Tag Archives: Stephanie Livingstone

47. Nadeesha Fernandez

30 Apr

47. Nadeesha Fernandez b

Overseas volunteering attracts a lot of criticism. It often centres on the dangers of volunteers landing in faraway villages with an exciting ‘whoosh’, only to shortly take off again in a puff of dust.

Nadeesha Fernandez spent almost four months volunteering at the SOS Children’s Village in Piliyandala, Colombo District, Sri Lanka. She tells me of how she left Australia amidst the above criticism from the people around her, with many expressing serious doubts over whether her volunteer work would be effective at all. Though valid concerns, the rigorous assessment processes of the organisation’s staff, in conjunction with Nadeesha’s own determination to offer practical outcomes rendered the probability of becoming a ‘helicopter volunteer’ impossible.

A prominent reason for this is that Piliyandala is an unsuitable place for voluntourists looking for light-hearted fun. The area is separated from the city and is certainly not a tourist hotspot. Nadeesha describes the SOS Children’s Village in Piliyandala as comprising of roughly 10 houses in a village-type commune, where about 160 children orphaned from the tsunami or the civil war now reside. Nadeesha explains that these children are cared for by village ‘mothers’, who welcome them into a SOS family and send them to the local SOS primary and secondary schools where other children from the local community also attend.

The bulk of Nadeesha’s time at the Children’s Village was spent teaching English to the local children, women and adults across various settings and her students often came from very poor or violent backgrounds. She recalls the jolt of nerves on her first day of teaching after abruptly being told, “Okay, here’s your class, do what you have to do”. Nadeesha initially had no idea what she ‘had to do’, but worked it out quickly in a very unfamiliar environment. She resisted the temptation to simply play games with the students, and ensured each English activity was practical and relevant to their everyday lives. Walking past Nadeesha’s classroom, you could often hear her telling her students, “No no no, we’ll do work and then we’ll play”.

In kindergarten, Nadeesha wrote scripts for children’s plays which she used as a practical way to teach the children English. Nadeesha remembers when the children performed a play she had written in English, telling me, “It was a really proud moment… it was a continuous period of time that I was training them to do something…. It was great to see that they had actually succeeded”.

Her desire to teach English stemmed from its practical use within a Sri Lankan context. English is incredibly useful in Sri Lanka – it opens opportunities for employment, community engagement, education and even overseas employment opportunities. So, Nadeesha also taught teenagers, adults and mothers about the application of English for job interviews and worked on their confidence in applying it to various situations. Incredibly, she also learned the local language, Sinhala, in order to connect to her students more.

Though the thrill of this new experience was exhilarating, it carried its fair share of challenges. Nadeesha became very sick and suffered from constant heat headaches and a complete depletion of all energy. She tells me she also felt uncomfortable at times. Despite having a Sri Lankan background herself, she says she “Stuck out like a sore thumb” because of her unusually short hair which she had cut short to make it easier to wash. Language miscommunications similarly resulted in moments of awkwardness, for example when she accidentally told someone “Don’t worry me!” instead of “Don’t worry”, only to find out about her error later on. Nadeesha cackles with laughter as she reminisces over this. She also tells me that despite these challenges and many others, she was determined to persevere in her teaching.

Here the murmurs of critics come to mind… ‘But do these English classes actually pay off?’ one can imagine them asking. The simple answer? Yes, they can. Nadeesha shares the story of one Sri Lankan woman from the SOS Children’s Village who was actually brought over to the UK to work as a nanny by one volunteer because her English was so outstanding. And there are many other similar stories. The staff at the SOS Children’s Village were also diligent in ensuring the English teaching program Nadeesha was a part of was effective. Senior staff and educational directors of the organisation often interviewed her and monitored her classroom teaching.

Nadeesha was also mindful of the impact of her connection to village life regarding the relationships she developed with local community members. She tells me, “We built these amazing relationships… I didn’t think it was fair to just come into their lives and just leave, they are now my family and I need to visit them”. For now, Nadeesha keeps in contact through letter writing and is saving money to return back to the SOS Children’s Village.

I ask her towards the end of our interview why she chose to teach English despite the criticism which so often accompanies it. Her response made perfect sense, “I could have built schools or something…but I chose education… I’m interested in child protection and I want to work with kids. What’s the most important thing for children at that age? Learning.”

