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The first Schoolhouse volunteers travelled to India and Sri Lanka in January 2010. Here a few comments to give an impression of their experiences...

Emily Boyd (volunteered Sri Lanka, summer 2010)

I volunteered for a month in Sri Lanka with Schoolhouse volunteering in summer 2010. In my first placement, I taught English in a crisis centre for girls who had been sexually abused. I planned and taught English lessons to small groups of the girls either on my own or with another schoolhouse volunteer. The girls were eager to learn and the work was incredibly rewarding. The staff at the crisis centre were very welcoming and provided transport to the placement and often gave us food after we had finished teaching.

In my second placement I worked at a primary school for children with learning disabilities. I acted as a classroom assistant and taught nursery rhymes to the children. I also observed treatment sessions and helped with English translation in medical reports from the hospital. The children were very cute and I loved my time spent here.

During my time in Sri Lanka, I shared a flat with three other volunteers. We arranged our placement timetables so that we had our weekends free to travel. We made trips to the beach, an elephant orphanage, a meditation centre and visited tea plantations.

Schoolhouse provide an individualistic flexible approach to volunteering and try to find placements which meet any particular requirements that a volunteer might have. I was looking for placements which would provide relevant experience related to my Psychology degree and Schoolhouse found placements which fitted this perfectly. Schoolhouse provided an excellent weekend of training in teaching English before leaving so I felt confident and well equipped to teach English when I got to Sri Lanka.

Volunteering with schoolhouse provided me with a fantastic opportunity to broaden my horizons whilst doing valuable work in a beautiful country.

Catriona and Sarah (volunteered Sri Lanka, October 2010

We have been in Sri Lanka for a month now, with only one week to go. We are having such a fantastic time here and will be very sad to go home. The experiences we have had will be treasured forever and we will no doubt return to Sri Lanka in the future.

Cathy and Alan have been a great support throughout the whole experience. Right from the beginning when we were first contemplating coming to Sri Lanka, Cathy and Alan offered us honest and impartial advice about what we could expect and achieve. Their training course was excellent. It was very informative and answered all the worries and little niggles that we had before we left. The two day training provided us with invaluable information about Sri Lanka, such as cultural differences and day-to-day challenges that we could face. It also focused on teaching English as a foreign language and gave us lots of ideas and methods for teaching in Sri Lanka. Without the training course our time in Sri Lanka wouldn’t have been as successful and enjoyable as it has been.

We chose to stay with a host family to fully immerse ourselves in Sri Lankan culture and day-to-day life. It’s been such a great experience – from learning to cook delicious Sri Lankan food to being dressed up in a sari for teaching at school. Staying with a family is also very beneficial for practical reasons, such as knowing which bus to take or how much it costs. We would thoroughly recommend staying with a host family for a full Sri Lankan experience.

Our placements have been fantastic. We teach girls at a local school and little monks at the nearby temple. We have also been visiting an orphanage for special needs adults. Combined, these placements have (without sounding cheesy!) re-evaluated what we want to achieve in the future and made us realise just how lucky we are. We love the people that we are working with and in fact both want to smuggle two little monks home in our suitcases!!

We hope you choose Schoolhouse Volunteering as we can guarantee that you will be looked after every step of the way. Cathy and Alan are two of the nicest and most genuine people we have ever met. If you come to Sri Lanka through Schoolhouse Volunteering you really will have the most unforgettable and amazing experience.

Emily (volunteered Sri Lanka, summer 2010)

“I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Sri Lanka - it has been such a great experience. I hope the people from my placements have benefited as much from my trip as I feel I have. Thanks to you and Alan for the organising you did to make the trip a success”.

Janice (mother of young volunteer)

“Thank you very much for all the support & encouragement you've given Jenna. As you say she has had a wonderful & varied experience in both Sri Lanka & India and I'm sure she has touched the lives of those she has met in a positive way. Thank you again for enabling Jenna to have this wonderful experience. She is by her own admission a better person because of it!”

Kiran (volunteered Sri Lanka, 2011)

I volunteered in Sri Lanka for 3 months with Schoolhouse Volunteering and I can honestly say that it was the most wonderful experience that I have ever had.

Cathy and Alan were brilliant mentors and from day one were very supportive and reassuring. They were with me every step of the way. Not only did they help with preparing me for the teaching aspect of my placement, they visited me on placement and are now continuing to provide me with support in my personal ambition to teach as a career.

During my placement I taught in South Asia’s largest Buddhist School. From the first day I was made to feel at home and I had the most wonderful welcome from the children. This included being given armfuls of beautiful tropical flowers by very excited Sri Lankan school children!

