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Care in Cambodia by Laura Stonehouse

Laura from the UK is applying to be a teacher when she returns from her time in Cambodia. She has been working at the New Hope for Cambodian Children centre (NHCC) in Phnom Penh for two months. Here she tells us about her experience:

Children at the waterpark

There is no such thing as a typical day at NHCC! There are currently two separate houses of children - each with about 15 kids, although there are more arriving every day. We've tended to spend the morning at one house and the afternoon at the other - that way all the kids get to see you every day. At the moment we have been spending our lunch time at the centre as there's an area where the kids aren't allowed - well we have to allow ourselves a wee break from them, adorable as they are.

There is currently no fixed timetable for the children during the day, although this may change when the school term starts and some of the older kids go to school. Lunch is generally between half ten and eleven o'clock (I know this seems early but you get used to it, especially when you're getting up at 7am!). After lunch all the children and the staff, which includes volunteers, have a nap. Nap time can last anything from an hour to two and a half hours - so remember to bring a book into work if you're not keen on middle of the day sleeping (although how could you not be!).

Me doing activities with the kids

Any time apart from naptime and lunch is basically spent doing whatever you want with the kids. Activities which have been successfully tried and tested are: making paper chains, making cards, making masks, making crowns, origami, collages (the kids love magazines like Heat - it's good to see them laughing at ridiculous pictures of Paris Hilton), teaching them the alphabet and basic numbers. The children largely don't speak much English so it's best to have an example of what you're trying to make. The children range widely in both their ages and abilities and, as all the children like to be involved in everything you do, it can be hard to find activities that they can all participate in. Anything crafty is generally a hit - although if you do use cellotape and glue be prepared to have it plastered all over you! If you have a digital camera then definitely bring it - they kids adore having photos taken and will love you forever if you get copies of them printed out as well.

Playing games

Another aspect of what NHCC does involves supporting children out in the provinces who are healthy enough to stay with their parents, providing them with the money to feed them good nutritious food, and life saving drug therapy. NHCC employs field workers who make regular home visits to check on the children's progress and health, and to bring children back to the transitionary house if their health has declined. Volunteers are welcome to go along on these with one of the field workers (ask your supervisor at NHCC to organise a time for them). I personally absolutely adored going out on home-visits but I can understand that some people might find it a bit hard to see how the children that you look after in the centre live when they're at home. The biggest hint I can give you is to be prepared for anything.

Here are some other pointers about home-visits:

  • Some of the children you visit may be scared of you - don't try to force them to come up and hug you or play with you, some of them may have never seen a white person before and I personally look quite scary.
  • Most of the families you visit will offer you something to eat or drink - always accept and at the very least try some, although don't eat them out of house and home - they will always offer more than they can afford to give.
  • Do not take pictures when on home-visits.
  • Be aware that some of the families that you visit may want to keep the fact that they have AIDS a secret - so use some discretion when talking about it with your field worker.
  • You must wear a helmet when going out on home-visits by motorbike, and in the rainy season it's advisable to take a raincoat.
  • Remember the custom of keeping your shoulders and knees covered - you don't want to disrespect people in their own home.
  • Take your shoes off when going into people's homes - no matter how dirty it looks inside.
  • Above all remember not to turn your nose up at anything you encounter when out on home visits - they are certainly an eye-opener but you should feel privileged to be welcomed into people's homes.

Now to the most important thing about NHCC, the children. The kids are amazing! As said before they range widely in ages and abilities (ages from 9 months to 12 years) but none of them like to feel left out. The little ones are adorable, although they need help at lunchtime and when going to the toilet. The older ones can tend to get bored but love being shown how to do new things - we've taught some of the older ones how to play snap. The older kids are also great at helping out with looking after the younger ones. Remember that these kids have probably been treated as outcasts by those in their local community so hugs and kisses will go along way. They love jumping and bouncing on you too - although this can be painful at times!! All the kids have good and bad days, but the bad days aren't ever really that bad - the children will just tend to sleep a lot if they're feeling unwell.

This weekend Projects Abroad are taking all the kids at NHCC to the Phnom Penh Water park, which they are all desperately looking forward to. How we're going to keep them all under control I don't know! As the children spend their days either at the centre or at the hospital the chance for something a bit different to break up their day is always welcome.

One thing which truly deserves comment is the staff at NHCC. Although the care givers (who you'll spend most of your days with) don't speak any English, they are all dead canny and obviously really care for the children. Many (who is a Deputy Director for NHCC and speaks excellent English) has to be one of the nicest women I've ever met and she will do anything for the children. I'd say that she should be your first port of call if you have any problems. In fact saying that, I've yet to meet a Cambodian that I don't like.

Friday is my last day at NHCC and I know that it's going to be so hard to leave the children, I'm getting all choked up just thinking about it. Thankfully the Americans who run NHCC are happy to send you email updates about how things are going. One thing I know for certain is that Cambodia and NHCC has changed my life, now I'm just working out how to save up enough money so I can come back out here. If you enjoy spending time having fun with a group of really amazing children and some inspiring women, then NHCC is definitely the place for you.

Laura Stonehouse

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