Wedding bells for two volunteers who met in Sri Lanka
Beth and Jo volunteered in Sri Lanka together as occupational therapists. They became great friends, and then fell in love when they returned. Five years later, they decided to tie the knot.
A chance meeting
Beth and Jo were not looking for love when they met one another at Heathrow airport in January 2012. The pair were travelling out to Sri Lanka to volunteer as occupational therapists for the next year, working in mental health. Little did they know in five years’ time they’d be saying “I do”.
“We got on well straight away,” says Beth.
However, they were quickly separated: Jo went to Jaffna, in the north of Sri Lanka, to work at Tellippalai Hospital. There she was working to set up an occupational therapy department and train unskilled staff in occupational therapy.
Meanwhile, Beth stayed in Colombo and began work at the National Institute for Mental Health a thousand-bedded psychiatric unit in Colombo. She was also at the University of Kelaniya, supporting a newly developed degree upgrade programme for existing occupational therapists trained to diploma level.
Jo and Beth stayed friends throughout, frequently making the bumpy 8-hour journey to see one another. But, before long, it was time to come home.
Beth ended the trip on a high, organising a conference focused on mental health, with some of the occupational therapists she’d been working with speaking at the event.
“I was thrilled to get feedback from local staff about how much it had helped in improving their confidence as individual clinicians and also in raising the profile of the profession.”
By the end, Jo had also made progress, having trained staff and setup an occupational therapy room. “I felt that there had been a significant change in the way that the support staff worked, they knew more about mental health and an awareness of the impact of illness on the people they were working with.”
Home is where the heart is
Jo and Beth flew home together as good friends - it wasn’t until later that love blossomed.
However, returning home wasn’t easy. “We had to get back to work quite quickly which was quite an adjustment. I was in Brighton, and Jo was in London,” Beth said.
“Then we met up a month or two after we got back, we talked about whether we wanted to continue being friends or something more, and the relationship developed at that point.
“Jo moved down to Brighton a year after that, and then we bought a place together a couple of years ago. Then we decided to return to Sri Lanka for a holiday.”
Revisiting Sri Lanka
The pair returned to Sri Lanka last February on holiday, visiting where they’d volunteered.
When Jo returned to Jaffna, she received a very warm welcome. “It was really wonderful going back. Everyone was really keen to show me all the work that they were still doing and the new activities that they had set up!
“I felt really pleased to see how the occupational therapy room had progressed and all the work that was being done by the staff.”
While in Sri Lanka, Jo decided to pop the question.
“Jo proposed on the beach at Unawatuna - a beautiful spot in the south of the country where we share some happy memories of our time in Sri Lanka.” Beth said.
An unconventional wedding
“Our reservations about getting married were that neither of us wanted the big traditional wedding. We didn’t want a wedding that was hugely expensive, or where we spent years building up to it. We decided that if we were going to do it we'd like to do it this year.”
So, last September, seven months after getting engaged, the couple took the plunge.
Beth and Jo chose a Sri Lankan theme for their UK-based wedding, serving a buffet of Sri Lankan curry and both wore saris for the occasion. Even the weather was similar to Sri Lanka!
“There was a bit of a monsoon-style downpour just as we were beginning, but it did calm down and the sun came out just as we got married. We were quite lucky with the weather.”
But the style of the ceremony wasn’t the only break with tradition. Instead of gifts at the wedding, they asked for donations to VSO and three other charities.
“We knew we wanted to pick VSO because of its significance in our lives, and to keep supporting what VSO do.”
The couple have now settled into married life, and are nine months into their marriage. It’s true that volunteering can take your life in unpredictable directions - for Beth and Jo, they ended up falling in love.