Australia, Mellani

Mellani Volunteered at an Aboriginal Boarding School

I volunteered at Shalom Christian College, an Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander boarding school in Northern Queensland,Australia. I lived on campus with the five other volunteers and we ate our meals with the children who were resident at the school.

Being 15,000 miles away from all my family and friends was of course going to be challenging but I found that the complete immersion in a different culture; experiencing something new everyday, actually made my time there a lot easier. I feel that because my placement was so challenging, I got the most of out the experience as opposed to someone who perhaps had a more familiar placement.

Every Wednesday I went to the schools separate campus for children who found it difficult to be integrated into main-stream education. This was definitely the most challenging part of my work.For all of the children there, English wasn’t their first language, most couldn’t read and write and many had behavioural problems. My duties there were basically that of a teaching assistant. For the first term I helped and supervised the children during Maths,English and Science lessons and during the second term, they introduced a music programme there and so my skills were required to help with that. I found the children were  far more responsive and engaged with the music programme than with more literacy based subjects.

The children were also very tactile; always wanting to hold your hand and hug you. This is really different from British culture and so was a bit alien to me and took some getting used to. Being in a residential school, the children were far away from friends and family and some boarders were as young as 10. Their tactile nature, as I learned, was a sign that they felt comfortable with me and counted me as someone close to them and being a volunteer in a school, this is what you aim for. It meant a lot to know that you had made even the smallest difference to someone.

The rest of the week I spent in the primary school which was a day school. I spent a day each with the grade 1, 2 and 5 classes. I spent a lot of time doing one to one tuition in the classrooms with children who were slightly behind with their reading and writing.

When you work on something with them for a long time and finally it sinks in; the look of achievement and happiness on their faces is something I’ll never forget. There were many things I took away from the experience. One thing I definitely do now know is how lucky I am. The accident of where in the world you are born has an enormous impact on the kind of life you are going to lead.

I was born in the UK … whose society promotes the importance of a good education. Aboriginal Australia is a world away from ‘white’ Australia and this came as a big shock for all those that I know who spent time there. There is no literal line that defines the boundaries but the boundaries are clear for all to see. Many start school very late in their lives if at all and education isn’t promoted in the communities as much as it is in the western world. There are 15 year olds who can’t read or write, can’t speak full English and don’t have shoes to put on their feet and yet they are the happiest children I have ever seen and I was the happiest I have ever been whilst I was with them.

I got close to students and staff at Shalom, friends that I know I will have for a very long time to come. There were definitely some very challenging times but volunteering gave me so much in return. You encounter new challenges and problems that’s for sure, but you also have the same problems you had before but all those who you relied on for support when you were at home are no longer around you. I learnt how to deal with things myself and I’m a much stronger person than I was before.

I don’t come from a wealthy family and the bursary that Lattitude gave me made such a difference. It paid a large amount towards my Lattitude fee and so freed up some saved money I had to go towards my flight out there and without that, I don’t know if I would have been able to go! The year I spent away was the best year of my life. I will always look back on it with a smile and happy memories.