In June 2016 Eleanor Roberts, an Occupational Therapy student at Brunel University, used her skills to volunteer with a project called the Sunera Foundation. The Sri Lankan charity helps young people and children who are disabled, disadvantaged or who have been traumatized by environmental and military emergencies. Eleanor received a £300 Individual Grant for Volunteering, a grant programme run by the Jack Petchey Foundation which offers financial support to young people, allowing them to volunteer their time and skills.
When Eleanor first arrived in Colombo, Sri Lanka, she received a week of training to ensure she had the necessary skills and was able to deliver the project appropriately. This included workshops led by Sri Lankan psychologists, social workers, teachers and health care professionals. After her training, Eleanor began her volunteer work with the foundation. Her duties included running therapeutic workshops that used the creative activities of music, drama, dance and art to give those taking part the chance to develop and improve motor skills, confidence and communication skills. Eleanor also worked on a number of different projects in the local community which involved working with children and young adults with special needs at the local development centres and schools.
The Sunera workshop space provides a sanctuary where individuals are allowed to express themselves without ridicule or prejudice. Despite being such a small island, Sri Lanka has the second highest rate of suicide in the world and attitudes to mental health are often one of stigma and blame. Eleanor believes that the art workshops were very effective, she said “I feel that the projects we worked on were helping to heal some of the scars left by these tragic events [natural disasters and civil war] and helped to rebuild communities and encourage acceptance of mental health, disability and family problems. We worked directly with Sri Lankan communities and were able both to learn and bring our own expertise and attitudes towards mental health.”
The creative activities that Eleanor lead and facilitated allowed people in the group to come together and experience a sense of social interaction and community that may not have otherwise been available. Eleanor said “Taking part in a shared activity has been shown to develop communication and social skills and the activities that I focused on such as dance and drama improved people’s confidence as well as allowing them a forum for self-expression that is often denied in Sri Lankan culture.”
Eleanor will bring the skills and knowledge she learnt whilst volunteering in Sri Lanka to her voluntary work in the UK. She currently volunteers with Magpie Dance, a UK charity which runs inclusive contemporary dance classes for adults and children with learning disabilities. Eleanor elaborated, “I am passionate about taking this further and learning as much as I can about how dance can be such an important tool in both improving motor skills and in fostering a community spirit. I was able to learn different techniques from Sunera in the way they structured their sessions and the way the staff worked so interactively with the children they worked with.”
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