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Volunteering in Sri Lanka: a wealth of opportunity

3rd September 2012

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It’s early evening in Kosgoda, Sri Lanka, and I’m walking on the beach down to the sea’s edge. I’m carrying two buckets, full of maybe 25 baby turtles each. We’ve just dug them out of the sand with our bare hands, and now we must take these tiny little things, barely the size of your palm, down to the sea and let nature take over.

Turtles have to be released on the sand, as opposed to being plopped into the water, so that they remember the sand so that in later life when they are grown and need to lay their own eggs they will remember the way back home.

But it’s not as easy as it sounds. They’ve got to get into the water as quickly as possible to be safe from the marauding birds, and to help them, they are guided by the moon’s reflection on the sea, which draws them towards it and into the water. The problem is the light is fading, and every time I take a picture the flash goes off and they race their tiny little flippers towards me. The only way around this is to sit in the sea, whilst being bashed around by the waves.

I was in Sri Lanka to volunteer at the Kosgoda Turtle Conservation Project with two other teenagers: Mable, a 19-year-old English girl, had chosen to travel before university, had already been to Vietnam, India and Cambodia, and was travelling through the Real Gap organisation. “I was interested in teaching English and working with animals and put it into Google and this was one of the first things that came up,” she said.

Misa, a 24-year-old Swedish girl, had taken a different route. Although she came across them in the same way as Mable – via Google – she decided to contact the project directly. She negotiated her own deal, so unlike Mable she got all her meals, water and accommodation included. 

Do you need to travel through a company or is it best to do it yourself? As Mable pointed out, sometimes the extra support comes in handy. She said: “Once you’re out there it’s the organisation that managers that can help you, not the people at home.”

When in Vietnam she had all her money stolen and could have been in a lot of trouble. “I called Real Gap and they were really helpful,” she said.

Gap years have become fantastically popular over the last decade, but with the rising university fees have they become a luxury for the rich? Going to countries like Sri Lanka is very expensive, plus if you do it through a gap year company, it is even more so. Can you really justify doing both? Or do you have to choose? We’re young and these opportunities come once in a lifetime, and if you can you have to take every opportunity offered. So, yes, let’s do both.

Once that decision is made, if you’re committed to go to university is it better to go before or after? There are good arguments both ways. If you go after university, you are older, more mature and used to looking after yourself. If you go before, you develop your sense of self and when you do go to university, you’re more confident. Misa had been to university for two years; Mable was travelling before. Maybe that’s why Misa felt comfortable travelling independently and Mabel was under the umbrella of a gap year company.

A couple of hours away along the south coast in Galle I found another example of a volunteering experience – a charity called Children’s Hope. In 2004 English sculptor Carla Browne was in Sri Lanka looking for somewhere to build a holiday home. When the tsunami hit and devastated the country, Carla was so traumatised she left all she knew behind and used all her own money to set up the charity to help blind and deaf children and other children in need.

This volunteer project is based on the aims to focus on supporting the community and is mainly people-based, compared with the turtle conservation project which, while helping the local community, is largely environmental. I first visited Children’s Hope’s Volunteer’s Village when its pre-school was in full swing and deaf girls from the village were at work on their homemade bags and pieces of clothing. It was an amazing atmosphere as everyone had a role and you could see the volunteering work making a difference.

Carla said: “One pre-school girl, whose father tried to kill her at birth, now has a warm smile, and gets up at four in the morning, ready to go to come to school. That to me is one of the nicest success stories. This little girl who wasso quiet and scared of me being white; now she’s my best friend.”

You may think that you don’t have any skills that are worth something, but the skills that a volunteer bring are very worthwhile. At Children’s Hope, volunteers can paint and decorate the care-home or community building, work in the office on the charity’s PR, teach English in the community, work in the kitchens for the weddings and local events that it caters for, or help out in the pre-school. The new Volunteer’s Village café means that there are even more jobs to do.

Having had my gap experience, would I recommend it? Or should I have saved my money for university fees? In my view this experience has given me a better perspective on the world and has enhanced my skills. For 14 years my life has been about me and my education, but the gap year experience was more than that; it allows you to truly transform other peoples’ lives, and that can only make you a better person.

For further information, contact The Real Gap Company (01892 882 909,;

The Children’s Hope Charity ( , h ,

The Kosgoda Turtle Conservation Project (,  


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