To end our interview, Nadeesha produces an equally as effective response to questions of how short volunteering trips can possibly be expected to ‘make a difference’. Her response comes in the form of a story about a boy throwing star fish back into the ocean from the shore. A man notices him doing this and asks, “Why are you bothering to return them when you can only throw one back at a time?”. The boy picks up a starfish, throws it back out to sea, and says, “Well I sure made a difference to that one”.

Words: Stephanie Livingstone

Picture: Sean Porter


46. Olivia Watson

3 Mar


It is easy to picture the typical ‘volunteer’ photo: a beaming westerner surrounded by a flock of locals eagerly competing for the camera’s attention. Though Olivia Watson has achieved an incredible amount volunteering overseas, not one of her photos mimic this image. Olivia’s volunteering experiences have been grounded as equally in an eagerness to contribute to community development as they have been in mindful awareness to do this appropriately and effectively, and not simply follow in the footsteps of other volunteers.

Olivia’s entrée into community development began with a mission trip to the Phillipines in 2012 with a group from the St. Francis Xavier parish. Her mother and 10 other mothers and children ventured off to help communities in Manila and Cebu, which Olivia describes as the catalyst for setting her off on a “path of helping other people”.

They brought with them soap, books and pencils, as well as donations which had been fundraised in Melbourne to be brought over to the local schools. Olivia warmly reminisces over her experiences interacting with the children at the local school and orphanages and becoming culturally immersed.

Each time I ask Olivia to elaborate on the most significant moments of her time in the Phillipines, her responses continually pivot around human connection. She recalls for me one of her fondest memories of the whole village coming together at a school oval. Everyone sung each others’ anthems and “forgot where they were from”. Olivia tells me, “The thing that was most enjoyable was connecting with kids our own age, but in a different environment… I admire their strength and compassion towards others”.

It wasn’t all peaches and sunshine, however. Encountering the realities of poverty became extremely “hard hitting”, particularly being witness to the conditions of the slums and being told personal stories of poverty. Integrating back into western life after being exposed to this was not easy, “It was hard to get back into the routine of knowing there was poverty over in the Phillipines… I went through a stage where I thought I wanted to close myself off from the world a little bit”. The wheels of Olivia’s volunteering had certainly been set in motion though, and these challenges did not deter her from future volunteering opportunities. In fact, that same year she was organising and transporting clothes, books and board games to Fiji where she visited with two family friends and their son for more volunteer work.

After volunteering in the Phillipines, Olivia rapidly developed an awareness of the need for ongoing support for communities after participating in poverty reduction efforts. She recalls, “It was very hard to come back to Australia and forget about everything. I knew I had to do something”. After returning, Olivia collaborated with a teacher at her school, Catholic Ladies’ College, on a fundraising project selling free range eggs to raise funds for Gentle Hands, the orphanage she had previously visited in Manila. Remarkably, herself and her teacher Joanne Notting from Catholic Ladies’ college raised $1,500 for Gentle Hands.

Determined to learn more about poverty reduction, she then set her sights on Kenya, Africa, where she participated in a cultural immersion and community development program with other students from Catholic Ladies’ College. Olivia paints a vibrant picture of the culture for me: lots of energetic singing and dancing, Kenyan rice-based dishes and traditional wooden houses with African mums referred to as ‘Mummas’. She tells me, “I had to pinch myself every day”, but still actively practiced being culturally respectful – something so many well-intentioned young volunteers overseas inadvertently disregard. In Kenya, Olivia and her classmates visited an HIV/AIDS centre for children who either had HIV or whose parents were infected, and visited the local schools.

The classrooms had blackboards, wooden desks and about 50 students to each class. Olivia affectionately casts her mind back to the local students speaking to her in Swahili, before erupting into laughter as Olivia and the other girls could only react with blank, confused faces. Olivia also tells me about the Tree of Life activity they did with the students, where everyone spoke about their families and shared their goals and dreams. I listen in shock as she informs me that herself and the other girls involved in the immersion raised over $14,000 before leaving for Kenya, which was then donated to the school for ovens to cook meals for the children and for other vital facilities. The current of maturity still running through her recollections, she tells me knowing exactly where the donations were going was a huge relief and very important to her, “Actually seeing where the money is going gives me satisfaction knowing I’m trying my best to help the people who really need it”.

