This summer I was one of fifteen students from Durham University who spent ten weeks living and working in a village in Sri Lanka. Project Sri Lanka, organised by DUCK (Durham University Charities Kommittee), came about as a result of the devastation caused by the tsunami in December 2004. Since then it has moved beyond immediate reconstruction and relief needs, to focus on providing buildings and human support for the long term development of sustainable villages.
Motivated by the prospect of supporting a community, which had suffered so tragically, I was quick to apply to participate in the project, and was subsequently chosen to lead the team. In the months beforehand we were heavily engaged in fundraising, through sponsored events including marathon-running, skydiving, and firewalking, as well as through contributions from Weil Gotshal & Manges, Watson Wyatt and BlackRock Investment Management. The goal, which we duly achieved, was to finance the construction of a school and community building in the village of Gandarawatte on the south coast of the country.
Timing our arrival to coincide with the opening ceremony, we spent the summer teaching English language and literature to the children and young adults, from Twinkle Twinkle right through to Shakespeare. For their part, the villagers of Gandarawatte eagerly welcomed us into the life of the community, and we were consistently overwhelmed by their warmth and sincerity. Established as an inter-cultural programme, over and above its reconstructive aims, the project delivered on its promise to promote the dynamic exchange of traditions and ideas. Testament to the cultural immersion we were treated to, I returned to Heathrow barefoot, and sporting a particularly fetching batik sarong a parting gift from the village monk.
Voluntary programmes such as Project Sri Lanka can be a baptism of fire, but, from my experience, they are challenging and rewarding in equal measure. The assumption of responsibility forced me to reckon with situations outside of my comfort zone, and to develop new skills in response to that. Most importantly, though, I sincerely believe we were able to make a lasting difference to a community that had really suffered. We also made great friends and shared unforgettable experiences in the process.
Tom Wheaton, currently studying for his GDL, is due to begin his training contract with Weil, Gotshal & Manges in 2010.