Thoughts From A Volunteer

     I had the pleasure and privilege to visit Sarnelli House for a little under two weeks at the end of March 2011.  I travelled with seasoned volunteers Linsey and Andy from the UK and was both grateful to have their guidance yet wary lest I be unable to feel at home where they had flourished.  In the end, my fears were unfounded.  I was welcomed with open arms by the children and the staff and made to feel at home for my entire stay.

     However trite and clichéd it is to proclaim that such-and-such a place or person has changed how you look at life or what a profound impact an event has had on your outlook, I have no hesitation in saying that my trip to Sarnelli House rests among the handful of highlights of my 38 years on this green earth.  I met wonderful people with such a great attitude to life, I dropped into a much more simple way of life and most of all, I had my heart stolen by over one hundred inspiring children.  It was life-affirming and energising, joyous and rewarding.

     From the moment Linsey and I were surrounded and set upon by Boy Lek, Auhn and Ket upon our early morning arrival to the truly emotional farewell on our last day, I loved being at Sarnelli.  Perhaps it was the sense of unashamed ‘goodness’ that I saw there.  Each day, before I knew it, my hands were full of happy, affectionate kids.  Children I had never met quietly took my hand and stood with me, led me to play or dragged me off on an adventure or to do some colouring.  I made what I hope will be long lasting friendships with the marvellous and inspirational Kate Introna and Fr. Mike and started a journey of support and love with many of the kids, from the tots in House of Hope to the older and wiser residents at Nazareth, Sarnelli and Jan & Oscar.  I talked, joked, swam, cycled, taught and learned, shopped, coloured, jigged, chased, posed, hugged, lifted, swung, laughed, stood open-mouthed in admiration and wished it didn’t have to end.  I picked up a nickname and even learned some Thai.  I got to meet Fa, a sweet, intelligent and shy 16-year old who I had been sponsoring for the previous few years.  Her English was sketchy, my Thai non existent so we stood there, like two awkward teenagers, tongue-tied by our embarrassing inability to communicate.  But over my visit, we got to know each other better, I learned more about her hobbies, interests and hopes and miss her now that I’m home.  I look forward to meeting her again and hearing how she’s getting on.  I left with the interests of other kids in my heart.  How will I manage without Boy Lek’s mischief, Ket’s manic laugh, Nook’s sassy personality, Puerk’s hugs, Joy’s smile? And most of all, how much I miss little Tokyo with her resilience, fierce intelligence and strength.  I think about them every day, my sadness at not being with them mollified by looking at their happy faces in the hundreds of pictures I have and counting down the days until my next visit.

      I felt that I may have made a mistake in reading the children’s profiles within a day of arriving.  I thought that it might allow me to get to know their names and that their stories would equip me with some form of empathy but instead, I was bowled over by how sad and distressing some of their short lives have been.  My heart sank at the misfortune, grimness and cruelty of their experiences.  The feeling didn’t last long however and naturally it was the children themselves who rescued me as their boundless happiness, infectious energy and the dynamic nature of their daily lives soon allayed my fears.  But nonetheless, I feel it was important to frame their lives and personalities with their stories.  So happy and healthy are the children that it is easy to forget how lucky they are to have found Sarnelli and how it has changed their lives.  And knowing that they are in such good hands, eat well and are cared for medically reminds us how much we as a world owe people like Fr Mike, Kate and the house mums.  But most of all, witnessing how the children enjoy each day with a vigour and enthusiasm is something that we could all do well to emulate.  The simplicity of the needs of the children – love, time and attention – impressed me greatly.  Go see for yourself.  It will impress you too.

Brian O’Riordan