If someone would tell me before leaving on this trip that I would spend almost 2 full weeks with a group of older American volunteers (the oldest was 77-yup, you read it correctly), I would probably laugh out loud and say “No way”. But it is exactly what happened!
It turned out that I arrived in Siem Reap at pretty much the same time as my cousin with her group of volunteers from California, people who for years have supported this non-profit organization in many ways. They donate money to built water wells to bring clean water to many families, to built toilets for the poorest families, to sponsor children with scholarships, just to name a few. So volunteering in Cambodia is an amazing opportunity for them to get to see the results of their donations, meet families whose lives they improved, hug the children whose education they support. Yes, volunteering and charity is in the blood of many Americans.
As my cousin lives in San Francisco and I rarely have a chance to spend enough quality time with her, the decision to spend some days with her and the group was rather an easy one, even though those who know me well, also know it is practically impossible to persuade me to go on a group trip. But when I found out that one gentleman was planning a photography workshop with a class of students during their English lessons, I was in. I didn’t need another word of persuasion. So I started getting up quite early every morning (around 6:30 am; so much about my lazy-3 months-doing-nothing-break), to go to the village schools close to Siem Reap.
It was an amazing experience, because in the first 2 weeks I had a crash course in volunteering. I not only got a chance to learn about short and long term volunteering, I also got a chance to learn about more and more popular idea of volunt-tourism, as they call it.
One of the things that amazed me mostwas the amount of donated stuff those “senior guys” brought from the US. They all travelled with their carry-ons only and brought each like 45 kilos (100 lbs) of various clothes and schools supplies for children and families. All together probably about half a ton of stuff. They brought LEGOs, they brought art material, crayons, paper for collages, cameras and older iphones for photography class, books for the library, balls, scissors glues… you name it, they had it in their bags. Not to mention bags of clothes and toiletries. For babies, children, adults. It made me think. No middle men, no organizations in between, nothing. Directly from people to people! The highest form of recycling!
In the first days after my arrival and meeting the other 2 girls, volunteering for CCDO for +/-6 months I though that short term volunteering can’t really contribute to a lasting change, can’t really make a difference, but of course I was wrong. Because those kids have nothing. Literally nothing, but the clothes on their backs. And the local teachers during their education process (many start teaching after finishing only high school – can you imagine???) haven’t learnt any interesting, let alone fun ways of teaching and interacting with kids. And they don’t have puzzles that kids would play with. They don’t have the fun cards that would help kids learn English as foreign language and on and on I could go. So what we did, we spiced up lives of many kids for two weeks with simple things like showing them how to draw things, how to do collages, how to take photos, how to play with puzzles, how to throw a ball, what team play means… Many of american volunteers trained teachers working for CCDO in new and fun ways of teaching, be it teaching English, computer or sports. And this taught me another key lesson about volunteering: Don’t volunteer doing manual work like painting or similar, because this is what local people can do. Come and volunteer by sharing your knowledge to improve the skills of local people, for them to learn, to improve and incorporate new skills into their lives to be able to share it with their peers or younger generations.
It is similar to the “Give man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him how to fish and you feed him for life”.
I learned we all poses skills that are needed somewhere. If me, still learning how to take good photos, can teach photography and become CCDO’s almost official photographer for a week, then trust me, we all have skills that are needed somewhere out there. And very much appreciated.
So this is what I have done in the past 2 weeks; I developed a photography workshop on the spot, taught some basic English, helped the budding photographers write their short English essays about their photos, prepared a photography exhibition of the photos taken by kids. None of them ever before held a smart phone or a camera in their hands, but they all did an amazing job! I was also taking photos for CCDO for their website and archives (those will need to be sorted out this week and edited), taught sports teachers and kids new sports games and played bare foot with them (this was probably one of the highlights of my stay), played LEGOs, showed kids for the first time how to do basic puzzles, tried to remember some of my long ago acquired drawing skills to share with the kids, organized various activities for a class of 45 small children and tried to make sure they all had fun doing something new,…. Even though, as per my opinion, I don’t really have the strongest ability to interact with kids.. it was soooo easy. And fun! Because they are so simple, so pure, so unspoiled, so grateful, so shy and so happy with just getting a plain piece of paper and someone showing them how to draw a house.
So you can imagine…. It was a hell of busy two weeks. And as you can see, no soccer training at the end. Would be a waste of time anyway, and not the right fit.