I also taught at a home for abused girls and although at times it was difficult to believe what these girls had been through, it was immensely rewarding to see the girls laugh and smile. The memories will stay with me forever.

Volunteering abroad was brilliant. The weather, the culture, the people, the host family - it was all a part of the experience. Going abroad to volunteer taught me a lot about myself and has given me bags of confidence. I honestly feel like I can achieve anything now.

The only regret I have is that I didn’t do it sooner. For years i have wanted to volunteer and my advice to anyone reading this is to go for it. I couldn’t have asked for anyone better than Alan and Cathy at Schoolhouse to guide me through my volunteering experience.

Jenna - a blog! (volunteered India and Sri Lanka, 2010)

Jenna’s Indian Adventure

During my 3 months spent in incredible India, my first month of volunteering was my favourite part. Beginning my journey in a village called Nilakottai in the Southern state f Tamil Nadu was the best introduction I could have had. I travelled nearly the whole country but it was in dusty, remote Nilakottai that I learn the most about India and its people.

It all began at Chennai airport where I was collected by people I came to know well and like a lot, Mr. Khader and his wife. Immediately I was thrust head first into Indian culture; I was given wadai (deep fried lentil patties) and chai then taken off on a whirlwind tour of Chennai before jumping on the night train. I’d been excited about travelling on sleeper trains for ages; as the Dindigul express sped towards my destination, the cool night air drifting in through the window, I knew I was going to love India. The next morning a taxi drove us to Nilakottai through lively little villages with cows wandering all over the road and sari clad ladies carrying huge buckets on their heads; I didn’t know where to look first! We drove further along a palm lined road out into the plains; the landscape was stark but beautiful. The car soon stopped outside a building and it was time to get out. I was going to be living in an Illam for girls whose parents couldn’t afford to send them to school or have them live permanently at home. I was greeted by Nagaraterum or Madame as she was known to the girls and shown to my room. The girls were all at school so I had some time to unpack and settle in before having some lovely lunch cooked by Verichinnu, the cook. The head teacher of the village school, Raghavan came over to meet me and tell me I was welcome at his school and Mr. Khader came by to check I was okay. I was. It was very hot so I stayed in the relative shade of my room until the girls came home; they were so excited to see me and I felt to welcome. So far, so good.

My first week at the Illam was quite overwhelming as I adjusted to living there and settled in. I visited the primary school and met some of the children and talked to the teachers who were all lovely. The youngest girls at the Islam came home first so I got to know them best and we played games after school. In the evening I had a chance to spend some time with the older girls. On my third morning Mr. Khader came to my room one morning and told me we were going somewhere so off we went. We took several buses to get a village a small distance away; there was an event being held there that day for women empowerment. There was a huge parade through the streets and the local media were all there, I didn’t take my camera because I didn’t know where I was going but I so wish I had! Mr. Khader asked me if I would like to make a speech but I declined and just watched instead! I was asked up on stage a few times to present things to people and smile for photos though. It was wonderful to be there and so great to see the positive changes being made in these people lives. I also took a trip with Mr. Khader and his daughter Banu to get some new clothes to wear, I felt so much more comfortable wearing the same clothes as everyone else! Everywhere I went in Nilakottai, ladies would draw bindis on my head and then sit me down to do my hair and put jasmine and honeysuckle flowers in it; no matter what I did to my hair they felt it was messy! Everyone I met was so kind and friendly and I really just felt so welcome. During that week I was also taken along to the little community college run by a rather flamboyant man called Dewa; the college ran beauty courses, computing classes, and dressmaking courses. That weekend Dewa very kindly took me to the nearby city of Madurai to meet his family and visit the temples. It was very interesting and lovely to meet his family and see some more of the country I was so captivated by. Madurai was crowded and a bit stifling so I was very glad to get back to peace of the plains and Nilakottai. It’s amazing how little time to takes to find home away from home. Sunday was spent with the girls playing games and drawing. They all loved to dance for me but soon it was my turn and they wouldn’t take no for an answer; they specifically asked for a Scottish dance so I did a quick highland fling type thing then sat down very fast! They were slightly amused.

