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Priscilla Owusu - PRO Occupational Therapy in Samoa

Volunteering abroad

After successfully completing my degree and qualifying as an occupational therapist (OT) in June 2014, I decided that I needed a break after a grueling three years of study. This was a tough decision as the majority of my friends decided to seek employment straight away, and I wondered if I was doing the right thing to take some time out. However, I decided to go with my gut instinct and take a break to do something worthwhile.

I did some research online and eventually came across the Projects Abroad website. The name sounded familiar and I realized that one of my friends had previously worked for Projects Abroad in Peru and she said they were a great organization to work for, so I was sold. There were lots of opportunities on the website; however, the Projects for Professionals section seemed to be a perfect fit as a new graduate. It took a while to decide which country I wanted to volunteer in, but I eventually decided to choose Samoa. One of the main reasons was because it was the furthest destination away from the UK and I believed that as a developing country, it was unlikely that many people would have a huge awareness of occupational therapy. I also saw it as an opportunity to do something challenging and so far out of my comfort zone.

Arriving in Samoa

I decided to volunteer for eight weeks as I thought that it was just the right length of time. My volunteer advisor, Christina was brilliant in helping me prepare for the trip, providing all the information I needed about the country, and asking where my OT experience was in order to decide upon the most appropriate placements for my trip.

I arrived at Faleolo Airport late evening and was greeted happily by Katy (Country Director) with a Projects Abroad sign and then driven to my accommodation, a host family in Moamoa, which was about an hour away from the airport. I was met with a warm welcome from my host family and had a meal and drinks waiting for me, which was lovely and made me feel at home straight away.

Volunteering in Samoa

Samoa

I divided my time in Samoa between two placements; however, my time was mainly spent at the Goshen Trust, a facility which provides a service that supports adults with mental health problems and their families. My second placement was at a school called Loto Taumafai in which I worked with the Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR) team visiting children with physical and intellectual disabilities who are unable to attend the school.

At the Goshen Trust clients or service users are referred to as 'consumers' which took at bit of getting used to. I was given the responsibility of devising my own programs and treatment plans in collaboration with consumers and staff to increase their engagement in activities. Working as a group the consumers were able to participate in several activities such as making and decorating cards, horticulture, making Christmas decorations, creative arts and playing a friendly but competitive game of skittles. The consumers also participated in workshops with the aim of educating them about Occupational Therapy and discussing their own past, present and future goals.

As an occupational therapist one of the main aims of working with clients is to find out which activities are the most meaningful to them, and use these activities to develop interventions. At the Goshen Trust the consumers are very passionate about creative arts with many drawings and paintings they have done displayed around the facility. Therefore, I encouraged the consumers to design a mural for the Goshen Trust. The consumers were provided with white cotton material, paints and paintbrushes, and each of them were asked to paint something on the mural that was meaningful or important to them. It proved to be a worthwhile activity as the consumers produced a beautiful mural which they were able to hang up and display proudly.

Free time in Samoa

At Loto Taumafai, I assisted the CBR team with the running of their parent and child groups. A lot of the children that we visited had Cerebral Palsy (CP) and the team asked me questions of which activities and exercises were appropriate for engaging children with this type of condition. I found this a bit daunting as I had never worked with children before, which is one of the reasons I wanted the opportunity to gain more experience in this field. Therefore, I found that I learned so much from the team at Loto Taumafai and about conditions such as CP.

The team and their work are hugely valued amongst the children and families that they visit across Samoa. One of the many highlights of being at Loto Taumafai was witnessing the annual prize-giving where the students are rewarded for their hard work over the school year. It was wonderful to see the students rewarded in this way and the pride that the teachers and their families had for all of their efforts. Loto Taumafai is expanding and building work is currently under-way for a new school, which is brilliant.

Occupational Therapy in Samoa

As an occupational therapist I have developed my skills in how to be flexible and adaptable in an environment where there is a lack of resources. I have also learned that when volunteering in a country where English is limited, picking up on non-verbal and visual cues to describe and demonstrate how to do an activity is essential. One of the most important traits to have in this environment is patience. Eight weeks of volunteering sounds like a reasonable length of time, however, the time just flies by and I have learnt that you can only do so much in such a limited amount of time and to embrace the small changes that can be made and try not to get frustrated with what may seem like small scale progress.

As I spent the majority of time at the Goshen Trust I was able to develop a good rapport with the consumers and introduce some new ideas that the staff are hopefully able to continue in the future. There is a huge amount of potential for this organization to develop and progress into something amazing. The consumers are incredibly enthusiastic and motivated when they are engaged in activities that are interesting, stimulating and truly meaningful. However, there is a desperate need for funding and professional training for staff in mental health issues in order for the organization to reach its potential.

Living in Samoa

Volunteering in Samoa

Samoa is a wonderful country and the Samoan people are amongst the friendliest that you could possibly meet. They are very keen to learn about foreign people and their culture. They are also very open about discussing their own culture and encouraging people to become immersed in Samoan life. Samoa has a very relaxed lifestyle and people are very happy and laid back.

On weekends I was able to travel around Samoa with my fellow volunteers visiting beautiful places such as Lalomanu beach, Manono Island, Papase'ea sliding rocks, To Sua Ocean Trench and Manase beach. The capital city of Apia is vibrant and lively with its buzzing markets and wide array of places to eat. I would also recommend taking one of the colorful buses from the bus station in Apia as they are a lot of fun. Katy and Faleolo (Project Coordinator) always organized a weekly social for the volunteers to get together, which gave us all a chance to get to know each other better and provided lots of laughter and fun.

I was fortunate enough to be able to live with two host families during my time in Samoa, and I will always be grateful for the kindness and hospitality that they showed me during my stay. The families always ensured that I had everything I needed and would go out of their way to provide anything that I didn't have. I was treated as one of the family and I learned just how important family is to Samoan people. Samoan families are always so supportive of each other and I take comfort in knowing that I will always have a place to stay when I eventually return to Samoa.

Being back in the UK was a bit of a culture shock, but I will always treasure the time I had in Samoa and I will value the life experience that it has given me.

Read more about PRO Occupational Therapy in Samoa

Priscilla Owusu

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