Volunteering at Sunshine School in Veuntaen, Laos was truly a special experience. I really wanted to volunteer in Laos and I really wanted to experience the Southeast Asian countryside. I got to experience both here.
The Sunshine School’s main presence is in the capital in Vientiane. But last year they opened a kindergarten in Veuntaen, a village with 120 families about 50km outside the city. The village isn’t in Google Maps, but the green arrow shows where it is using GPS coordinates.
The school is for young children. I was there the first week of school and the ages of the kids were from 2.5-years-old to 6-years-old. The school was started by nuns from Ananda Marga and they focus strongly on instilling the kids with love, purpose, and good values.
I didn’t help much with the young kids. Kids are no longer aliens, but between the language barrier, it being the first week of school, and the pervasive shyness, we thought it was best if I stuck to the older kids in the afternoon.
So during the day I helped out with random tasks around the school. For example, I painted these two doors for the bathroom and shower. I also helped out with some curriculum things for the upcoming school year.
My main task was teaching English in the afternoon to the older kids in the village. We spent about two hours together every afternoon learning English and doing activities – like the origami class in the picture to the left.
I taught English in Peru, but this was a very different experience. The kids in Peru took about a day to lose their shyness with me. The kids here never lost their shyness.
The shyness is pervasive, actually. I had to see it to believe it. The kids were all friends and comfortable with each other, but when it came to speaking in class or anything where attention was placed on them, they were as shy as could be. Some even covered their faces as they read something at the front of the class.
It’s hard to estimate how much of the shyness was genuine and how much was due to my presence. I’ll never know. But it made it quite difficult to teach and get feedback as to whether they understand anything I’m saying.
We did a variety of activities. Below is a picture I drew with my fabulous artistic abilities to illustrate the parts of the body.
Another activity we did was computers. The kids all had an active interest in computers, but they have very little experience using them and using the internet. I worked with the boys and we had a USB modem to access the internet. Not surprisingly, they were interested in sports.
The other teacher said that the internet was a tool to let you be anywhere in the world you want to be – to learn about anything. So the first thing the boys wanted to google was Portuguese Football. Though I have no interest, it was wonderful to see their faces light up with excitement.
In reality, the school is more like a community center. There is a playground for kids to use and every night I was there, even when it was raining hard, the older kids always came back to hang out, talk, and have fun. It was just good, wholesome fun. “Quality time” as a friend of mine from college would say.
Even though they had limited English and I speak no Lao, we still found ways to communicate and have fun. And even though we all had already eaten normally, we usually still ate a bit at night – sometimes the kids even prepared a meal. Just wonderful.
My time here was short and, objectively, my impact on the kids’ English was minimal. It’s another case where I learned and gained much more than I gave. More of that will be shared in my post about rural life in Laos. Someday all I’ve gained will be paid back, but until then I remain in debt.
But I know the kids enjoyed interacting with me. We had fun and it was a big departure from the normal village routine. There’s a lot of heart in the village, and we let ours communicate. Sometimes a common language isn’t all that important.