By the second week at the Illam I had established a wee routine. The girls got up super early to pray and do chores but I wasn’t expected to do that too so I got up at 7.30ish, got changed then had some breakfast. Now, there's a story about breakfast; I used to get curry for breakfast but it made me feel a bit ill so I asked if I could have fruit instead. They thought it was the weirdest thing ever and then when I went to the beauty college the next day, everyone was talking about how I had fruit for breakfast! The food I was given was absolutely delicious I just didn’t really like having something so heavy in the morning. Okay so after breakfast I’d speak to the girls before they left for school, I was getting to know most of their names by now. It was so hot so I stayed in my room and read a book or did some washing then at around 10 I would go over to the school. A few times actually, because I didn’t leave until after the girls I would get forgotten about and locked in the Illam! Or sometimes locked out, so I had to climb over a very high wire fence to get in or out! Raghavan the head teacher had put me in charge of making games for the upcoming Independence Day celebrations so I’d spend a few hours painting and sticking and cutting things then I went back to the Illam for lunch at 1 o’clock; it was more than lunch actually, it was a feast! There were usually 3 or 4 different dishes along with lots of rice and it was all lovely. After lunch would either go back to the school and maybe a do some simple games or drawing with one of the classes or I would go to the college and join in with what they were doing, usually they did my hair or mhendi on my hands. Everyone was very protective over me and wanted to escort me everywhere but by now I had assured them that I would be okay so I could go for a walk around the village. By the time I returned the youngest girls would be home, if I could hear the jingling of their anklets then I knew they were on their way to my room! So they all came in and we did some drawings or played snap with some paying cards I had (they all got very angry if they were out so we didn’t play that one so often) or the favourite, blind mans buff. My room was quite small and there were usually around 8 of us playing so I wasn’t really ideal but they loved it. I had made the decision with myself that instead of being a teacher to the girls, I would just be a friend and play with them and I think that was better really because I felt that their whole lives revolved around work so they needed a bit of fun! The older girls would come home and maybe we would play some games downstairs in a bigger space or I would just chat to them, they all spoke at least a little English which I was so impressed by. Then it would be time for them to do homework and study so I would return to my room and probably read for a while. Mr. Khader invited me round to his house every night before dinner so I was escorted by 2 girls round the corner(!) to his house where I would sit and watch truly awful Tamil soaps with his wife, his daughter Banu, grandson Anversa and granddaughter Nangi. Mr. Khader would encourage his grand kids to practise English on me but they were too shy so I just helped them with homework a bit. I really enjoyed the time I sent at his house each night, his family were so warm and welcoming and they were always so genuinely pleased to see me! Banu and Nangi would walk me back round to the Illam and I’d join the girls for their evening prayers and singing then I’d have dinner; normally chapatti or dhosa with chutney but if I was really lucky they would make me puri (deep fried breads) which I loved! My weekend was spent with the girls playing games, they teach me their games and I just do what I’m told!

Okay so third week at the Illam, time was really flying by! It was pretty much the same as the week before- school, college, games with the girls. I was finishing off all the Independence Day games because it was this Sunday. We had a fishing game, a game with birds that the kids had to jump up and catch, a maze, throwing and catching games and loads more. I was actually really excited about it! We did a practise run with the games and the children loved it! On the Thursday I was going to Kodaikanal, a hill station not far from Nilakottai, for my 18th birthday. So that afternoon Raghavan took me on his motorbike to the where the bus was, it was so much fun! I was excited but also a bit apprehensive about leaving the village because it would be my first time alone in India. Nevertheless I got on the bus and off I went! As we drove higher and higher leaving the hot, dusty pains behind and reaching a greener, mountainous landscape, the temperature just dropped. I hadn’t felt the cold once since being in India so it was quite a nasty shock! I was only away 2 nights but I loved Kodaikanal and I returned to Nilakottai ready for the Independence Day celebrations. As I walked back along the road to the Illam, I realised I’d missed it. The girls were very glad to see me and also very excited about Independence Day; we spent the evening talking and they taught me Tamil words. The next day I got up early and headed to the school to help set up the games but Raghavan and the teachers were way ahead of me so I wasn’t really needed. All the children and the parents arrived as well and some local official people. The girls all had to go to school! But they do love school and they all have huge ambitions so I guess its okay. It was a great day and I was so pleased that everyone enjoyed the games. Great end to the week.

