US State Department’s Community Solutions Programme | Sunday Observer

US State Department’s Community Solutions Programme

Participating in community activities inNepal
Participating in community activities inNepal

What would be the chance of an ordinary browsing, a random check in the internet on your field of work or hobby being a life changing experience? Next to none is the usual answer. Perhaps, it is one in a million. Yet, “it was a life changing experience,” says Dr. Novil Wijesekara, a medical officer at the Disaster Preparedness and Response Division of the Health Ministry. The chance happening not only sharpened his skills and gave him confidence in carrying out his duties, but also helped him discover his life’s mission and set him on the path to achieve it.

And now, he has become an advocate of the opportunity that changed his life, the Community Solutions Program (CSP), one of the educational and cultural exchange programmes sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Dr. Wijesekara encourages others to apply for the same and to hone their leadership and professional skills to provide better service to the community.

Though he stumbled upon the website announcing the fellowship by accident and submitted his application, the selection process and the preparation period is carefully planned, comments Dr. Wijesekara. Before CSP participants are sent to US there is training held in Sri Lanka. The applicant’s field of interest and expertise is matched with a suitable community organisation in the US, which would provide them with a unique knowledge sharing experience for four months. However, prior to their fellowship period with the host organisation is the orientation period in Washington DC, where participants go through more training and get the opportunity to meet CSP alumni from different parts of the world.

Dr. Wijesekara’s interest in disaster preparedness and response had placed him with the World Cares Centre (WCC), a community non-profit organisation in New York. Its Founder, Lisa Orloff, a specialist in volunteer management, had been his host-supervisor for the four months. Much knowledge was gained about volunteer management through this very special experience of working with the WCC, in New York, he explains. Together with the Founder and President of WCC, he had worked in developing a training module on how volunteer management could be taken into other countries. Participation in different training sessions had made him realise how meticulous and planned they are when it comes to volunteers. Though volunteerism comes naturally to Sri Lankans in disaster situations it is taken lightly, neither given its due recognition, nor managed properly resulting in waste of resources, Dr. Wijesekara points out. “I saw how they mastered the art of getting volunteers involved.”

The fellowship mainly being a knowledge sharing opportunity, had provided continuous professional development through an online platform as well. “Every week we had to get onto our online platform and follow the classes,” says Dr. Wijesekara.

Visiting the Nine-Eleven (9/11) Memorial had been his most significant moment at CSP. It had been both solemn and inspiring. It was then, that he realised the gravity of the incident, he comments. “I was inspired by several things, mainly how they have memorialised the event through the 9/11 museum. You don’t get anger or animosity, but sympathy with those affected. There was this staircase preserved and on display, the only staircase which helped people come down. Anyone who had survived would have come down that staircase.”

Then again, another moment of significance had been finding his host-supervisor’s photograph among those of the volunteers at the site. It was an awe-inspiring moment of connection, he reminiscences.

It had been the impact of his experience at the 9/11 Memorial that propelled him towards establishing an information centre and museum at Peraliya, the village where the highest number of deaths occurred from the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, with the toppling of the train. “I realised that though it had been many years, we have not built a museum. So, I contacted the Pacific Tsunami Museum and an expert from Hawaii, and developed the material during the time I was in the US.”

After his return to Sri Lanka, he had shared his experience, knowledge and skills in many forms with Sri Lankans as well as with those in different countries in the region.

“As I was involved in disaster preparedness for my follow on project I selected a tsunami affected community in Mattakkuliya also prone to be affected by floods. I developed a small training module called ‘Colombo Preparing for Emergencies’ and carried out emergency preparedness training for that particular community,” Dr. Wijesekara elaborates. He had also advocated for volunteer management strategies and systems, within the Disaster Preparedness and Response Division and outside. Along with four other alumni, he had carried out training for the Youth Climate Summit for 100 university students from different parts of the country. Together with his host-supervisor, during a two week period he had conducted training in disaster preparedness and volunteer management for different communities and volunteers. Further, as there had been a massive earthquake in Nepal, they had jointly established a volunteer reception centre in the wake of the rescue and rehabilitation efforts. Moreover, sometime later, he had been able to help a fellow CSP Alumni in Nepal conduct an emergency preparedness programme.

All that and more could be achieved as a result of the CSP fellowship, says Dr. Wijesekara. “The programme gave me confidence to carry out my duties,” he explains. He had enjoyed the culture and hospitality of a different people in a different country with total strangers inviting him for Thanksgiving. Most valuable had been the opportunity to interact with many, make connections and network which had helped him become a global citizen.


 COMMUNITY SOLUTIONS PROGRAM (CSP)

CSP is an exchange programme for community leaders between ages 25 to 38, from around the world providing intensive, professional development including a substantive hands-on learning experience in the United States.

Eligibility for CSP 2019/20

= Between the ages of 25-38 as of January 1, 2019

= At least two years of experience working on community development, full-time, part-time or volunteer

= Living and working in their home country

= Proficiency in spoken and written English

Aspects

= Four-month U.S.-based fellowship with a host institute/organisationworking in one of four technical areas: Environmental Issues, Tolerance and Conflict Resolution, Transparency and Accountability, and Women and Gender Issues.

= Continuous professional development through Community Leadership Institute

= Community-based initiatives planned and developed with the support of the host institute and implemented in the home country

= International network of community development professionals

Application for the Community Solutions Program is open till October 31, 2018.

For more information about the program and application details, visit: https://www.irex.org/csp

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