I’ve been aware of WorkAway for a few years, but my two weeks in Kuala Lumpur was the first time I had used it to find a volunteer project. WorkAway is a membership-based online noticeboard where families, businesses and charities advertise for volunteers, usually on the basis of around 5 hours work per day, 5 days per week, in exchange for meals and accommodation.
The work in question at Yellow House was a combination of household chores and community volunteer projects, which for me meant helping out at a school for people with special needs, teaching at a school for refugees, running a free clothing stall for homeless people, and taking part in the Street Salon, also for homeless people.
The students at the special school had a range of conditions, including Down’s Syndrome, Autism and Global Development Delay, and range in age from five to thirty-nine. This kind of environment was completely new to me and I found my first morning helping the oldest and lowest functioning students very difficult; I didn’t know each person’s different abilities and skills, and as they had little to no linguistic ability I found it difficult to engage. But, as I got to know the students better and began to understand their responses, I became much more comfortable. I also had the chance to go swimming with a group of the students at a local pool, which was great fun. It is useful as aquatherapy, for skills development, left-right brain alignment and co-ordination, as well as being good exercise, and I was impressed how calm the students were in the water, and how well they swam.
The refugee school is attended by refugees primarily from Afghanistan between the ages of about six and seventeen, and on my first day I helped out in an English class. Most of them were about ten and just like my group in Thailand, the lesson was Parts of the Body, and they too knew the universal classic that is ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’. The teacher, also from Afghanistan, was quite traditional in method but he had a good relationship with the class and kept them in line. In contrast, the next day the teacher was off and another volunteer and I were asked to take the class on our own. That morning will stay with me as an important reminder of why I could never teach in a primary school for the sake of my sanity; name calling, fist fights, tears, screaming, me telling them off, them telling me off, and very little learning. It makes me want to have a lie down just thinking about it.
The clothes stall, called the Dignity Store, and the Street Salon are held once a week in conjunction with a food programme run by a Muslim charity in the centre of KL. Usually when clothes are offered to homeless people they are in a bag for them to rummage through, and are often broken or dirty. Special effort is made with the Dignity Store to provide clean, unripped clothes, and to display them on hangers for the homeless people to browse through, and take one or two items that they like. It’s all about treating these people with respect and, as the name says, dignity. Similarly, the Street Salon, in which we cut and washed homeless people’s hair, is as much about treating them as human beings and spoiling them a little as it is about hygiene. I was on shampooing duty, another first for me, and I enjoyed chatting to everyone and feeling like I was doing something practical and helpful.
All of the projects were quite humbling for me, and I was reminded constantly how normal all the people I met were, and how unlike the stereotypes. None of the homeless people were wild-eyed and rambling, the Afghan girls gave as good as they got and weren’t at all meek. It’s not that this surprised me exactly, but, as I lead a pretty sheltered life without much contact with society’s marginalised groups, it was good for me to be reminded that people are just people.
As someone who once felt like she was losing her marbles after living alone for a week, I was surprised how difficult I found it to adjust to living in close quarters with other people again. For the previous month I’d been staying either in hotels, with the room to myself, or in hostel dormitories which had tended to be spacious and largely empty, and I’d grown used to having a great deal of personal space. My dormitory at Yellow House, on the other hand, was small, only just big enough for the three bunk beds barely any space for storage. The communal area was more spacious and, although a little rough around the edges, was perfectly comfortable and bright, with murals and photographs on the walls and three dogs and a cat wandering around. The other volunteers, who were from all over the place, from Texas to Leicester to China, were all very friendly and we all did chores and upkeep around the house, although I managed to avoid imposing my lack of cooking skills on anyone. Although people came and went, there was a nice camaraderie amongst most of the volunteers, and by the time of our leaving barbecue on my final night, I was quite sad to say goodbye, but equally keen to be off on my own again.
For more about Yellow House, see here.