Julie Evans - General Care Projects in Cambodia
Choosing to volunteer
When my sister and her family moved to Bangkok, I wanted to share their adventure by seeing a little of South East Asia and fulfilling a long-held ambition of doing voluntary work with children. As I am older than the usual volunteer and mid-career, my idea raised eyebrows – did I really think I could cope with changing nappies and tropical spiders? It took me a long time to make the decision to go but, as it turned out, that was the most difficult part of the process. I had a very happy experience in Cambodia (and didn’t see any spiders).
My Care project
I was in an orphanage for disabled children, which I found daunting at first. The National Borei for Infants and Children looks after children with mental and physical disabilities and HIV, from babies to teenagers. I worked in a room with about 20 children, managed by two Cambodian ‘Mamas’, with 6 or 7 other volunteers. The children initially seemed unresponsive but when I took them for a walk in a wheelchair or picked them up I realised that they were laughing and enjoying the interaction. Not all of them were in wheelchairs and many were busy running around like other children.
The first session of the day was in the playroom, with all the children forming a circle. The staff and volunteers would sing songs and act out stories – that was the most fun part of the day and the children enjoyed it. We tried to give each child individual attention every day, taking them for walks along the veranda or in the grounds of the orphanage, playing with them or just holding them. I also helped to feed the babies and younger children. I then had to shower them, which meant sitting them on the tiled floor of the bathroom and pouring scoops of water over them. I thought that would make them cry but they’re obviously used to it and one of the babies found it great fun to splash around on the floor.
I was shocked at first at the level of some of the disabilities, but the personality of the children quickly makes their disabilities seem secondary. The staff are very loving and caring and the orphanage is a pleasant, modern building.
The children are lovely and very stoical and resilient. It doesn’t take much to make them laugh or to entertain them. They are just delighted to be taken for a walk or picked up. Once a week, they spend a morning in a paddling pool in the grounds, which they absolutely love. I found the whole experience immensely rewarding and became very fond of the children.
I stayed in an apartment for volunteers, sharing a room with two girls. Despite our age difference, we all got on very well. There were four apartments (actually houses next door to each other) with about 7 or 8 people in each house, so it was very sociable and there was a cook in each house who would prepare lunch and dinner for us. Twice a week I took lessons in the Khmer language after work, which meant I felt a little more able to communicate with the children and staff in the orphanage.
Travelling in Cambodia at the weekends
Most afternoons after work, I took a tuk-tuk down to the Mekong River Bar, my favourite café by the riverfront and relaxed with a cold drink. As it was the wet season, there were sometimes tremendous storms, which I enjoyed watching over the river from the shelter of the café. With the other volunteers, I sampled ice-creams at Totos, visited the yellow-domed Central Market and the splendid Royal Palace. I bought beautiful handmade bracelets from the Daughters of Cambodia (a charity for victims of the sex trade) to take home with me.
I managed to travel at weekends with the other volunteers to Battambang and the beach at Kep – staying in a dorm with mattresses on the floor one weekend. It was a long way outside my comfort zone but it was fine and it was worth it to see more of Cambodia. I thought the countryside was beautiful and Phnom Penh is crazy and chaotic, but I loved it – even the journey to work in a tuk-tuk through insane traffic.
At the end of my time as a volunteer, my sister and her family travelled to Phnom Penh and we spent some time together travelling around Cambodia, visiting the temples in Angkor and the Tonlé Sap lake. That was wonderful and a fantastic end to my time in Cambodia.
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.