Sunday, May 24, 2009

Bored in Phnom Penh? Why not volunteer with SCAO for a few days.

We knew all along that we wanted to do some volunteer work once we got to Cambodia- like I said before, it has many more opportunities than anywhere else in Southeast Asia for the Average Joe to do some good.

We stayed at Simon II Guesthouse in Phnom Penh, and on the wall I noticed a photocopied notice asking for volunteer English Teachers at a local orphanage (well, not local- seven km from Phnom Penh in the dusty village of Boeng Chhouk, but still fairly close). Unlike many orphanages that offer little more than scams to the average backpacker, Pat and I had a good feeling about this one (although we remained skeptical until we arrived- it was definitely a gamble).

The owner of our guesthouse helped us arrange a tuk-tuk for the day and, without making a reservation and without any outsider's knowledge about this place, off we went to buy a bag of rice as a gift and play with the kids.

When I pictured an orphanage in Cambodia, I pictured lots of babies for some reason. I pictured an institution, maybe established long ago by French nuns and now run by Cambodians, with a backyard and a playroom, I pictured kids screeching with happiness upon the arrival of visitors, and I pictured making such a connection with one child that it would be difficult for me to leave it at the orphanage. And I pictured it being a one day thing.

Well, out of all my imaginings, only one was correct. When we arrived at the small building made out of plywood and surrounded by a blue gate, the children ran up screeching happily to greet us. The orphanage houses about 17 children and teenagers and really focuses on their education. The Save Children in Asia Organization had just begun 16 months before we arrived, and Pat and I were not the only foreigners there.

They were housing four English teachers from Europe when we arrived and, by coincidence, our friend Jes who we had met in Laos was also volunteering there for one class a day- very strange to run into her like that! That meant, including Pat and I, the total number of teachers numbered seven.

A few months prior, a foreigner had helped them build an outdoor schoolhouse and classes were being held four times a day for all the children at the orphanage plus all of the children in the village. Pat and I agreed to take a class for the next day, had a talk with one of the senior teenagers living in the orphanage (who wants to be a teacher) and promised to come back the following day.

The next day we arrived and met with the director of the orphanage, Mr. Samith, who runs the orphanage with his wife. I was amazed at their relationship with the children living at the orphanage. It was more like Mr. and Mrs. Samith adopted these kids instead of putting them up for adoption (they are not really up for adoption; their parents could simply not afford to keep them). The kids behave as if Mr. and Mrs. Samith were their real parents, and indeed, they fought and cried and behaved as if they were all one big family. It was great to see such a stable environment for the kids.

Although they are clearly lacking in adequate housing and docations of food are always needed and appreciated, the kids want for nothing. They have plenty of playtime, they go to school, they all eat together and watch cartoons together, and they're happy.

The orphanage takes in those who want to volunteer for five dollars a night- including three yummy Cambodian meals a day (believe me, with what little they have they can serve up a tasty lunch), so if you're interested in volunteering just follow the link on my blog and you can stay there, too.

I spoke with Mr. Samith about fundraising and got some ideas for when I go home. I know that Pat and I will continue to support the orphanage every year, but if we could raise enough money each year to help put one of the senior kids through university or an apprenticeship it would be even better. And it doesn't cost very much to put a kid through university here- maybe 500$ total?

After meeting with Mr. Samith we taught our class. The kids were really great! We taught two pages from their textbook and got them to understand what a verb, or an "action" is by playing some games and practising. I taught them how to play "Zip, Zap, Zop"and we all had a great time- even Mrs. Samith, who sits in on the lessons to learn English as well.

So if all you can think of doing in Phnom Penh is eat and get (I hate to say it) high... again... why not put the doob down and take some time to play with the kids. You'll be glad you did :)

PS: To my Mom: I don't smoke doobs. That was hypothetical. Phnom Penh is famous for doobs.

Pat and Lee: the only boys.

I kinda love Lee. What a kid. The girls have better English, but I have never seen a seven year old with a brighter attitude!

Mr. Samith and three of his kids.

The youngest child (two) liked hitting Pat with plastic bottles and stealing important documents.

Lee! Best kid ever!

Checking up on assignments.

The brand spanking new bathroom.

The kids and Mrs. Samith, hard at work.

Playing some games during breaktime.

The zip, zap, zop championship finals.

The youngest little girl with her favourite puppy (they have four puppies and several grown dogs that they're trying to find homes for).

Escaping the mid-day heat in the laundry tub. Cute.

Thanks to this map, the kids really know their geography.

Profiles of all the kids at the orphanage- the oldest ones have information on what they want to study and how much it should cost to sponser their education.

Daily and monthly costs of food.

One of their true orphans. The dogs here break my heart!

One of the oldest kids giving Pat the run down.

She took us around and showed us the school on our first visit.

The nicest 13 year old you will ever meet.

And finally, the bag of rice that I couldn't lift. Great experience; highly recommended.

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