I’m no stranger to volunteering. It’s become part of who I am. I love giving my time away for free to worthy causes. I volunteer often at home in the UK, but I have also volunteered abroad several times. Volunteering abroad is an excellent way to build skills and to experience different cultures. It’s an unparalleled opportunity to learn about the world and yourself. In my opinion, there is nothing greater than when you take yourself out of your comfort zone and give your time to a good cause.
When I began the BSc (Hons) Speech and Language Therapy degree at Marjon, I realised that I had to take advantage of the summer holidays and spend it volunteering. I knew that volunteering as a student Speech and Language Therapist (SLT) would give me an opportunity build my confidence and to use my new knowledge and skills.
- During the summer between first and second year I volunteered at a centre for children with disabilities in Belize.
- During the summer between second and third year I volunteered for a UK based charity that runs summer residentials and speech and language therapy sessions for children & young people who stammer.
The summer of 2019 was the last summer I would experience as a student at Marjon and I knew I had to make it count!
Usually I attend volunteer projects alone, as its often just too difficult for other people to arrange the time to experience it with me, but this time I had two willing accomplices: Jess and Emma, two other students from my course.
I began by trawling the internet, as I always do when I’m searching for a volunteer experience. I googled things like “SLT student volunteer abroad” “speech therapy abroad” “speech pathology student volunteer”. It’s really about searching for the right thing and eventually something will come up.
I noticed a link to a website of a company called Skilled Impact. They offer various placements to professionals and students. My eyes were drawn to a speech and language therapy placement at a learning centre called Ananya in Hyderabad in India. Ananya works with children from 1 year old, and young adults up to 20 years old who have conditions such as ASD, ADHD, downs syndrome and global developmental delay. They offer cognitive sessions, speech therapy, occupational therapy, as well as arts sessions and music sessions. I was inspired.
I told the girls, they were keen, so I made contact. We Skyped with Anna at Skilled Impact, learned about the project, paid the fees, booked our flights and visas, and we were set to go! It was that simple.
After we had arranged the project Emma was told about the Marjon Futures Going Places bursary. We applied and were successful, which meant that the cost of the project was covered by the bursary. It was meant to be!
The next thing we knew we were landing in India; our adventure was about to begin.
The first few days in India were overwhelming to say the least. It was a challenge navigating our way through the food, the amount of people, the different languages, the traffic, the smells, the meaning of the Indian head waggle – there was just so much to take in. But we were brave, and we managed to get around. We ventured out for dinner, and ordered some very strange dishes, we began learning how to cross the road, got ourselves an Indian SIM card (one of the funniest palavers of the trip) and we even visited a local fort. Although it was challenging, everything we did was to the power of three and I felt confident because my friends were by my side. This was one of the most important elements of this trip; we were there together to support each other.
The volunteer placement began on our fourth full day in India which gave us time to get over the jetlag and culture shock. Although we only volunteered at Ananya for 2 weeks, we felt like we really made an impact. Ananya definitely made an impact on us.
For the first few days we were each assigned a therapist to shadow. We observed their way of working and interacted where appropriate. The staff were receptive and seemed to appreciate our presence. They asked questions about our studies and SLT in the UK and they watched how we interacted with the children and young people.
Childcare ethics in India are very different from the UK and this was also a challenge. It was incredibly important to respect cultural traditions that formed parents’ expectations. Overcoming this was achieved by introducing staff and parents to evidence-based techniques used in the UK in a respectful and understanding manner.
On the fourth day we were asked to prepare a presentation to staff about the different techniques that we use here in the UK. We spent a day preparing and practising our presentation and then delivered it to staff. They were really keen to hear about evidence-based techniques such as Intensive Interaction, PECS and Makaton, as well as learn more about how language develops, attention building activities, hypo vs hypersensitivity in people with Autistic Spectrum conditions, and how to work on speech sounds.
During the second week we were asked to meet with parents of children who attended Ananya to provide them with additional knowledge, support and techniques to help their child with their communication skills, speech, language and swallowing needs. For a few days we did this as a group, with three of us working with one or two parents and their child. We were incredibly honoured to discover that parents were speaking amongst themselves and telling each other about the professional and useful techniques that we were recounting. So, for the final day of our volunteer placement we were asked to speak with parents individually so that we could speak to more than one at a time. I relished the opportunity to spend the day speaking with parents alone. It was indeed daunting, but I knew that it was not beyond my skillset and I was prepared to answer many questions. This was a great opportunity to use the skills that will be required of me when I am a qualified SLT. I felt proud to be able to inform parents about techniques to help them become more equipped to encourage their child’s communication skills and to understand their child’s unique needs.
The whole volunteer experience built my confidence in speaking to a range of parents and other professionals. I developed my skill of addressing yet respecting cultural differences and attitudes to disability. It was also a fantastic way for me to learn that I know more than I thought about evidence-based speech and language therapy. It was an experience that pushed all boundaries, but it definitely gave me more confidence in my future practice.
To anyone who is contemplating an overseas volunteer experience… do it!
After the volunteering experience we went on to travel India for three weeks… but that’s another story for another blog.
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