An Adventure in teaching English

On 15 July 2010, after months of preparation, my husband James and I boarded a plane to Indonesia. Having volunteered for overseas service, a request came via the LCA, asking if we would spend a month helping at Elim Orphanage in North Sumatra. They were looking for help with teaching English to the children and staff, and possibly also teaching cooking, sewing, craft and agriculture.

Elim is run by the Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) church of Indonesia, which has approximately four million members. The orphanage is located in the regional city of Pematangsiantar. In this area there is good tolerance between Christians and Muslims, and there are many HKBP churches around the place, but it is not really a tourist destination!

Assisting Reverend Bakara, director of the orphanage, are ten women: one pastor, two Bible women and seven deaconesses. Emmy, the deaconess who looked after us, grew up in Elim Orphanage, and is studying law, as the HKBP church is lacking professional expertise in this field. She is also trying to get sufficient information about each child so they can be issued with identity cards – no easy task! She has been asked to continue teaching the children English until we return, so they do not lose what they have learnt. She asked for our support, and we have agreed to help via email.

The sixty five children range in age from three to twenty three years, but most are in the junior primary to high school range. Many are ‘economic’ orphans, who come from very poor families or have only one parent who would struggle to care for them. There are also tragic stories of abandonment and the like, so each child carries their own scars.

We got used to hearing the calls to prayer starting at 4:30am, then the roosters, followed by the children’s breakfast bell at 5:45am. The children are woken at 5:00am, after which they do their chores, such as girls cleaning the floor of the prayer horse or boys sweeping the extensive lawns. After breakfast, it is off to school for most at 7:00am. The children are spread out between four to five different schools. The six year olds come back at about 10:30am, and the rest at lunchtime. Some of the high school children only leave at 1:00pm and return about 7:00pm. Five of the children who are showing more potential are actually sent to a private school.

School is six days a week. Friday afternoons are for ‘agriculture’ (piggery and chicken shed) and ground duties. Some vegetables are grown but not many survive to the dining table!

Saturday afternoons are free for rest and recreation, including football, and Sundays there is a morning service, followed by rest and relaxation. The worship service could go for nearly two hours (the longest sermon we heard was forty minutes!), so the little ones rarely attend. There could be up to five choirs, seven hymns (only two verses each) and three offerings.

The dormitories are under the charge of a house mother – one each for girls and boys. There can be anything from two to four beds in a room, with one shared cupboard and desk. The children store their worldly goods in one small part of the cupboard. They do not have many – if any – toys, but invent their own entertainment, such as paper jets or strips of paper for money. They each get a small allowance and those who help more with cooking and gardening seem to get a bit extra. There is a small library for those who want to do some study.

Dinner is between 6:30 and 7:00pm. The children, mostly the older girls, prepare the meals under the direction of the cook. They work very hard at that. Each meal is much the same – steamed rice, dried fish, chilli sambal (sometimes) and a green vegetable. We helped serve the food as the children filed past the head table. A child usually says grace and their prayers are considerably longer than ours! From time to time we said grace in English. We also taught them the Lord’s Prayer in English.

No meal is complete without some wonderful singing – they love to sing! After eating, the children was their own plate under a garden tap. Then, depending on the staff rostered on the night, there is devotion and a disciplinary talk for those still awake.

Before answering the call to go to Elim, we networked with previous volunteers, including a group from St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Anchorage, Alaska, who had also been there. We had a bit of an idea of what to expect, but it was still hard preparing classes when we couldn’t assess their knowledge levels. Neither of us are trained teachers, but James has been involved at our local church teaching conversational English to a group of Chinese in our community.

We led classes together (necessary for class control!). James delivered the English grammar and conversation while I worked more on activities for younger children. Resources were difficult to obtain. Fortunately we took a few things with us, although not all were suitable. The Alaskans had also left some crates of books, powdered paints and the like which we were welcome to use. There were still lots of things we would have liked to do but simply did not have the resources.

We conducted five classes a day, working around school times and siestas. At night we needed to do class preparation and adapt our material. We could not rely on handouts, as photocopying was expensive and done off campus. Facilities consisted of a whiteboard and a CD player (from our guesthouse). The classroom was the huge, rather bare, dining room, without any inspirational things on the walls that we could talk about.

At one stage we began to wonder if it was worth the effort, as the children were easily distracted and shy to speak any English, even though they all know some from learning it at school. Class attendance were also variable, but it helped when an adult (staff member) was present. A core group in each class was very keen and would always attend. Even so, with the children’s schedule, the heat, the chores, sometimes they took the opportunity to catch up on some sleep! They enjoyed learning new songs in English, especially the action song Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Tows. I can tell you we were soon in a lather after a couple rounds in that heat! James was determined to teach them all four verses of Waltzing Matilda, which I think was a huge challenge!

We did not get time for skill training in agriculture, cooking or sewing (although we did a bit of simple craft); we simply could not fit it into the program. As far as sewing is concerned, there are about fourteen old treadle sewing machines in the orphanage but only five in working order. We saw a couple of the older girls sewing, but the sewing teacher has left. It would be good to have an activity, such as woodwork or some other craft, for the boys, to allow them all some practical, creative interest.

Office equipment there is also very basic. There are a couple of old computers with old ‘borrowed’ software. The system runs extremely slowly. We thought of donating a software package, but there does not seem to be the technical support required to utilise it, so we just left things as they are.

The offices are sparsely furnished – a few broken cupboards and desks, upright armchairs and coffee tables. The two typewriters are pre-golf-ball! Frequent power outages can also frustrate attempts on the computer. However when we asked what Elim’s greatest need was, we were told ‘education’. We expect that they would like to foster the talen tof a few more children so they can make a difference when they move on. The chores the children are given at Elim are an effort to help them learn to live independently when they leave the orphanage. It costs a total of 125 million rupiah (AU$17,000) a year for each child, including education. The government pays 7,000 rupiah a day per child. There were about 7,000 rupiah to 1 Australian dollar at the time.

On our last Friday in Siantar, we went to the housewarming of a deaconess, complete with worship service and offering. Then came the feast – a whole roasted piglet. Head, intestines and curly tail were served up on a platter. Being amongst honoured guests we were offered the best bits. James had a go but my stomach was a bit delicate that day! The roasted pieces were dipped in pig’s blood gravy and mixed with boiled rice. Another dish offered was goldfish served in turmeric sauce. Both dishes were delicious!

The staff and students were very sad to see us go and are hoping we will come back again soon. It meant a lot to them, not just to have a chance to learn English, but also to know that other people care enough to give them time, resources and prayers. We are keen to return for a similar period this year or the next. We have learnt a lot more than I think they learnt from us but we felt very much as one with them. They are a wonderful group of people and we shall treasure many happy memories of our time with them.

If you would like to consider the opportunity to serve as a volunteer in mission, serving in practical ways, teaching English, teaching in the seminaries and institutions of our partner churches, or in local churches, you are invited to phone Nevin on (08) 8267 7300 or email For more information, go to

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