In a well-deserved recognition of her achievements, Olivia received the 2012 Catholic Ladies’ College Community Service Award, presented by local councillor Steve Herbert, and also received it again in 2013.

It’s not only Olivia’s achievements that should be applauded though. It’s also her perception of what really matters in volunteering overseas which diverges from the norm as much as her photos do. Firstly, her trips overseas were not undertaken with the common assumption that she actually could contribute just because she was a volunteer. Olivia was more concerned about community members’ views on volunteering, worrying that they might have thought “Here we go again…more volunteers…we don’t need them”. She also believes commitment is vital after undertaking any volunteering, “It’s all good if you’re going over there…and taking photos with kids… but once you decide to head to a place like that you need to commit”. She offers advice for other volunteers to “Think about what you can really achieve” and commit to that, and to “Have one goal and stick to that goal… that one goal can spread out and continue to grow”.

Overall, Olivia’s approach to volunteering is grounded in one very wise motto, “You may not be able to change the world, but you can change someone’s world”. If her amazing track record so far is anything to go by, I’d say Olivia is brilliantly equipped to do just that.

Words: Stephanie Livingstone

Picture: Sean Porter

19. Stephanie Livingstone

5 Mar

Stephanie Livingstone has an interesting theory. She considers education to be currency. It flows naturally that her investment into bettering the lives of individuals in the developing would be through teaching. At the age of 20 and with no formal training Steph realized that a love of teaching as a skillset could be more valuable than a merely financial contribution to combatting some of the challenges faced by the small Indonesian community of Sembalun on the small island of Lombok.

Steph’s induction into helping others came into its own in her local community. Volunteering in the St Vincent De Paul Society and serving as the Diamond Valley division’s Vice President set her apart from many people her age – volunteering in a soup van for the homeless as well as helping out at holiday programs and kids days. It was through this experience that Steph first learnt about UN Youth. UN Youth had at its core an educational purpose, and anyone that watched Steph in action will agree that she truly did justice to UN Youth’s tagline to “open young eyes to the world”.

Graduating quite quickly from facilitating workshops in classrooms to organising them Steph was delivered a significant challenge.  Reflecting on her experiences she describes the process as an opportunity to learn about teamwork, leadership and to channel her passions into real outcomes. Her passion for the plight of Asylum Seekers and Refugees influenced her choice of theme for two day long events for Year 9 students, attracting over 400 attendees. Steph remembers standing nervously in front of “a stadium of young faces” trying to start up a conversation which is often sensationalized by politicians and figures in the media. Regardless, Steph relished the challenge and has soared to great heights utilising the skills she has developed along the way.

Steph’s most recent and exciting project has developed since returning from a month long visit to Sembalun, Lombok in 2010. The village is located precariously at the base of a Volcano and has been the catalyst for a major realignment of her world view. Steph says that her “whole perspective on life was turned on its head”, returning she harboured “a resentment of Western Culture, stayed away from shopping and was unable to take part in consumer culture after watching friends of mine living on less than $4 a day in Lombok”. Personal friendships formed and a feeling of welcome have aided Steph’s ability to build her project in Sembalun. At home in Australia Steph continues to teach English classes by Skype with a classroom sitting around a mobile phone on loudspeaker.

Steph radiates positivity and enthusiasm. What’s the secret? “Focus on something that resonates with you, take opportunities to take that spark or frustration and do something about it” oh and another thing “you can never dream too large, get a team together and strive for ten times what you think is possible”.

Steph’s big dream for the future of the Skype program is for it to go National and has already begun building capacity here in Banyule conducting a pilot program at St Martins of Tours Primary School in Rosanna. This component will have primary schoolers taking part in letter-writing and creating storybooks that can be used by Steph as a teaching tool and foster a greater understanding of the lives of kids in Indonesia.

Steph and the Skype program are taking off but not without the support of her community. So far the program has had a positive reception in schools as teachers and students recognize the real opportunity to experience cultural exchange. Individuals are encouraged to contact Steph to register their interest in supporting the program, “Support comes in many forms but really it’s what people are capable of it could be money, or donation of resources but the more important thing is education and awareness”. Listening to her speak I am endeared to her cause, her moral obligation to enhance kids access to universal and basic education. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? And we’re all hoping that simplicity spells her success.

Steph can be contacted at Stephanie_livo@hotmail.com

Words By:Anna Carrig


Photo by: Sean Porter


© Sean Porter 2011