On September 24th 2015, our service group Prison Outreach visited the women’s ward of the Welikada Prison for the first time. We prepared a few activities for this first visit, where we would see the children living with their mothers. Ariana and I prepared coloring pages and coloring pencils and markers for the children. I think our first visit as a group really allowed us to see who we were helping and the conditions they lived in. As a group this exposure was crucial, especially as a new service. Unfortunately, I can only document the visit in words because bringing in cameras/recording devices wasn’t allowed. Approving the first visit wasn’t easy; we had to get our parent’s permission and the prison’s permission, which was a process that took about one or two weeks.
Upon arriving at the prison, I was a little bit anxious; I wasn’t sure what to expect, only what our service teacher supervisor had said. There were a lot of precautions to take before entering: they had to make sure we were dressed appropriately and they conducted a body check. While waiting we also saw the many visitors, and the atmosphere was a little hectic.
However, when we finally approached the children at their daycare within the prison, they shouted, “They’re coming!” and greeted us. Any nervousness I had beforehand was gone; the children were so welcoming and so were their mothers, who were telling the children to meet us. Working with the children afterwards and coloring was a delight! It made us truly feel like we shared something new with them, especially because they were so excited. Some mothers were a little protective of their children, but I think with more visits we can slowly break that wall between us. The children were of varying ages and some were more shy than others, yet some of them opened up when they saw how fun it was to draw and read stories together. I found it difficult to communicate with them in Sinhala… but it didn’t stop me from trying anyways (telling the kids that their coloring was “lassana”/pretty in Sinhala repeatedly). In the end I attempted to be very expressive and engaging with the children with gestures. When we left, the mothers are children all gathered outside to bid us farewell with warm smiles and waves.
In the bus, the whole service group reflected on the visit which was extremely helpful; I found out that other people shared my feelings and it brought us closer. Teaching the children was also a personal learning experience. I could figure out certain phrases in Sinhala to praise the children and I learned a new style of interacting with children, without words. My childhood is from theirs. I knew with this visit I can finally make a difference. I can emotionally connect to children who don’t share the luxuries I have in my life. I understand now that this is something I want to commit myself to, because I empathized with these children on another level. Even though I was enjoying myself and so were the children, afterwards I realized they do not get to enjoy that experience daily whereas I did when I was a child. That only strengthened my determination to help them in every way possible through this service.
In fostering that relationship, I can’t wait to learn more about the children and possibly their mothers with following visits. Balancing between creative and physical activities allows every visit to be unique, not only for us but for the children. Now that we have seen the conditions, we know that they are in need of cleaning supplies and perhaps a makeover of their surroundings. We decided to paint the interior of their classroom after the October break. We were coloring in the classroom, and it was a little gloomy and in need of a paint job. Instead of painting it a plain color we planned to make a small mural, which would mean we can get other artists from our school involved in the designing process. This would also create more meaning to our contribution and raise awareness within our school’s community.
In our next visit, we are planning to bring in gifts for the children’s hygiene and diet and play outdoor games with them. I hope the children are as excited to see us as they were before, because I can’t wait to see them again.