Mr. Mark McDougall from the United Kingdom volunteered two weeks in March 2017 at Horizon Lanka. Though his stay was comparatively shorter, he did a lot for the organization especially with his great writing skills.
Volunteering at Horizon Lanka – Mark McDougall
My time spent volunteering at Horizon Lanka and living in Mahawilachchiya has been one of the most unique and rewarding experiences that I have been part of, throughout my entire journey around Asia. I have found Horizon Lanka to be a key aspect in the lives of many of the children in Mahawilachchiya. It gives the children a platform to learn, that is completely different from the environment in which they learn in their public schools, with a real focus put upon computer skills, improving their English and expressing themselves through singing and dancing. The children seem to really enjoy having Horizon Lanka as a place where they can socialize with both their friends and volunteers from around the world, as well as improving their IT and English skills which will hopefully help to further their prospects in both the job market and in society after they finish their education. Nanda works incredibly hard to create an environment where the children and volunteers are comfortable. I have particularly enjoyed helping the children with their spoken English, mainly through simply having conversations with them and discovering what their interests are as people. The children are energetic, warm and friendly people who engage fully in all that they do; be it learning new things, playing sports like cricket and volleyball or expressing themselves through music and dance (which many of the children are extremely passionate about).
The people of Mahawilachchiya are some of the most caring and generous people that I have ever met! While cycling or walking around the village and surrounding areas I have been constantly acknowledged by a waving hand or smiling face and have really felt welcomed into this rural community. Wasantha has been like a guide to me, introducing me to so many lovely people throughout the village. I have been invited into countless houses for tea or food and to chat, a show of generosity that has really touched me as I don’t believe there are many places in the world where a stranger will be treated as warmly and to be made to feel as at home, as I have in Mahawilachchiya. The community here is truly one built around a philosophy of ‘sharing is caring’, as everyone so readily shares whatever they have and no one goes without. This includes animals as well as people, as any ‘waste’ food is dispersed to the various birds and animals that inhabit the area. The concept of greed doesn’t appear to have been introduced to Mahawilachchiya, as people only take what they need, nothing more. Coming from a country where it is much more uncommon for someone to show an act of kindness to a complete stranger, it has been very beautiful for me to witness and be a part of.
As well as introducing me to multiple friends and families around the area, Wasantha has shown me various areas of natural beauty that I never would have discovered myself. This part of Sri Lanka has so much to offer to a nature lover. Some of my favorite places that I have been in Mahawilachchiya are; the lake (which is a great spot to swim and cool off) and the river side (where I was again made to feel completely welcome by the local women that stayed there) which is one of the most peaceful and serene spots I have ever been to just to relax with a book or watch the various birdlife or try to catch fish in the teeming river.
While volunteering with Horizon Lanka, I have been lucky enough to be hosted by Surendra and his family. They have strived at all times to make me feel like part of the family and to ensure that I am happy and well-fed! Surendra’s mother has provided me with some of the best food I have ever eaten; from delicious curries and rice to rotis and salads, all of the food has been delicious. It has been very interesting for me to see and eat food that is completely organic and natural, and to be able to see exactly where the food has come from. This family have completely opened their home to me and I can’t express enough how grateful I am for that. It has been really interesting and enjoyable for me to get to know all of the family (including Bruno the dog!) and to witness Sri Lankan family life.
Unfortunately, as I have visited Mahawilachchiya during the very busy exam period I have been unable to volunteer at a public school. However, this just gives me an even greater incentive to return to Mahawilachchiya and to combine volunteering at Horizon Lanka with volunteering at a local school.
After escaping the chaotic melting pot that is Colombo, the steady and tranquil pace of village life in Mahawilachchiya is a breath of fresh air. I wish that I had time to stay here for a longer period of time, unfortunately that isn’t possible for me right now. However, I definitely intend to return to this area and to volunteer with Horizon Lanka again and to see how everyone in the village is getting on. I think there are lots of people who would benefit from a similar experience as the one I have had in Mahawilachchiya and I know that future volunteers will have as great a time as I have.
Mark McDougall – The United Kingdom March 29, 2017
Cristina Medina is our first Spanish volunteer. She volunteered at Horizon Lanka in February, 2017. Read Cristina’s story below.
“This project is located in Mahawilachchiya, a privileged place away from the noise of the city so you can breathe a lot of peace that together with the hospitality of the local people make it a special place.
I was surprised by the work that Horizon Lanka is doing in this village, given the opportunity for children to learn English, information and communication technology and important life skills. But also it is a place to share and have fun together staff, children and volunteer in a great atmosphere.
I’m very happy to be part of this project and to be able to teach English and dance classes in my short time here.
They get you involved in the daily life of the village and show you place around. I went to bathe in nearby lake and visit a temple (Tantirimale Rock Temple) where the locals go on Sundays to pray, was very interesting.
The best thing of all was to live with Tharani’s family, a smart and charming girl of 14 years old with whom I shared many good moments and laughter. The family made me feels like at home and thanks to them I learnt about culture and customs of Sri Lanka because they are happy to share their daily life with me and make me part of the family.
I came to Horizon Lanka alone and here I found a family.”
Dmitri Smirnoff was the second Canadian volunteer to join Horizon Lanka. He was at Horizon Lanka from January, 2016 to February, 2016. While he was here he taught the students English, French and computers. He is a computer expert. He also took the initiative to teach Linux Operating System to the children here. Dmitri was originally a Russian and then migrated to Canada.
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.