There is a certain feeling that you get when you decide that you are going to volunteer overseas. The adventurer in you is buzzing to explore and discover a new country. The selfless part of you wants to give something back and make a difference. The SLP part of you wants to implement AAC devices, source therapy resources, train the locals and change everyone’s lives for the better!
While all of these aspects are true and do a lot for the soul, there are some hard and difficult truths that you may face. Truths that challenge your ethical stance. Truths that may seem inhumane. Truths that make you cry. Truths that make you see the world differently. You might achieve a lot. But you might only achieve what you consider to be very little, even though you think you could have done more which just hurts your caring heart.
As someone who has worked in a developing country on a volunteer assignment for a year and volunteered in places along the backpacker route, the rosy tint on my glasses have quickly peeled away. I want to paint the larger picture of volunteering, suggest things that you might see and encounter to help you mentally prepare because I wasn’t quite prepared. Sure I’ve traveled and traveled a lot, but living somewhere is different to traveling somewhere. I remember going through India and just becoming numb to the poverty as a defense mechanism because I could leave. I didn’t have to stay and I didn’t have to develop relationships with the locals. I was transient.
Life in a developing country (where most volunteer opportunities are) can be confronting. There may be differences in hygiene, living standards, religion, role of women and perception of disability. I cried every day for the first week because we would have to pick up the kids from their homes and their ‘life’ was in front of my eyes and I couldn’t escape it. I had to witness a teenager with cerebral palsy roll off the edge of a concrete slab to go to the toilet because his family members wouldn’t pick him up and take him to the bathroom. I cut fingernails and toenails because no one else would and there were obvious infections. I washed clothes when the kids came to school in the same thing that they had been wearing the last 4 days. I shook my head when I found out a child had been outcast from their village because their disability was considered a punishment from God. And if you think that bus duty ‘isn’t your job’, try bursting a carbuncle the size of a tennis ball in a girl’s armpit.
My stories can go on and on and on. I wanted to do more. Much more than what I was able to. It is a tough gig being being a volunteer because we care so much and the hard part is, sometimes you just have to accept that this is the way that things are done. So my best advice if you are looking to volunteer overseas, particularly in a developing country is to be prepared. Organise a mentor, have support people in country and who you can call and know who you can contact in country if you have to report anything.
I remember getting advice from a guy at the start of my assignment who had volunteered for years and it was “think small”, which I initially disregarded. I’m not a ‘think small’ person. But, for the culture that I was living in, it was appropriate. I had to take a step back and realise that just because I have a degree and experience, doesn’t mean that I could totally disregard a culture and mentality and tell this country how to do things when this wasn’t how they did things. My idea of a volunteer inevitably changed and I celebrated successes when I helped support something that wasn’t even on my priority list, but was high on theirs.
I had three big ‘achievements’ by the time I left. They weren’t as speech-pathology related as I intended, but I’m mighty proud because I used all of my SLP skills to get there.
- Implementing a water program to teach the students the importance of drinking water. I collected used drink bottles (from the Rugby team!), sterilised them and made sure that every child drank. What was initially a battle turned into at least one litre of water a day.
- Using social stories and sequences to teach my kids how to brush their teeth and making sure that they did it everyday after lunch. Now I’m no dentist, but the teeth I saw after 34 oromotor exams…
- Implementing daily hygiene checks, infection and wound management and teaching students how to clean themselves properly. Wounds take so long to heal in the tropics and the things I saw, cleaned, burst and covered was definitely not what I thought was in my job description!
I welcome comments, insights and questions and hope that you’ve seen a bigger picture to volunteering. If you’re curious about what it’s like from a clinical point of view being an SLP in a language unknown to you, read my post “A Place Where Phonological Processes Don’t Exist”. I have also started a Pinterest board devoted to SLPs who work overseas so make sure you follow if you’re interested.