating an up-to-date customer and price list, to tracking each and every expense which the place incurs. I also had to train a girl, Naudia, in office skills. Education isn't really available for people on low-incomes but she is very bright and well-presented so it was nice to feel I was helping. I believe she's still involved with Manacare, which is great.
I had a wonderful month, many 13 hour days, from helping with the Galle polla (market day) to helping Joy manage the site and trying to assist in giving a routine and promote more productivity in the workshops. There were many social events too - running a charity makes one well-known and popular and through Joy I got to spend an evening with Sir Ian Botham and Morné Du Plessis, who were over on a fundraising walk, a eccentric Britishman in the area invited us to his private island for dining and dancing on another night - every day turned up new invites. I made a bunch of great friends, also known as the Angels of Joy :)
Five months on, there's still work to be done. There are many more people helping out on the admin side, but a huge sponsor had to pull out leaving Manacare short of the GBP 3000 it takes to run it every month. I miss the place and I've no doubt I'll visit again but for now I keep in touch via email and dropbox.
If any of you are interested, you can volunteer a few hours a week from home (or donate!) - please see the facebook page