Zachary Grenzowski from Canada arrived at Horizon Lanka on January 07, 2016 with the dawn of the New Year. He was the first volunteer to join us from Canada. He stayed here more than a month and did a lot in teaching, sports, fundraising, planning and implementation. Even though he left us in February, he helps the students and Horizon Lanka from wherever he is. Hope he can connect us more volunteers from Canada.
Zachary Grenzowski Tour report (Submitted on Sunday 29, October 2017)
It has been about a year and a half since I volunteered at the Horizon Lanka Foundation in Mahawilachchiya, but I still remember it fondly. Nanda asks all the volunteers to complete a tour report discussing their experience and I thought it would be easy, but I have found it difficult to put into words. It was a truly memorable and remarkable experience that is quite difficult to explain in one page. Every time I have tried, I find myself pausing and wanting to start again, feeling that I haven’t perfectly captured the experience. I have finally chosen to break down the whole experience into different sections. This way it will be easy for someone thinking of volunteering to find a specific area they are wondering about. The areas I will discuss are the school, the homestay family and village life, and finally excursions around the rest of the country. Be aware that this was my experience in January 2016 and things may be different now, but I suspect for the most part things remain the same.
Horizon Academy – Mahawilachchiya
The main reason I went to Sri Lanka was of course to bring my limited teaching experience in Korea to Horizon Lanka and work with the students on their English skills. I anticipated there would be some sort of curriculum in place that I would follow, but this was not the case. Instead, I was free to teach and work with students on whatever I felt comfortable with and what I felt they would enjoy. I taught at English kindergarten programs in Korea prior so at least I had some games and conversation topics ready. The students were all a little bit shy at first, I am quite tall so it could have also been intimidating, but soon they were comfortable. I was also the first foreigner they had welcomed in some time, so that likely also factored into their comfort level. I made use of the projector screen and put together a slideshow of pictures. Due to limited access to resources I used the pictures to formulate questions and covered as many English conversational topics as I could. At public school, the students memorize a lot of grammar and vocabulary from books but don’t use it in everyday conversation. I felt it was a good opportunity to have a different style of class focused on conversation.
I taught the students some basic computer skills as well. I am by no means an expert but we practiced typing up answers to some questions I wrote on the whiteboard, so the students could write about themselves in MS Word. I took Photoshop classes years ago and, with a few refresher lessons, I could teach students how to do some basic things. We learned how to change colors of pictures and how put multiple pictures together. I felt like that exercise was the favorite. Before class, I put a jungle background and some animal pictures on each computer. The students had to insert the animals into the background. Some clearly had lessons before and completed the task without trouble but some needed more guidance. Considering everyone’s abilities, including mine, I thought the lesson was a success.
Part of the Horizon Lanka experience is the daily trip to the field for sports. When I first arrived, we used the local public school’s field, but soon we were relocated to another field that was overgrown. Not long after we moved though, one of the villagers kindly mowed down the overgrowth for us. It was here where we enjoyed cricket and American football. I had never played cricket before, but all the students were eager to teach me and play together. I played American football for a few years growing up so I know the basics and I tried to teach throwing and passing to the kids. Even Americans, or Canadians, can have trouble at the beginning throwing properly due to the ball’s odd shape. I was happy that the Horizon Academy students tried and learned enough that we could play a little bit of touch football.
To anyone considering volunteering, I would offer the following recommendations as far as the teaching. There are a limited number of computers and students attend on different days, so it was difficult to do any sort of project, or ongoing work. Any work done on the computer was limited to what we could do in a class period. I heard that students have USBs now, so this shouldn’t be as much of an issue anymore. Before you arrive have some sort of lesson plan in place and some materials to go with it. This can be in the form of PowerPoint slides to discuss, flashcards if you can, printed stories/articles for discussion, pictures for Photoshop, saved videos to show students and music. This all assumes that you will bring a laptop computer and I know that may not be the case. Alternatively, you can come up with outdoor activities and games that incorporate English. A quick google search, copy, paste and print should be all you need. I wanted to do a scavenger hunt with the students but never did, so there is one idea. Also, be ready for different ages and levels to be in the same class.
