Sustainable Volunteering in Cambodia
Updated: Oct 4, 2019
Hello! My name is Colomba. I was born in beautiful Milan, Italy. In recent years I started looking into volunteering in Southeast Asia because I felt that I needed to expand my horizons and move out of my home city.
I wanted to do something that would have a last impact on a local community and its people. Having travelled throughout the region before; Cambodia became my country of choice. When asked to write about my personal experience as a volunteer I felt it would be a good opportunity to share my work with others and offer my advice on the industry.
I had never taught English before and I was looking for something challenging and unique but slightly different from education. I eventually contacted an organisation whose founders are from Milan. What interested me the most was a program they run which is to provide support to children and infants living in #Cambodian prisons.
I was informed that only a few members of the #organisation were allowed inside the prisons and they offered me a position to help the project managers with report writing. I was to assist them in how to properly structure, deliver and present a formal written report. I accepted the offer and moved to Phnom Penh for a few months. I felt that this role would be a way to volunteer responsibly as it allowed me to use my skill set to help train other staff members to continue this work after my project is complete and it also allowed me to learn more about how the organisation benefited the #community.
Il Nodo is a not-for-profit organisation which runs several successful projects all over Cambodia and I had the opportunity to accompany Martina Cannetta the Il Nodo Country Director, and the Project Managers on missions to different provinces. On a visit to the Kampong Thom Orphanage, I noticed how the children were playing soccer and basketball barefoot and with worn out gear. The Project Manager told me that the orphanage teams were among the best in Cambodia and that they had won several national competitions and that the director, Sean Chea, took sports very seriously. The kids love to play soccer in Cambodia!
I engaged in conversation with Sean Chea, his figure is highly respected both locally and internationally. He is very passionate about his job and he makes sure the children receive a pleasant educational experience while at the #orphanage. Sean Chea stressed the importance of the orphan children being able to play sports and derive from them important values and life lessons. Sports could teach them how to be effective leaders, using teamwork to achieve a common goal, and that success requires hard work and sacrifice. The Kampong Thom children do not have parents to teach them those values and playing sports at a young age is extremely beneficial to both their physical and mental health.
When we returned to the city, I got in touch with the Corporate Social Responsibility Department of an important soccer team in Milan, AC Milan. I asked them if they were interested in a contribution of sports gear for the teams at Kampong Thom’s orphanage. The CSR director, Martino Roghi, was very responsive and collaborative and a few months later I was back in Cambodia with several boxes of brand new sports equipment destined for the teams in Kampong Thom. When we delivered the equipment, the children were both thrilled and amazed to be receiving brand new shoes, shorts and long sleeve T-Shirts and jerseys. For most of them, It was the first time in their lives they wore something brand new and straight out of a package. I will always remember that day.
When living in Cambodia you quickly realise that volunteering organisations are not the charitable entities we tend to have in mind in the west but are, in fact, for-profit businesses whose interests are very far from the children and the local communities’ interests and needs. Most #children in orphanages do, in fact, have parents who, in exchange for economic compensation, agree to lend the orphanages their children. In some cases, the children are even kept underweight so that the visitors are more inclined to make donations.
A symbolic anecdote that I recall is of a friend’s mother, who while visiting an orphanage outside of Phnom Penh, noticed that children did not have any dental hygiene products. She bought toothbrushes and toothpaste for every child only to find out later that the director sold everything back just to make a profit. Orphanage #corruption is very common in Cambodia and the only way to prevent it from happening is to educate tourists and volunteers before signing up for these programs. If you visit only for a day you will not likely see the detail of work that goes on to ensure that you feel compelled to give your money and to do so with very little transparency. Please do your research before visiting an orphanage.
I believe that it is still possible to find a program in which you are really helping local Cambodians make a difference in their lives and in their future. You must be diligent about selecting the right agencies to work that will help you focus your skills. The more specific and unique your skills are while volunteering the better. And by cutting out the often-corrupt Cambodian middlemen, you will be able to contribute more of yourself to those with less.
My recommendation before travelling to Cambodia and signing up for a volunteer program is to educate yourself. Learn about the country, its history and its culture. Make it less about you and more about them and it will surely be a memorable experience in a wonderful country.
For more information on the organisation you can check out the website here!