From traveling to volunteering: a decisive turning point
I was one of them: a traveler who had enough of packing my bag every second day, of useless sightseeing and running through cities. Briefly: a traveller who got a little tired of traveling. That’s why I decided to do some volunteering: staying in one place, doing something with a sense, having someone who cared about me, finding some rest. Me and my friends were not sure if a school would be the best place for it, since we were actually looking for something else. We texted many different organizations in Laos and Cambodia, only to receive one cancelation after another. Once because we were too young, a couple of times because the minimum stay was at least 1 month. We were traveling, so this break we wanted should not last longer then 3 weeks. That’s already like forever for someone who’s used to move every second day! In Cambodia only one person responded immediately and in an polite and welcoming way: Cristina from Dream Big Cambodia. So we checked out their website, read the handbook and letter hundreds of times and after some time decided to go. Still feeling a little bit unsecure about the teaching. Neither of us had been teaching before, I worked with children, but teaching? Teaching a language that is not our mother tongue?
First impressions: immediate love
When Mr. Chang picked us up, we told ourselves over and over: ‘if we don’t like it, we can leave at any time. We are not committing to anything. We can leave!’
Maybe it was an accident, maybe it was meant to be, but the day we arrived in the school Rathana, the director, had bought new speakers for the children. So as soon as we climbed out of the tuk-tuk a party started, and it didn’t end until late that night. When we fell asleep, still overwhelmed by all the children, the dancing, the place, we already knew: we would not leave that place that fast.
We soon noticed that the biggest problem of the school was the fast changing of staff. Only some people stayed longer than 2 weeks, but if you really want to help you have to commit long-term, there’s no other way. It takes time to get to know the children, the daily routine, the way of teaching. It is not a place for travelers to save money and have some fun. Of course it took us a couple more days, weeks, laughs and smiles to make us extend our visa and stay for 2 months, but it was the best thing I ever did in my live.
The benefits of long-term commitment
When I left the first time, I still had with me the early impressions of my arrival, and I promised myself (and maybe even some of the children) that I would come back.
It only took me a month to return.
This time I was already aware of the problems and could start helping on a whole different level. Time flies in Bakong and I sometimes had the feeling that the days there had not enough hours for all the work that had to be done. It was not always easy, to be honest; it sometimes drove me crazy, because the Cambodian way of doing things and handling an NGO is so different of our “western” way. And corruption is only one of those things!
But the things that keep me doing all of this were the smiles and the trust of the children that soon became my friends and siblings, and the feeling that everything you do there, everything you change makes a difference. It brings the children a step closer to a brighter future, helps them improving their lives. When you see their smiles and the way they appreciate all your work, all work is done easily and makes you happy.
I did not only stay that long because I love doing volunteer work; to be honest, most of it was very selfish. You get so much back, much more of what you give: love, trust, smiles, friendship… they treated me as one of them, without suspicion or distance. I never felt that much appreciated and loved for just being there and myself.
You don’t have to be the perfect teacher, or a great footballer or some kind of star. The children will love you for coming, for making an effort and for trying. That is the best present in the world.
So at some point the months were flying by and I didn’t even noticed it. And I had to leave.
Volunteering from the distance: the importance of keeping a permanent bond
It was not a sad goodbye. Everyone knew I was going to come back at some point, and friendship can go on even over distance. So looking back at all my time there, those 7 or 8 months were the best time in my live. I learnt so many things… many more than I ever thought. I was able to get a close look to a lifestyle that was so different from all I knew.
I know, not everyone can stay as long as I did, but I was often asked: ‘how can I help this project best?’And there is only one answer: go to Bakong and stay there as long as possible and come back as often as possible. That is the best way of helping.
And even now, being back in my normal everyday life again, the children keep sending me pictures, asking me when I will come back. Bakong will stay in your heart and they will never forget what you did there.
Endless gratitude for the experience
- Thank you to everyone. Thanks to Rathana, to Mr. Chang, to Sok Nim.
- Thank you to all the parents, who are well aware of everything that’s going on even if you never see them. Thanks to Rea, and Somnang, thanks to year-5 class for being my best class. I love every one of you and will remember you always.
- Thank you to my advanced class, you are not my students… you guys are my brothers and sisters! Thanks for respecting me and teaching me so much more than I taught you!
- Thanks to all the students of Cristina School! You all are my friends rather than my students! And all my loves from Kouk Trach!!!
- Thanks to Cristina for being my shoulder to cry on and my best friend and supporter from Europe. This project is to a great extent made by you, and without you nothing would work. You are my role model and I hope to be able to stay your assistant!
- Thank you to all the volunteers, I know I always said I was only with the project for the children, but for you guys this is not true! You became my friends and family: Luca, Sophia, Oscar, Alberto, Jiayian, Marie, Lucy, Morgane!
WRITTEN BY MARLENE SCHMOLKE
You can follow on her footsteps…