Maura McGlynn - Occupational Therapy Electives in Sri Lanka
From October to December 2011 I had the opportunity to work at Daya Nivasa orphanage in Kandy. As an Occupational Therapy student, I was able to utilise my time with Projects Abroad as my final doctorate level rotation. Daya Nivasa, a home for children and adults with physical and cognitive impairments, is run by the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s sisters. In addition to developing my therapy skills, working with the Missionaries of Charity and Projects Abroad provided an incredible opportunity for personal growth and self-reflection.
My placement in Sri Lanka
Although working with so many people with physical and cognitive challenges can be taxing, there is so much that volunteers can do. While I was there, I focused on providing therapy for the children and education/training for the sisters and caregivers.
The sisters and caregivers told me what health information they wanted to learn and I was able to hold two training sessions and develop two training manuals to discuss this information. The first manual contained information on conditions typically seen at the orphanage. The second manual included an evaluation, a checklist of activities that would be helpful for each child’s health and development, and an in-depth description of every individual child’s functioning coupled with recommendations to advance their health.
I was also able to connect the sisters and caregivers with local healthcare providers; when they learned about the children, they were able to help. Sometimes, it just takes a person to facilitate their meeting. While I was there, I was able to set up some appointments for a little boy who had experienced a medical condition all his life. When we took him to the hospital, the doctors discussed providing a free surgery that could correct his impairment which may enable him to be adopted.
I was also able to speak with local doctors and therapists about setting up therapy for a little girl that required long term intervention, and connect with local Occupational Therapists. One of the therapists organised a training conference where I provided treatment information for therapists and parents of children with impairments. Upon my departure, I was able to donate the American therapy equipment that I had brought to the local therapists.
Learning from my placement
Working at Daya Nivasa was also an incredible spiritual experience for me. I had the chance to learn from the sisters who sacrificed their entire lives to serve God by caring for the residents of Daya Nivasa with patience, gentleness and dignity. They accepted everyone to the home no matter what their condition, level of functioning, or amount of assistance they needed. Working at the orphanage developed my flexibility and my creative problem-solving skills. My experience taught me to appreciate each person’s progress, no matter how large or small, and even more importantly, showed me that even people with extreme challenges can love to be alive.
The Projects Abroad staff were tremendous. They helped me research medical conditions, important cultural nuances and community resources. They frequently contacted me to see if I needed assistance, provided social opportunities throughout the country and acted as emotional support as I worked with many sick and impaired people.
I hope that my experience can provide an insight for future Daya Nivasa volunteers. If volunteers take initiative, they can make a tremendous difference. Utilise resources such as local medical professionals, Projects Abroad staff and community organisations, just make sure you receive the sisters’ permission first. The sisters honour the privacy of the residents and it would be considered inappropriate to share any information about them without permission. If you are respectful and humble, the sisters will be quite open to suggestions.
Any volunteer that goes to Daya Nivasa will have unique contributions to offer, but ask the sisters to see the training manuals that I developed. They may provide helpful background on the children and give you some ideas of things to do with them. Be patient with the circumstances at the orphanage; many of the residents have challenging conditions and the sisters and caregivers have not received special training to work with these conditions. They work very hard, but things will not be perfect. The more prepared you are to work with imperfection, the more you will accomplish.
Give the children the toys and materials at the facility. They need lots of stimulation and giving them toys is a great way to achieve this. As many of the children have physical impairments, they have a limited ability to move on their own and they absolutely love when people pick them up, help them walk, bounce, or rock them.
Helping the children move provides stimulation, helps their vestibular system (inner ear) learn how to balance and orient them, assists muscles all over their bodies get stronger, and makes them feel special just to have your attention; the more personal interaction (eye contact, appropriate physical touch, smiling, and laughing) the better. Personal interaction helps with their brain development and reminds them that they are loved!