Rachael Jewitt - General Care Projects in Cambodia
My time in Cambodia could not have been further from what I expected. However, what I expected was nothing like the amazing experience I embarked upon. I had taken a gap year after college as I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do next. I worked for most of the year as a nursery nurse working with children. I love children and knew that was the type of area I wanted to work in, so I thought about working with children abroad. I discovered Projects Abroad from a search engine on the internet and I have to admit, don't really know why I chose Cambodia. The pictures just looked so amazing and Asia was always a place I wanted to visit.
I got in touch with Projects Abroad and they were very helpful, I decided to do the Care project for 2 months there. Naturally I was very nervous about travelling on my own and going so far away but after a lot of emails to Projects Abroad staff in Cambodia, I was reassured about my choice to go there. I packed my suitcase, said my goodbyes and boarded the plane for my 27 hour long journey (which I have to say, was definitely worth it!)
My first day in Cambodia, I must admit was a little daunting. You never know what to expect and things are so, so different to England. However, I was met at the airport by Projects Abroad staff and it was so nice to see a friendly, smiling face after a long journey on my own. He took me to the apartment where I met our housekeeper, Danei; she was lovely and spoke surprisingly good English. I was shown to my room and met the other volunteers in my apartment. Everyone was so nice and I began to feel at home straight away. The next day, I was taken for my induction by another member of the Projects Abroad team (who was even more friendly and smiley!) This put me at ease straight away and I had fun touring the city with him in a tuk tuk.
In the afternoon, he took me to my placement (a school on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.) I was so overwhelmed when I got there; there were fifty children in each class and all with bright smiling faces. They all stood up when I came in and sang me a welcome song in their language (Khmer). I met the teachers and even nuns who work at the school, which in Cambodia is quite unusual as the main religion is Buddhism. Everyone was lovely and they welcomed me with open arms, thanking me for coming. However, I was very nervous about starting and wasn’t entirely sure what they expected of me as the schools were so different to anything I had ever seen before.
The next morning me and one of the other volunteers from my apartment (I was lucky enough to have another volunteer at the same placement) jumped in a tuk tuk for the ride to the school. Travelling there was fun, although the streets were very dusty and it was an hour bumpy ride. Cambodians' smiles are known to be the most genuine and infectious smiles in the world (and they really are). Nearly every family or person out and about in the morning smiled and waved at us on our way. The other volunteer told me it was because we were white and they're not used to seeing us very often (this made me feel like royalty as everyone stopped to wave as we passed by).
Once we arrived I was welcomed by the nun who was head of the kindergarten where I would be working. I wasn't really sure what to expect, but to be honest I don't think she did either. She took me into one of the classrooms (where there were fifty 4 year olds sat at their desks) and introduced me to all of the children. Then she told me I could teach! You can imagine the surprised look on my face as I hadn't prepared anything and wasn't expecting to have to teach. I stood in silence staring at this class for what seemed like forever, but then somehow I picked up some chalk and started to write on the blackboard. I taught them ABC and sang some songs with them.
The children were great and listened intently. It was the best feeling ever to be able to put a smile on these children's faces and feel like I was teaching them something important. Although I was put on the spot and wasn't really supposed to be teaching since I was on a Care project, I was so glad I did it. It gave me a real buzz and a great sense of achievement. The rest of the day consisted of me caring for the children. I helped to clean the children's cuts and grazes, of which they had many because they tend not to wear shoes. I played with the children outside, running around with them and playing volleyball. I had brought some bubbles with me from home and got them out for the children. They went mad trying to catch them and running all over; you can imagine the mayhem of 100 children all trying to pop the same bubble! I was sad to leave at the end of the day but knew I had a promising 2 months ahead.
I must admit, it wasn't easy trying to teach children who don't speak your language but that was the beauty of it. I loved the challenge and enjoyed seeing them sing my songs and begin to be able to talk to me (ask my name and say hello and goodbye etc.) As the weeks unfolded I bought my own materials like pencils, paper, books etc, and became a lot more confident at the front of the class. I came to love the children and wanted to take each one of them home back to England with me! After just a month there, it was time for me to say goodbye as the kindergarten broke up for the summer. I went in feeling sad that it was my last day but expecting it to be a pretty normal day. I walked into the school and in the school yard were banners and balloons and all the children were sitting waiting for me. They did various dances and songs and thanked me many times; it was so lovely and also made me cry! We had a whole day of celebrations and I was so sad to leave at the end of the day. However, I knew this was an experience I would never forget and I hoped the children would never forget the things I taught them. I still hope to go back one day and find out.
After my placement at Don Bosco School, I was placed for my second month with an organisation called Cambodian Children Against Starvation & Violence Association (CCASVA.) Here I worked in an orphanage and also with street children who work trying to collect money for their families. I went to the street children and their families with social workers who worked closely with the families. This was sometimes hard as some of the conditions that these families lived in were awful. However, it was great to meet the families and work with the children for an hour or so. Working at the orphanage was also great. There weren't many children as they often went to school etc, but it was great being able to work closely with some of them. I took in activities for them to do (e.g. colouring, gluing and sticking, origami, dot to dot etc) and often played outside with them. Again, I was very sad to leave this placement and all the children that I had met. We had a big party when I left and the children loved dancing and playing pass the parcel.
Finally, after an amazing 2 months in Cambodia, I had to pack up all my things and head back home. There were so many sad goodbyes as I had made some really good friends with volunteers and other Projects Abroad staff. The other volunteers and I spent all of our time together during evenings and weekends. Cambodia has an incredible history so we often went into the city and explored all of the museums, shops, markets, landmarks and of course the bars and clubs! We had also travelled to other parts of the country on some weekends; this was great and extremely cheap to do. I will always have great memories of my time in Cambodia and will never forget any of the amazing people I met. And I will certainly never forget all of the weird and wonderful things I saw in what feels like a different world to the culture we live in.
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.