A Day in the Life of a Humble Volunteer

girl in hatIt’s a strange thing, this volunteer gig. I mean, who wants to go and work their ass off for free. For Free. Actually, for more than free, since I’m paying for everything out of my own pocket (“self-sustaining” in NGOese), except for transportation and the occasional free lunch of rice and watery soup (when I have time to eat).

But this experience is so interesting and valuable in so many ways that I’m kinda over feeling bitter about having to use my own money to pay for photocopying etc. There is never a dull moment, with everyday bringing new surprises (some welcome, some not so much).

If I could pin down a typical day, it might go something like this:

One of my four drivers will meet me at my guesthouse. We drive through throngs of motorcycles and tuk-tuks to get to one of the three centres that I work at, two of which are deep in the slums, or ‘the community’ as the organisation calls it. Depending on the driver and his English language skills, I may or may not get a lecture/rant about the lack of opportunities available to the average Cambodian.

Yesterday’s rant went something like this: “Itisveryhardforpeopoleinthecountryside.Theyhavenochanceforopportunityandteacher




I teach on average for 4-5 hours everyday. During the course of the day, there will be endless clusterfuckery with any kind of technology – the speakers don’t work, the printer is out of ink, the photocopier is dead, the Internet gets cut off, there are power cutsĀ  – I mean, who needs electricity anyway – and there are a million other things happening at the same time, so students might not even be present in class. Often, I will get cornered by one of the Cambodian teachers (80% of whom are male) and be lectured at (again) along the lines of: “PolPotverybadnowCambodiahasmanycorruption


Temperatures hover around 35 degrees and the simple fans don’t do much to stop the beads of sweat from dribbling down one’s face. Doors and walls are a beautiful thing and in these large, 4-storied-houses-turned-into-classrooms, there aren’t enough of them.

The happiest moments are the minutes spent between classes playing with the little girls who may be five or six or seven but look about three. Their energy and adorableness is infinite. Then there are the older students who are so innocent and pure – who, at 17, want to learn about trees and who are scared of worms. Yesterday, one student introduced me to his pet hamster. I imagined most 17 year olds to be into heavy metal and experimenting with drugs, but no, here they are developing bonds with furry creatures. I love it.

These students are not allowed to date, or dye their hair. They can’t have much of a social life outside of the organisation (for good reason), yet they spend their free time making documentaries about the dying grandmothers in the slums, or interviewing those who have been displaced by government development and finding the neediest cases to support. They write essays for global leadership contests and write letters to their sponsors. Always courteous and sincere, and so willing to contribute, they are the reason I have not gone crazy working in a ‘low resource setting.’

Moving between centers, floors and rooms, there are always a few interesting white people to bump into: groups from international organisations who are touring the facilities with their cameras, semi-famous entrepreneurs from California (the last one I recognised was a dude who invented some kind of best-selling pogo stick), and philanthropists with serious money whose last names we lowly teachers speculate about (affiliated with famous universities, newspapers, companies, shops).

Then there are the high-flyers from Australia (so many Australians here) or the States who have come for a month or two, taking a break from their job at Apple or Google, or relinquishing their position as the CEO of this business or that institution in order to contribute their expertise to the organisation and help build, influence and shape it. I guess they are more ‘consultants’, who sit in offices with laptops, a bit different from the teachers who are working, ‘hands-on’, in the field.

Nights, dark and balmy, are spent with a few hours work in preparation for the next day, often with a trip to the copy shop where more clusterfuckery ensues (Internet not working, power cut, printer out of ink, photocopier jammed, no-one speaks English). There is little time or energy for a social life during the week. Dinner is usually eaten alone in one of the dozen or so restaurants that dot the relatively posh area I have called home for the past six weeks.

Two things have not escaped my attention about the other volunteers here teaching (there are only a handful of us): first, we are all women, and second, we are all ‘older’. In fact, I am the youngest which makes me infinitely happy, as these days, I’m never the youngest of anything. These women are accomplished, in their 40s to their 60s. They come from Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Sydney and bring with them all their acumen in finance, health, education, manufacturing, technology and have resumes that would make even the most zealous overachiever green with envy. We are all well-educated and well-traveled. We are all (with the exception of one nurse) single and childless. It is an interesting phenomena.

Of course, I am still processing this experience as a volunteer here in a beautiful land ravaged by genocide and poverty. When I write about it again, my perspective will probably be different and my understanding deepened with the benefit of hindsight and reflection.




The Life You Can Save

CambodianchildrenIt has been three weeks since I first stepped into the dirty, sweaty streets of Phnom Penh. I have a much better grip now on how things work here and a deeper understanding of the country, its people, and its culture. I am also now fully immersed in the volunteering venture that I came for.

The organisation I am working for was started by a very well-known Hollywood figure who had an enviable life as a jet-setting executive in the film business. It is a rags-to-riches-to-rags narrative as he came from a working class background, achieved the epitome of the American dream only to turn his back on it to work in the slums of Phnom Penh and save children from a bitter life of scavenging in the rubbish dumps.

Witnessing what he and his team of dedicated local staff have built, funded by sponsors all over the world, is nothing short of miraculous. Over 1,000 babies, children and teenagers have been incredibly lucky to become part of this organisation that has literally saved their lives by offering shelter, food, education, healthcare and love.

I am still processing the context in which these young lives come from. Sometimes, when I stop to play briefly with some of the little ones on my way to the classroom where my group of teenagers await, I feel such sadness at seeing the little girl whose face was permanently damaged when her father threw acid on her, or the children with missing fingers from scavenging. Their little bodies are stunted from malnutrition and they appear to be half their age.

In one class of rambunctious teenage girls, we talked about significant moments in their lives and each made a timeline. On my own, I plotted things like ‘I started school,’ ‘I got my first pet,’ ‘I had my first kiss.’ These girls, however, wrote things like, ‘My father died,’ ‘My Mother died,’ ‘I started working’ (at five years old), ‘I had to stop school to take care of my brother,’ ‘I was saved from the rubbish dump.’ It is heartbreaking, but at the same time, there is a sense of hope because they WERE saved and they ARE thriving.

But then, this just highlights the randomness of life – they were incredibly unlucky to be born into such circumstances, but then fortune smiled upon them when one man decided he’d had enough of narcissistic actresses and first-class travel around the world. I am still in both awe and shock and sometimes, as my driver (yes, I get to say that now) cruises along the bumpy “roads” of the slums and I gaze out of the SUV window feeling like I am watching a movie, some kind of Cambodian Slumdog Millionaire.

Another quirk in this whole ordeal is that these kids have seen and experienced so much hardship, their young lives scarred by abuse, neglect, pain, trauma and suffering beyond anything most people who grew up in a developed country would have first hand experience of. Yet, they come to live in this organisation which provides a bubble of safety for them and they their lives become the opposite extreme. Oh, they still work hard, but instead of collecting trash to sell for food, they are studying, learning, engaging, with schedules that rival even the busiest middle-class western child. They are also helping in the community with food programs to feed others, establishing relationships with village elders, teaching the younger children, and pursuing a range of extracurricular activities like Karate. They don’t know what McDonald’s is (in part because there are none here), some of the girls may still play with dolls at 17, but all these kids are going places, and I’m sure will live brilliant lives, despite living in a society with a corrupt and apathetic government.

What I am seeing is that all of the founder’s business acumen, his ferocious negotiation and marketing skills, coupled with his generous A-list contacts with big bucks and the support of the community provide the basis for a thriving NGO. Phenomenal leadership skills (from both western and local staff and supporters) have allowed the organisation to expand, and in turn, preen the future leaders of tomorrow.