Volunteering as an Occupational Therapy Student: My first experience using my OT skills alone in the big, bad world!

Published by Charlotte (site admin) on behalf of Author Orla.

OT student, Orla, outside ‘the window to knowledge’ children’s centre in Tirana, Albania

 

Tell us about yourself.

Hello, my name is Orla, I am Irish, and studying occupational therapy at Teesside University in the North of England.

Where were you volunteering?

After hundreds of Google searches, I decided upon a centre for marginalised children run by the charity Caritas on the outskirts of Albania’s capital city, Tirana. I volunteered here for 2 weeks in September 2017. The community was made up of minority groups such as Roma and Egyptian families who had moved closer to the capital in search of better opportunities. I was not expecting the levels of poverty I saw. The children lived in slums by a river that flooded every winter and they had no running water or the basics that I expected. ‘I am in a European country after all,’ I thought wrongly. The main aims of the centre were to give 5-18 years olds in the area the chance to gain an education, learn life skills, eat nutritious meals, and partake in sports and fun activities. The 8 members of staff included social workers, a teacher, and a doctor.

 

What were your expectations before volunteering?

I was excited to observe and work along the long-term staff that have deep roots in the community and use my occupational therapy knowledge to support them when appropriate. I made sure to humble myself before beginning this project, being mindful that I was not going to ‘fix their problems’ in 2 weeks but instead encourage and assist long-term staff to continue to make a difference in the lives of these families.

What did you learn from the experience?
First thing I learnt was that I have a lot to learn. Obviously, applying your OT skills on placement when you have an educator to support you is much easier than being on your own. It gave me a taster of what my role-emerging placement could be like and now I know how much preparation will be required. Here are three occupational therapy skills I learnt about during my time in Albania:

 

The therapeutic relationship: music breaks through a language barrier

My biggest difficulty was the language barrier as I don’t speak Albanian. Two members of staff were able to translate but activities often got lost in translation and a new game may have formed before I even finished my explanation; the Albanian version of my activity! My personal favourite was conducting the Kawa river model with the teenage group, my poor translators!

Therefore, my method for establishing therapeutic relationships with the children and teenagers was through music; playing my ukulele and singing. Each morning, the younger children would sit in a line and one-by-one I would teach them chords on my ukulele and let them have a go. I would do the same with the teenagers in the afternoon and perform requested songs (Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber were popular). This quickly led to building relationships with the group without needing the Albanian language. It also encouraged patience and turn-taking as there was one ukulele and 70 of them! One morning was dedicated to an Ireland vs. Albania sing-song where I sang a song and then they sang one in response. It was a treat to hear their amazing voices sing complex melody lines that put our pop songs to shame. I will miss walking into the centre and hearing them shout ‘Orla, kitare (guitar)!’

 

Intervention Planning: leading activities with SMART objectives

In my past volunteering roles, activities had one purpose: to have fun. This time, I was looking through my new OT lens and began to shape these fun activities to have SMART objectives in line with the centre’s overall purpose. This meant facilitating activities that had specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely goals. In practice, this was an optimistic ask as Albania has a more relaxed culture when it comes to timely goals. But they found it useful that the games had the purpose of developing positive skills and qualities. I focused on their interpersonal skills including communication, turn-taking, and team-work. A highlight was teaching the children the self-care occupation of brushing their teeth as I discovered none of them owned a toothbrush and toothpaste. I organised a donation from Ireland to purchase one set for each child and for the centre’s doctor to give a presentation on the importance of dental hygiene.

 

Assessing the whole picture: projects with holistic approaches are essential to break the poverty cycle

I admired how the centre looked out for the children in every aspect of their lives. For example, they adapted how they taught self-care occupations to how the children would carry them out at home, like using a cup of water to brush their teeth instead of a tap. Also, they realised that there was no point teaching self-care tasks if the parents were not also promoting them at home. Parent meetings were therefore set up, resulting in some great solutions to community issues such as litter picking groups. I loved seeing people that would never come together naturally in the same room making decisions to better their community.

This approach was broadened to all areas of the children’s lives. The social workers made sure the children weren’t treated differently at mainstream school (One day at the school gates, the Roma children were told by their teacher there was no space for them but the social worker fought their case) and were consistently meeting with the local government to try to organise running water and rubbish collection to the area. I am hopeful that when projects like this take a holistic approach to their population, poverty cycles can be broken.

 

What are your plans to keep in touch with this project?

I hope to virtually stay involved in the centre and help them when they need activity ideas to suit a child’s development goal. They now call me their ‘online therapist.’

 

Thanks for reading! What has your experience volunteering as an OT student, at home and abroad, been like? Feel free to ask me a question about this project (or just say hi) on SPOTs forum or on Twitter (@orlatheot).

 

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One Comment

  1. Hi orla, I’m in 3rd year OT in NUI Galway. I was just wondering do you have any advice at all about trying to find an ot volunteering experinece? Looking to do soemthing this summer?

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