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John and Sarah Turosak – Care in Cambodia

Volunteering in Cambodia

My wife Sarah and I, who are in our early 50s, had a great experience in our initial 1-month placement with the Building Project in South Africa. Midway through our South Africa project, we were ready to commit to a second volunteer adventure with Projects Abroad in Siem Reap, Cambodia. We spent two weeks in Cambodia, but the impression it made will last a lifetime.

We loved doing the building work in South Africa, and we were tempted to do it again. For the sake of variety, we decided to work on a Care project in Cambodia. We were influenced by the wonderful children that we met in South Africa, who made the work so fun and rewarding. Sarah was excited to use her Social Work degrees at the orphanage.

Projects Abroad has several care placements available in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. We chose Siem Reap because it is a smaller city, with a population under 200,000 and a relaxed vibe. Siem Reap is also less than 5 miles from many fascinating Cambodian temples. This includes the famous Angkor Wat, the extensive Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm, which is filled with twisted trees and was featured in the movie “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.”

The Care Project

In the classroom

Our Care project was at the KSEDO orphanage, located less than a mile from the Projects Abroad villa in Siem Reap and 2 miles from the town centre. There are 30 kids in the 5 – 17 age range, seven of whom are true orphans with no parents. The rest have one parent. Two thirds of the kids have at least one sibling at KSEDO, so they have that support system. Most kids come from villages in one of the rural provinces near the border with Thailand.

The kids with one parent often have other family problems. The remaining parent may be ill, in prison, abusive, or unable to afford children with their limited income. Living at the orphanage helps some of the kids avoid a possible alternative of being sold into the child sex trade or another unpleasant scenario. Some of the children get to see their surviving parent once a year. We got the impression that the children are chosen selectively by KSEDO, in conjunction with the community leaders in their home villages. These are multi-talented, high potential kids.

The Director of KSEDO is the wise and amiable Ms. Sophorn, who plays a critical role. Projects Abroad provides volunteer labour and organisational skills to KSEDO, and will allocate funds for specific projects upon request. Otherwise, the funding comes largely from private donors, which can include former volunteers. Ms. Sophorn mentioned that KSEDO’s largest funding source was discontinued a couple of months before we arrived, so the orphanage had to be moved into a more rustic property to save money on the monthly rent. The KSEDO kids were still adapting to their new space as our placement started.

Our Day-to-Day Work

Care in Cambodia

Our Projects Abroad volunteer team of four included ourselves and two younger women (19 – 20) from France. Megane had been at KSEDO for about 2 months, while Flora started the day before we did. Thirty kids are a lot to handle in a single group. So Ms. Sophorn suggested that Megane and Flora focus more on the younger kids (5 – 10), while Sarah and I spent a little more time with the older children (11 – 17). That worked out nicely. There were still plenty of full group activities, and we got to know all of the kids really well.

The project work turned out to be a little bit different than we expected, but in a good way. It also involved some teaching work and there is probably always some overlap in these two activities. Despite their difficult backgrounds, the kids at the orphanage are pretty healthy. In fact, they are quite athletic and active. We were immediately impressed with the kids. They are bright, friendly, smiling and very polite.

What the kids need most is love and companionship, and to learn more English language skills. As was true in South Africa, they are pretty open about sharing their affection with you.

The boys seemed to really appreciate having an adult male volunteer around, since most of the volunteers on care projects are female. We played a lot of sports. The boys were already great at football and volleyball, the main sport in Cambodia. I also taught them kickball, crab soccer, croquet, arm wrestling, bowling and baseball.

Playing football

Due to the move and the Khmer New Year holiday, the kids weren’t in school while we were there. This gave us more of an opportunity to do some teaching. Rather than focusing on English using flash cards, which we knew many other volunteers had done before, we mixed things up by using geography as the basis for interaction.

We brought to Cambodia a huge laminated world map, as well as currency and coins that we’ve collected from a lifetime of world travels. On our first day at the orphanage, we had each child pick a coin or note and then find the corresponding country on the map. All 30 kids gathered around the map on the floor. The kids had a great time. We had daily geography lessons with the older children. We picked ten countries in each continent, and taught the kids the capitals and population. We kept the learning fun by doing straight teaching for a while, then reinforcing the lessons by using the whiteboard to play games of “Hangman”. The kids had a great time, and some of them are really good at geography. They learned some new English indirectly, and we kept them engaged.

Ceremony with the monks

The girls enjoy playing “Pick Up Sticks” and a version of bingo. They loved to apply make-up, create artwork and hang out with Sarah, Megane and Flora. But the favourite passion of the girls and boys is traditional apsara dancing. The kids take dance lessons, provided by an instructor 4 days per week. Most of the movements are slow and elegant, with curved hand motions and graceful half-bows. The choreography and synchronisation are excellent. We were blown away by their talent. The kids are so good that they were invited to give a public performance at the Sofitel Hotel. That afternoon, Sarah helped the girls apply make-up. The costumes and dancing were amazing, and the audience was wowed. We were proud to be associated with KSEDO.

On our last day, we filmed the kids singing “Hail to the Redskins,” as we did in South Africa. They gave the expected masterful performance. When we left later, they sang it to us again as we rode off in our tuk tuk!

Our Accommodations and Social Activities

We stayed in an attractive group villa. There is a huge front patio with mango trees and a hammock, and a large second floor balcony. It is dorm style living, with 1 – 4 people per room, so the degree of privacy depends on how many other volunteers are there. Our cook Samea prepared plentiful meals for lunch and dinner, with three main courses. Most of the other volunteers were younger, and a 50-ish Australian teacher came just before we left.

Cambodia volunteering

Bunroen and Rey, our Projects Abroad Staff, were attentive to our needs and arranged a couple of special events. Three Buddhist monks came over to bless the villa, which is a Khmer New Year tradition. There was much praying, chanting, and tossing of flower petals. The monks had a sense of humour. They didn’t mind when a neighbour took a cell phone call in the middle of the ceremony. Rey also accompanied me to some fun Khmer New Year festivities at the nearby temples, which included dancing, stage performances and a Cambodian version of hacky-sack.

Reflections on Our Experience in Cambodia

When you volunteer for a short time, you need to believe in the power of the ripple effect. We do. Combined with the efforts of other like-minded volunteers, you can make a difference. The KSEDO kids may forget the specific geography lessons. But if one or two kids are stimulated by tales of the broader world around them, who knows, perhaps they will be more inclined to apply to universities abroad someday or pursue a career that bridges gaps among nations. Maybe they will encourage their friends to do the same, and extend the cross-cultural exchange.

It helps to be flexible, and adapt to the current needs at any placement organisation. We considered ourselves to be part of the KSEDO transition team. In addition to teaching and sports, we helped Ms. Sophorn choose and install Internet service. We also advocated, planned for and helped in building three new walls with wood planks in the previously unprotected sleeping area. You may need to be proactive about defining your exact role. It is unlikely that you will get step-by-step instructions on how you should spend each hour of the day. That can be a good thing for volunteers who have a variety of life skills. You can help determine where you can make the most difference.

John Turosak

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