Volunteering at New Futures Organisation – Cambodia

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Today we have Sarah Harris from New Zealand talking about her volunteering experiences at New Futures Organisation in Cambodia. This was Sarah's second volunteering experience, she also volunteered at an animal shelter in Indonesia. If you want to read an accurate account of what it costs, what it's like and what she learned during her time volunteering – you've come to the right place:

Where did you volunteer? 

I volunteered at New Futures Organisation in Takeo, Cambodia. It’s an organisation that is primarily an orphanage however they also help other rural schools in the area.

How long did you spend there and how much did it cost to volunteer there?

I spent about three weeks there although I would’ve loved to have spent more time. Takeo was the vibrant personal experience I had been looking for.

Volunteering life was probably my cheapest time while traveling. I stayed at the NFO centre where a shared room was $7 USD a night ($3.50 each). Bike rental was $1/day and dinner was $3. I bought food from the market for my other meals and apart from teaching supplies (pens, paper etc) and a donated bag of rice to the orphanage ($24 for heeeaps of rice) I didn’t spend much else. So I was probably living on about $10/day. Crazy considering it was one of my most enriching experiences.

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What did you learn from your experience?

The volunteer experience was fabulous. Cambodians are very warm people, despite their recent history and current poverty. When we cycled to and from our rural school mobs of dirty, naked children would rush out onto the road screaming "HELLLOOOOO!!!!!! WHAT'S YOUR NAME????!!" pelting high 5s at us. I think this is the closest feeling to fame I will ever experience. 

I taught a daily lesson at the rural school, Little Po, where 200 kids and the most enthusiast school teacher dwell. Transitioning into a teacher overnight was quite the learning curve. The kids know very basic English: what’s your name, age, how are you, do you have a boy/girlfriend and some random vocab. We knew no Khmer so teaching was done through example, games, songs and loooots of colourful worksheets. We got pretty good at creating teacher resources.

It was our mission to get them to understand the concept of "What are you wearing?" then "I am wearing a blue t-shirt and red shorts". It sounds simple but they were oblivious to our rules of grammar (I think Khmer is quite loosely structured). They'd respond with sentences like "I wear blue and shorts" when what they had to say was on the board! So yes challenging, I felt we made progress however I think I got more out of the experience than they did. 

Despite my enjoyment I didn't really feel like I was making a difference to these kids lives. They were all from a very poor rural village; most of them had just one or two sets of clothes. The likelihood that they will need English in their lives is quite low. Maybe a few exceptional students who could qualify for a scholarship to go to uni to be a doctor/tourist guide benefit, but most of them will end up working in the rice fields like their families. The schools are set up by an international charity on the premise that they teach English. Which is ridiculous because it means these children aren't exposed to math, science or khmer until (or more like IF) they get to high school. Essentially I felt teaching English had very little practical relevance to their lives. I would prefer to teach something more pragmatic.

 

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It was fascinating to observe how a collectivist mindset influences everyday behaviour. For example there was very little concept of possession, this extended to their work which was frustrating for us as they learn little when they copy each other. When we gave them a test they didn't get that it was cheating if you looked at somebody else's work.

I think in a rural community having a collective knowledge works relatively well, if someone needs to know something they go to the person who has the information. Not everyone needs to know everything for him or herself. I don't think it's bad, just different, I printed off some photos of students and the classes and gave them to the schoolmaster (Tim). There weren't enough photos for all 200 kids so I didn't want to give them to the students and make others feel left out. Tim gave them out willy nilly to the kids, they were so happy to receive them, but those who didn't get any were just fine! There was no western lauding over one another or squabbling, i didn't see grabbing or anyone yelling 'mine, mine!' like I would expect from kids back home. How they take care of one another was obvious in society where the elderly and disabled were not hidden but had their own roles and agendas, just as much a part of the community as the young and able-bodied.

As a side note I am super happy with my new bike riding skills. It was 7km from the volunteer's centre, where we stayed, to Little Po our school. Half of that was a paved road, the other half (through the village) a mix of red dust, rocks and sand. We had to ride in the middle of the day when the sun was highest which was always a struggle, then back when the light was golden and turned everything to magic. The village was framed with lush green rice paddies, mud ponds, wallowing buffalo, white jointy cows and flocks of ducks. I learnt how to cycle with my eyes shut when a big truck zooms past and stirs up all the dust, how to use one hand to steer and one hand to wave, then finally match the High 5s from the tribes of children as I zip past. Totally a case of the little things in life.

 

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What was a typical day like?

I’d typically wake up about 9am spend the morning going to the market, reading, preparing teacher resources and trying to stay out of the blimmin hot sun. Then about 1pm we’d set off on our 7km cycle ride to Little Po. We’d get there at 1.30ish, absolutely saturated in sweat, which would prompt a mob of kids to fan us with their exercise books. Then the 200 kids chorus songs, chants and silly dances with us up the front before we take away our group of about 20 for our lesson. My friend, Beth, and me shared one class, which was rad! We taught for about an hour, have an iced coffee break with the other teachers then teach for another 45minutes before assembling back for more singing, then the lush bike ride home. Once back we’d either chill, meet others for a beer at lakeside or quickly nip to the market before dinner. Dinner would always be at the Volunteer’s centre then after dinner we’d all slouch around on the huge cocoon of a balcony upstairs.

What are the best things about your experience?

The camaraderie with other volunteers is, of course, the bee’s knees. We had a fabulous diverse and dynamic group. When you go out of your comfort zone and try new things and then share that with others who are experiencing similar things it puts you in a great space to connect.

Having the time and space to have a routine and adopt a semi-Cambodian life style was the best. When you’re always on the move you begin to miss the simplicities of life: waking up in the same bed, not having to continually pack your bag, cooking for yourself, making friends that you’ll see for more than a few days. I was so ready to slow down and embrace what was around me when I got there. I think that’s where the personal growth comes from too. Spending enough time somewhere that it makes an impression on you, that you begin to change your ways to fit in with it rather than forcing your way upon it. Weird things like finally giving up toilet paper and sacrificing yourself to the bum gun (high pressure hose in toilets). It feels kinda “dirty” at first as that’s not what you know but hey it’s practical for that lifestyle and then after a while it becomes convenient and you don’t know how you ever lived without one!

 

Thanks so much to Sarah for sharing her incredible experience and lovely photos. If you're interested in volunteering in Cambodia, check out New Future Organisation's website for more information. 

You can also read other posts about volunteering in Cambodia: 

Volunteering in Cambodia at Youth Star 

Volunteering in Cambodia with children 

 


One response to “Volunteering at New Futures Organisation – Cambodia”

  1. Great post! I think you are right in saying that a lot of kids will end up working as farmers, but being able to learn English at least opens up other opportunities for them. Education is a way out of poverty, so don't underestimate how important your work was Sarah!