Last week! This was by far the best week in Nilakottai. By now I was so attached to all the people I had met and the thought of leaving was very sad. I visited a lot of people’s houses this week and was fed a lot of food. Raghavan who I had grown very fond of invited me to his home so I go the bus with his daughter Priyanka who went to the beauty college. Raghavan adopted orphans and did amazing work with disabled children and I found him so inspiring. He had a little girl living with him who had learning difficulties and since there no facilities for her to learn, he built a little school for her in his home so she could progress. I had a great evening there watching Priyanka cook and talking before he took me back on his motorbike, like I was hoping he would! He also gave me some jewellery as gift which was kind. My personal project this week was to make thank you or Nandri (thank you in Tamil) cards for everyone I’d met. I made little cards for all the girls at the Islam, the college, the school and of course Mr. Khader and Raghavan. This week since I wasn’t making games I spent some time with the little class I’d done some drawing with; there were only 7 of them and the teachers just let me have some fun with them and do my own thin which was great. All the little kids called me Auntie, whereas the Islam girls called me sister. Apparently Jenna is a type of dhal in India! The girls did me lots of drawings and wrote my name in Tamil for me. They knew I was leaving so they kept saying “we are very feeling sister” which I took to mean that they were feeling sad! I was feeling sad too, I felt like I was just getting into the flow of things and forging great relationships then it was time to leave. Mr. Khader took me to another event one morning- he arrived and said “Jenna, we are going by cycles to a function in another village” and sure enough I went downstairs and there was bike waiting for me. I was the photographer at this function (I’m so glad I had my camera this time) which was a cow fertility event I think; cows are so important in India so it was big deal. I got some great photos then we cycled back to the Illam. Later that day I asked Verichinnu the cook if she could give me some recipes, she said yes so I went into the kitchen with her and watched and took notes. She made the most incredible food so I just couldn’t leave without knowing how to cook it myself, but mine has never been as nice as hers. Banu, Mr. Khaders daughter also gave me lots of recipes but it was quite difficult o understand what the ingredients were because I didn’t recognise them and she didn’t know the English words! The deputy head teacher Darvine, whom I’d become good friends with invited me to her home one evening; she was another very inspiring person. Very unusual for India, she lived alone with her daughter Mahilini and she just did her own thing. She didn’t like her husband so she left him (that is completely unheard of in India) and she has done a lot of voluntary work for women’s rights. Mahilini is encouraged to do things most girls would not be allowed to do- she had short hair, she did karate and she had a lot more freedom than most. I loved talking to Darvine because she was so interesting; she and Mahilini walked me back to the Illam that night and bought me anklets as a gift on the way home which I am still wearing right now, nearly a whole year later. All too soon, my final day in the village arrived. With a heavy heart I cleaned my room and packed my stuff up then headed over to the school to see my little class for the last time. I really liked those little children and I had a lot of fun with them. All the teachers were great too. I think Raghavan had done such great job with the school because it was bright and colourful and all the teachers obviously loved the kids and teaching; there was just a lovely atmosphere there. I spent some time at Mr. Khaders family’s house that night and gave them a painting I’d done. I wish I had had something else to show how much I appreciated everything they’d done for me. Before dinner that evening the girls did my hair as usual. I gave each of the girls their cards and we took photos altogether then I gave Nagaraterum her card and she gave me a gift which was so kind. Dewa arrived and I climbed in the back a rickshaw to leave Nilakottai. I was very glad that Indian people don’t do hugs- I think I would have cried if they did! In the rickshaw Dewa gave me 2 butterflies he and the ladies at the college had made. As we waited for the bus there was a festival for the Hindu God of Flowers going on all over the street; there’s never a dull moment in India! Eventually my bus came and I was off. Lying on the sleeper bus to Bangalore, I was so excited about seeing more of India. The only thing I would change about my month in Nilakottai is that I wish I could have stayed longer. I met the most amazing people and just loved being there. I’ll certainly never forget the little village on the scorching plains of Southern India.

Jess (volunteered Sri Lanka, summer 2011)

All is very good here, have had a great few weeks in galle, school continues to baffle me but experiences have continued to be very good, their concert preparations seem to be really taking off. have loved senyhasa in the end and will be sad to leave the girls in there. have done a couple of mornings in the orphanage with the babies which has been an experience - at times sad but obviously a big privilege also. me and sam went into sambhodi on friday evening and did an hour or so songs and dancing - we had fun and i think he was pleased to finally get in there so he can go again after im gone.

Managed to get off to yala in the end for my last weekend - even though i didnt meet any volunteers to go with in the end - pryantha arranged it all very carefully for me so i took the bus over and stayed in lakmalie's brother's hotel. did the jeep safari and visited kirinda on sunday. it was a good chance to see another part of the country.

Overall it has been wonderful and full of cultural experience that will stick with me. i hope you are excited about your upcoming visit!

I have last rehearsals at school for the next few hours (in my brand new sanghamitta polo shirt given today :-) and then pryantha and lakmalie are picking me up so we can go for dinner - but maybe when we get home you might catch us if i havent dropped off to sleep before my early start in the morning

Last day has been fab - looking forward to home and cooler climate but will miss this place and the people especially. Madame at school says i came at just the right time ot help with all the music stuff - so thanks to you guys really for sending me here - they seem to have appreciated it, but it's just been an honour for me to meet them all :-)