Emma Schweiger - Care & Community in Cambodia
I am from a small town in Napa, California and I have always loved to travel to new places. This was the summer before my senior year and I had yet to make any plans for the summer. I wanted to do something that would be out of my comfort zone and push me to do something adventurous. The more and more I browsed through the Projects Abroad website the more I fell in love with the idea. Even more so, the High School Specials that are offered were the perfect fit. I remember being amazed by all the different options with places to go and things to do. I knew that I wanted to do Care & Community but I couldn't decide what country to go to. Looking through the different options, Cambodia in particular caught my attention.
Arriving in Cambodia
Stepping off the plane in Cambodia I was nervous but overwhelmingly excited. I was met by a Projects Abroad staff. He got me introduced to the whole programme, in the car on the way to our apartment where we were staying. There were ten high school volunteers including me, which was a very small group. There was only one other girl from America but everyone spoke at least a little bit of English.
The apartment we stayed in was very nice. It had five floors in total, with a kitchen and a small living room at the bottom. This is where we all hung out when we weren’t at the placement. Whether it was talking about our different homes, laughing at each other’s stories, or watching a couple of the guys eat spicy chilies there was never a dull moment during meals.
The food was fantastic which was unexpected because I am a very picky eater. I absolutely loved everything that was cooked and I wish I could go back just so that I can eat the food one more time. My room was on the top floor with a small balcony and a ladder to the roof. Each room had a bathroom as well. I loved just walking out on the balcony and seeing the beautiful Cambodian landscape or looking down at a big field next to the apartment where young boys played soccer in the afternoon.
During the two weeks we worked at one of the nine Khemara day care centres in the Russey Keo district of Phnom Penh. Our job was to landscape the yard surrounding the day care so that we could build garden beds and a playground. There were about 30 children at the day care aged 3 to 6 years old. When we arrived in Tuk Tuk’s on the first day the children peeked around the corner of the door at us shyly but by the end of our two weeks they had to be peeled off of our backs and hands.
On one occasion we brought a bag of bright plastic balls that had been lying around our apartment to give to the kids. Next thing we knew there were pink and yellow plastic balls flying all around the yard. The kids and all the volunteers had a blast and this was our first time bonding with the children.
Even at the peak of monsoon season with really hot weather and high humidity we managed to accomplish everything we wanted. We started by pulling weeds, clearing the trash and ripping out all the bushes. We worked as a team to sand, build and paint both the play structure and the garden beds. There was a day when it started raining in the middle of our work and despite everything we just kept on working. It was so much fun.
Every day was filled with laughter, storytelling, and creating new memories. Working at the Khemara, alongside other volunteers, and the children was one of the best experiences of my life. Along with taking common Tuk Tuk transportation and eating local foods I emerged myself into the history of Cambodia. During the week when we weren't at the placement we took a trip to S-21 and the Killing Fields. Here we learned about the Khmer Rouge and the regime of Pol Pot, which plays a very important part in Cambodia’s past. After a very tough day touring the prison and the Killing Fields I left feeling proud that Cambodia has come so far since the Khmer Rouge and honoured to be a part of this country.
During the weekend we took a trip to Angkor Wat. Spending hours in a car with the other volunteers was one of the best times and a great way to see the more rural parts of Cambodia. When it was time to leave I hoped the day would never come. I loved and still love everything about life in Cambodia. Leaving the children, the country and the other volunteers was the only bad part.
When I got home it was difficult to describe the impact that this experience had on me. My family couldn’t understand my connections with everything about Cambodia, but I am sure that anybody who spends time around the local people will realise what a special place it truly is. Returning to Cambodia is definitely something that I have planned for the near future and I am counting down the days until I am reunited with this amazing country again.
This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.