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Meave McCutcheon – VSO India, Delhi.

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I volunteered for a year as a Speech and Language Therapist with Action for Autism in New Delhi, India in conjunction with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO).My story has no definite beginning, middle or end! I don’t know when I decided to go away, I think it was always something I wanted to do and now I don’t know what I will do with the many experiences I had during my year in India.

Growing up I was surrounded by people who volunteered or got involved- its importance was not discussed just imparted! I helped my granddad with St. Vincent de Paul Meals on Wheels, I played tennis and ran in relays in clubs my mum helped to organise, I watched the Gaelic teams my dad helped to train, I admired the flower arrangements my granny made in the local church…maybe this is why I wanted to volunteer with VSO or maybe I knew how much fun I would have!

After college I began working with the HSE (Health Service Executive) but I remember looking up the VSO website and seeing that they were interested in supporting professionals with several years experience to volunteer. Three years later I was ready for an adventure and completed an online application form. Filling out the form sitting on my couch in Dublin I don’t think I realised what I was signing up for! “Pre Departure” was a busy time…I was sad to be saying goodbye to friends and family, scared and excited about saying hello to India and in a frenzy of completing training weekends, online pre departure courses with VSO and sorting out the finer details of leaving my Irish life for a year. VSO were very supportive and really try to prepare volunteers for the unknown- I learnt a lot, with subjects ranging from cultural sensitivity to basic Hindi. Somehow everything worked out and my rucksack was packed and I was on my way to the airport.

An explosion of heat, sounds and smells was my introduction to Delhi. After three weeks of in-country orientation training I was thrown in the deep end –with my VSO arm bands on. The first few months were a steep learning curve. Action for Autism is a dynamic, fast-moving and energetic workplace. It was founded in 1991 by parents of individuals with autism; its goal was to “put autism on the Indian map”. The aim of my placement was to strengthen the organisation’s service delivery by providing speech and language therapy to individuals with autism. In order for a sustainable impact to be achieved my role encompassed a strong focus on skill sharing with families, teachers and staff.

It took awhile to find my feet, but my colleagues were welcoming, helpful and very enthusiastic. After a month or two I settled into a busy routine. I moved between the different services offered by AFA. Mondays and Fridays I met with the adults with autism attending Adhaar, a vocational centre, for “discussion time”. On Thursdays I spent time with families and children who were attending the parent-child training programme, a three-month programme during which a group of parents train together, gaining a greater understanding of their children and autism. I provided information workshops on communication, speech and language development, I meet with parents on an individual basis to provide information, support and advice and I contributed to the children’s individual education plans. I worked collaboratively with the teachers to support them in their work, focusing on the development of communication skills. In the afternoons I worked with children who attend mainstream schools but access support services at AFA. Lunchtimes were my biggest challenge-they involved lively work related discussions where progress, problems and practical matters are debated over curry in a mixture of Hindi and English. By the end of the year I was able to keep up with the conversation and eat my curry!
During my year in India, I learnt new ways of working, met great people and came home with renewed enthusiasm for my job. I was proud to have made some contribution to the progressing of services for individuals with a disability and to have worked with inspirational people who will tirelessly continue this work.

When I got back, I slipped into my old life very quickly- I arrived home on a Wednesday and was back in work on Monday. It took a while to fit all the old jigsaw pieces with the new. I travelled home with different stories, experiences and perspectives and I needed to find an outlet for these. I completed a “What Next?” course with Comhlamh which helped me figure something outs. I wanted to learn more about development and global justice issues. I became a volunteer adjudicator at Concern secondary school debates.

I have also started a book club with friends- we try to discuss books on development issues. The more I learn, the more I want to do and change…so my story definitely does not have an ending just yet.