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Time to reflect

Fiona Craven, 30, is volunteering in Guyana, South America. As Fiona is nearing the end of her placement she has had time to reflect on her time overseas. Here she tells us her story.

What made you decide to volunteer with VSO?

I have wanted to do development work ever since I left university, and it was only recently that the timing seemed right. I have volunteered short term with organisations abroad before and after a trip to Africa, I began researching different development agencies. I was struck by the professional and sustainable ethos of VSO, and their years of experience working in development made them an easy choice.

What does your role in Guyana involve?

Until last year, Guyana did not have a local speech and language therapist; they relied solely on VSO to provide expertise in speech and language therapy (SLT). My role here in Guyana is in capacity building for the one local speech and language therapist and the rehabilitation assistants. The result is an enhanced quality and scope of service offered to people with communication difficulties. I am based in the SLT department in Georgetown Public Hospital where I do daily coaching of the staff in clinical techniques for working with paediatrics and adults with communication impairments. I also work in a rehabilitation department for adults and in a centre for children with developmental disorders. I liaise with the ministry of health and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to secure financial support for the departments.

What's an average day like?

Here in Guyana, there is no average day. It’s this constant diversity that makes working and living here so fascinating. My working day starts at 8.30am after I’ve had a cold shower and cycled to whichever centre I’m working in that morning. I work with my colleagues and patients all morning, helping demonstrate techniques or set goals for each patient. Throughout the morning I may also be responding to phone calls from colleagues in the region who contact me for advice about a patient or require support with a management issue. At lunch, I pop out to a local vegetarian food stall and pick up some eddoe leaf for myself and fresh mango for my colleagues.

Our department is a tiny room crammed full of toys, books and boxes of files. This small room doubles as the lunch room. Services in Georgetown are fairly well utilised and resourced, however outside of the capital the regional departments have specific issues that need addressing in the long term. There is a lot of bureaucracy that has to be navigated. In the evening I often find myself catching up on work that requires internet access and I’m lucky enough to have this at home. I usually meet a friend for a walk along the sea wall or a swim in the pool, and most nights there’s some sort of social event on with the other international development workers.

How did you adapt to life in another country and culture?

VSO provide excellent training to help with this, and having had experience of developing countries before I felt reasonably prepared for the transition involved. Building up a social network of local and international friends has really helped me adapt to life away from home. I loved exploring Georgetown during the week, and getting out and exploring the regions at the weekends. Every month there’s a different festival to celebrate, be it 'Hindhu Phagwa', or African Emancipation Day. Learning from my local friends about their food and customs has been a wonderful way to feel more at home here.

What would you say has been your greatest achievement to date?

There have been many projects I have been involved in that I feel incredibly proud of, however, my greatest achievement has to be when I see a rehabilitation assistant working with a patient and carrying out a well structured session using techniques that I’ve taught them. When I see a colleague working confidently and delivering effective therapy to a patient, I know that my work here has been of benefit, as they feel they can carry on after I have left.

What are the highs and lows of life as a VSO volunteer?

Having such great job satisfaction is a real high, after all that’s why I’m here. Leading a life where every day brings something new and different is incredibly inspiring. The lows are far less substantial to the highs and usually relate to short term frustrations with bureaucracy or my hatred of tropical bugs, or occasional passing bouts of home sickness.

How did you overcome any difficulties in Guyana?

I did struggle at the start with the security issues here in Georgetown, being unable to walk by myself after dark, and having to lock doors even during the day made me feel quite trapped. But over time I’ve become used to the security measures and no longer miss the sense of personal freedom I take for granted at home. It took me a long time to get used to all the attention I get on the street; however I understand that I’m always going to be a source of interest being foreign and I usually respond with a wave or a smile.

What new skills will you take back to Ireland?

The last 12 months have taught me so much! My clinical skills have improved through working with limited resources. I’ve also been able to develop my skills in training others, and gained incredible experience in managing a full department and negotiating with international NGOs. Outside of work, I’ve learned to become more resilient and have a greater appreciation for life in the developed world. I hope that when I return to Ireland I will make more ethical decisions to do with my lifestyle and this is a direct result of learning about global development issues through my work here.

What would you say to someone considering volunteering with VSO?

I’ve had the most incredible experience and would encourage anyone interested to go for it. 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 a year of adventure, then volunteering could provide you with a truly life-changing experience.

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