In my case, I was going to teach American football so I had a copy of “Remember the Titans,” some football plays made on PPT slides and printed, and both a hard rubber football and a soft Nerf football. I also had some English lessons prepared on my computer. The topic for the day, pictures and questions. Day 1 was adjectives so I wrote a word to accompany a picture and we practiced making sentences. This led to some discussion and that carried most of the class. Day 2 was a review of adjectives and then using the same pictures we changed to verbs.
Of course, one could do whatever they want. Horizon Lanka is completely open to allowing teachers to play to their strengths and interests. I guess my advice is before leaving home, have an idea of what you want to teach the kids and come up with some sort of plan. Then come up with another plan B and even a plan C just in case. If all three plans are completely different from each other that would be ideal because equipment can malfunction, interest from children can quickly dwindle and things may not work out the way you thought. My intentions here are not to overwhelm, intimidate or frighten but rather to enlighten and best prepare future volunteers to have the best experience.
I cannot begin to express my gratitude to Tharaka and his family. They were excellent hosts and really were a big part of my amazing experience. Nanda does his best to pair volunteers with a host family that is welcoming and will offer a mutually beneficial cultural exchange. Tharaka just finished high school and we could speak English with each other. His mother and father were very kind and accommodating. I was provided with a room, later shared with another volunteer, that had a nice bed and mosquito net. They also provided 3 meals a day of delicious local food.
The area around Horizon Lanka has a small central intersection where there are a few shops and a small café run by a local family. Nanda and I shared some snacks and coffee at this café at the end of each school session while we discussed the future of Horizon Lanka, lesson plans, and general topics of mutual interest. As more volunteers arrived they joined us at this café. It became our boardroom so to speak, where we talked about the plans for all aspects of Horizon Lanka. It was also a place to share and learn from each other. I’d have to say that the meetings in the café were one of my favorite parts of the whole experience.
Future volunteers should make an effort to hang out with the locals and partake in activities like swimming in the river or playing cricket. Everyone in the village was really friendly and wanted to chat. Also learn a few words or write down some words in Sinhala to be friendly and courteous.
Nanda organized many trips while I was there. He knew I was interested in trying to get the now defunct mesh network in the village back online and we took a multi-day trip across the country stopping at his friends’ homes along the way. They were all kind, courteous and interested in speaking about anything and everything. We picked up another volunteer and while Nanda rode back to Horizon Lanka I brought the new volunteer by bus back to the village. It was a fun experience as I enjoyed the ride on the long-distance buses. They play music and move quickly. We were actually invited by the driver to join him for a snack in someone’s house during the scheduled rest stop.
Nanda also understood that I needed to visit Colombo to complete some paperwork and assisted me in organizing my trip. My homestay mother also made me a small lunch to take with me and ensured I woke up on time to catch the first bus at about 4.00 am. I stayed in a couple of different hostels, the names escape me now, but they were all beautiful and reasonably priced. Anyone that volunteers at Horizon Lanka should make time to also explore the country on their own. Another one of my favorite experiences was staying in the hostels and speaking with the other travelers. They can give firsthand accounts of many potential stops and help you better prepare your itinerary. The train is also worth taking if you have the chance. I believe I boarded in Anuradhapura, along with two other volunteers, and rode all the way to Colombo. We chatted the whole way and it was another memorable part of my trip.
The whole experience was wonderful and I am glad I had the chance to do it. I had wanted to volunteer with Horizon Lanka years earlier after completing my undergraduate degree but got sidetracked with other commitments. I ended up going at the same time I was completing an online university program, and while I was glad I could do both at the time, after some reflection I wish I could have devoted all my time and energy to Horizon Lanka. Splitting my attention between two major tasks meant that I don’t feel like I did my best with either. If I may recommend, volunteer your time at Horizon Lanka and give it 100 percent of your attention so you may do your best. Recent university grads and university students on summer vacation should consider this opportunity. I feel they have a lot to gain from the experience. A professor of mine always repeated the phrases, “Step out of your comfort zone” and “roll with the punches.” I would say those two pieces of advice should always be kept in mind if you volunteer at Horizon Lanka (or any volunteer abroad program.) That said there is one moment that sticks out in my mind where I didn’t follow that advice. I was invited to a party where at one point a bunch of men were singing and two were accompanying on drums. They asked me to sing something and I felt too self-conscience about my singing abilities to do it. I declined and they asked again for me to please sing something, just a short song. I again declined and they looked disappointed. I still flashback to that moment and thing why didn’t I just sing anything I know, there was really no reason not to do it.