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Fiona Craven, VSO, Guyana

2011 saw me do something I’d always dreamed about. I said goodbye to my familiar life in Ireland and headed off to volunteer in Guyana in South America. Situated in the North East of South America, Guyana is unique for being the only English-speaking country on this vast continent. Its rich Caribbean history makes for a vibrant culture in the villages and towns along the coast, while the interior is home to the indigenous Amerindian communities.

Back home I work as a Speech and Language Therapist. Having a skill that is often needed elsewhere in the world, I applied to VSO. There are a huge number of organizations and opportunities out there and it really is about finding the one that suits you best and deciding where your skills will be most effective.

I was prepared for a year of hard work and new experiences, but my time in Guyana far surpassed all my expectations. Based in the country’s capital Georgetown, I initially felt out of place and a source of interest as the new ‘white gyal’ in town. But with the support of the VSO training, and by meeting other volunteers and making friendships in the community, I quickly found my feet. Guyana has a diverse population of different cultures, and the varied geography alone (mountains, rainforest, coastland) makes for great differences across the regions. This brought its own unique set of challenges when managing services nationally, but also made for a year of constant adventure.

I worked for the national Ministry of Health, training local colleagues in how to work with people with speech and language difficulties. My role was in capacity building for the one local speech and language therapist and the rehabilitation assistants nationally. The goal was an enhanced quality and scope of service offered to people with communication difficulties. I was based in Georgetown Public Hospital where I carried out daily coaching to the staff in clinical techniques for working with paediatrics and adults with communication impairments. I also worked in a rehabilitation department for adults and in a centre for children with developmental disorders. As well as the clinical side, I regularly liaised with the ministry of health and international NGOs to secure financial support for the departments. Services in Georgetown were fairly well utilised and resourced, however outside of the capital the regional departments were more isolated and needed specific support to help them develop to their potential.

The aim of my placement was to make services as sustainable as possible in the long-term. Any goals that were set were done in conjunction with my local colleagues and had to be realistic without long term reliance on international volunteers. I loved this collaborative approach, and we grew to laugh at the cultural differences and misunderstandings that would sometimes occur. I would express frustration at some of the rules I had to learn to follow, and they would express frustration at the state of my hair in the humidity! I worked in the hospitals and schools directly with my colleagues and different patients and loved the opportunities my work gave me to make local friendships. I got to know many of the Rehab practitioners and nurses personally, and I learned so much from them in terms of how to work with limited resources and survive day to day in the tropics without the comforts of home.

It is impossible to sum up my volunteer experience in just a few words. Professionally I have gained great experience in management and become more flexible and less reliant on external resources. Personally I have learned to slow down – The Guyanese love to have fun and ‘lime’ (relax or chill!) and they were always laughing at how fast I walked and trying to get me to slow down! My time volunteering has also made me more aware of development issues and how my life at home and the choices I make can impact on the lives of others globally.

I had the most incredible experience and would encourage anyone interested in volunteering overseas to go for it. While I hope that I was able to leave a lasting impact professionally, it is the friendships I forged and the shared experiences that were most valuable for me. I was able to learn from the local community in which I lived and worked, from simple things such as how to cook roti and dance, to more subtle things such as how to cope with adversity and the importance of family and a supportive community.
The experience really is what you make of it, and you have to go into it with the right motivation and be prepared that it is going to be tough at times. But if you have a genuine desire to share your skills with people from across the world, learn from a different culture, and have an adventure, then volunteering could provide you with a truly life-changing experience.