I’d always dreamt of visiting Nepal. Land of mystical yetis and mountain yaks, the birthplace of Buddha and home to eight of the world’s 10 highest peaks.
Then I read a Guardian article about “voluntourism” - holidays with a difference – which recommended a reputable organisation called GVI and their self-sustaining global volunteer placements.
My working days as a medical lawyer are usually dedicated to helping clients rehabilitate their lives after catastrophic events have left them disabled. These people have enough of a battle to get the services they need, despite living in the UK with a safety net of social security and a free health service.
I know from witnessing our clients’ courage in the face of adversity that these are often the most humbling and uplifting people to be around. So I was inspired to read about GVI’s health project in the Nepalese city of Pokhara which supports disabled people despite scarce resources.
When I was lucky enough to win Slater and Gordon’s Travel Award in 2014 I knew instantly that I had to apply to join the project. I flew out to Nepal in January 2015 and had intensive Nepali language lessons and training on arrival.
After some surreal sightseeing and savage trekking, I joined my fellow volunteers at a rustic home stay with no hot water or heating but with a lovely family and delicious food.
I helped to set up a new project at Sewa Kendra Centre for people with learning disabilities such as cerebral palsy (CP), autism, Downs’s syndrome or other conditions affecting their development.
The project was incredibly daunting at first and remained challenging throughout, but ultimately it was highly rewarding. I got so much more out of it than I had expected. I saw the difference some positive attention and new creative ideas could make to a centre with such limited resources. The staff and service users at the Sewa Kendra Centre were all very affectionate, highly entertaining and just a joy to be around. I didn’t stop laughing the whole time.
I also saw first-hand what a huge disadvantage it is for people deprived access to essential therapies. The effect this has on every aspect of daily life was plain to see, so I can understand better what a wide-ranging impact these disabilities can have and how crucial it is to have access to physiotherapy or speech and language therapy.
This has really strengthened my resolve to fight for these therapies for our clients.
Volunteering is the best way to get under the skin of a different culture, rather than just seeing a country through the eyes of a tourist. I would encourage anyone to do something completely different, to get out of your comfort zone and open your eyes to experiences outside of your routine.
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