Volunteers on vacation

Rewards are great when travelers aid in relief

Email|Print| Text size + By Julie Hatfield and Timothy Leland
Globe Correspondents / June 25, 2006

COLOMBO -- When Sadene's grandmother saw the giant wave hurtling toward the beach, she grabbed the 3-year-old girl and ran.

The tsunami that crashed into this island 18 months ago took the lives of 35,000 Sri Lankans and left hundreds of thousands homeless, including Sadene. We met the little girl with the radiant smile and intense dark eyes in a dusty , treeless field next to the plywood and corrugated tin shacks that are now people's homes. They make up one of the refugee camps on the outskirts of the capital, Colombo.

We were serving as volunteers for an international project known as i-to-i, a private organization that gives tourists an opportunity to help people in some of the poorest regions of the world.

Call it ``voluntravel," a growing trend among vacationers who feel they need more than just another luxury experience.

Over the years we have indulged ourselves in many such lavish trips. This time, we decided to try to help others instead of simply pampering ourselves.

An Internet search turned up several organizations that make this possible , and we chose i-to-i. Formed 12 years ago, the Britain-based agency has sponsored nearly 10,000 people in more than 20 countries on hundreds of projects.

From the many destinations offered , we chose Sri Lanka, a tropical island country off the Indian subcontinent that had severe social and economic problems even before disaster hit.

From the start, it was clear that this wouldn't be a run-of-the-mill trip. ``Things will not be the same as in your home country," the i-to-i handbook gently warned . ``Try not to have a fixed idea of what your placement will be like and you won't be disappointed if things turn out differently."

We paid $1,295 per person for our two-week volunteer adventure, not including airfare. We knew our accommodations would be spartan . Who needs hot water, towels , or toilet paper anyway? (We never did have the first, but we purchased the last two items.)

We knew the food provided by our host family would be basic . Who needs coffee or tea at breakfast? (We bought that, too.)

We knew about the prevalence of malaria and dengue fever in Sri Lanka, but hadn't expected the tablespoon-sized cockroaches in the bathroom . (We named them George and Harry and made believe they were pets.)

All the minor inconveniences disappeared when we met the head of our project, the Rev. Michael Catalano, an 81-year-old bundle of Jesuit joy. The moment he gave us his first beatific smile and a squeeze on each cheek we knew everything would work out.

``What can we do to help the poor children we'll be working with?" we asked him that first day.

The answer came immediately.

``Just love them," he said with a smile. `` That's all that matters. Love is our religion."

A graduate of Jesuit studies in philosophy, theology, and spirituality at universities in Rome and Mumbai (formerly Bombay), Catalano came to Sri Lanka 27 years ago and opened a hardscrabble community center in the worst slums of Colombo. He sits today in the same cramped office dispensing teaching materials, nutrition packets, and small sums of money ($7.50 per family per month) throughout his parish.

His humble organization is also building 49 houses for homeless families.

When asked where the money comes from for all of this, he opened his hands to the heavens and said, with a shrug and a smile, ``From God." ( We learned that much of it comes from his family back in Bari, Italy.)

Infected by his enthusiasm, we took up our mission: to play with toddlers in the one-room nursery schools, to teach English to elementary-aged children in the dark, dirt-floor schoolrooms, and to give desperately needed attention to the love-starved children who swarmed around us when we arrived at the tsunami camps.

The crowing of roosters and the distant chanting of Buddhist monks woke us every morning. We walked through the slums of Colombo to the community center, where we received our daily assignments.

The 15-minute trip took us along a narrow street where families brushed their teeth from spigots that splashed water into the gutter, then we continued along a wider road jammed with vehicles of every size and description: decrepit city buses with commuters hanging off the sides; muddy farm tractors pulling trailers loaded with vegetables; darting tuk-tuks, the three-wheeled open-air taxis; rusting trucks overloaded with cement bags; occasional SUVs carrying government officials; ancient bicycles ridden by men in long wraparound skirts; street vendors with pushcarts offering silvery fish darkened by buzzing flies; packs of mangy dogs sniffing the mounds of garbage that lined the streets; Muslim men in elegant white robes and crocheted caps . . . and, incongruously, cows plodding slowly and majestically down the center of the road .

The road crossed a canal littered with plastic bags where white egrets eked out a marginal existence stalking whatever aquatic life they could find in the stagnant, polluted water.

It was a relief when we arrived at our assigned nursery school and left the chaos behind. Stepping inside, our eyes adjusted to the dim light of the single room, where the 2- to 4-year-olds sat politely at pint-sized tables. Forget air conditioning in the sweltering heat, these schoolrooms don't even have electricity . With innocent intensity, the children colored in the books we brought and played gleefully with the few LEGO blocks we provided.

Their grins were wide, their eyes huge, their clothes clean and neat, if not new.

In the afternoon we took tuk-tuks to a different school and an older group of children. The classrooms were no better; in one we found a puddle of water on the cement floor, and arranged the makeshift benches around it. As we began our English lessons, three men appeared with a big iron rod and began breaking up the floor in the middle of the puddle. Water splashed about and we raised our voices over the din. The children seemed to pay no attention as the men dragged a hose in from the street and pumped foul-smelling effluent from the new hole out the front door . The lessons went on.

Teaching isn't the only choice for i-to-i volunteers in Sri Lanka. Some of our group were assigned to an orphanage near Colombo. Some helped clean up tsunami damage along the beaches to the south. Two volunteers cared for elephants in a reserve up north, and a young man from England was asked to be a cricket coach.

The volunteers in our group were from England, Ireland, Australia, and the United States, and they ranged from college students to retirees in their mid-60s.

Jay Manwaring, a retired business executive from San Diego, and his wife, Anna, signed up for a two-week session (you can sign on for as little as two weeks or as long as six months), after having participated in a number of other voluntravel projects in the last several years.

``Our relatives don't understand why we do this kind of thing," Manwaring said, ``and frankly, there are times when we wonder ourselves. When we get home from Sri Lanka, though, we'll forget all about the inconveniences and just remember the smiles on the faces of the little kids we taught in the schools."

Those beautiful smiles were also on the wrinkled faces of the old women who sat in the tiny room that served as a senior center in one of the slums.

And we saw them on the faces of the children in the destitute tsunami camps we visited, where we improvised ball games and handed out American stickers.

Toward the end of the trip, we saw more smiles when two families moved into homes built by Catalano's community center. Standing in the rubble of the tsunami-ravaged district, we attended the dedication ceremony, heart rending in its simplicity .

A family of nine children moved into one of the two-room cinder block structures, and a family of 11 into the other. From somewhere, the adults had managed to gather a plate of sweets to celebrate the occasion, and they insisted we each take one.

When we last saw the children and their parents, they were standing in the doorways of their new houses, waving goodbye as we walked out of sight across an empty field where houses once stood.

We brought home no trinkets from Sri Lanka, only memories.

Contact Julie Hatfield and Timothy Leland, freelance writers in Duxbury, at

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