This article was kindly contributed by a Travel For Change reader with the hope of inspiring and educating other travellers on responsible volunteering in Cambodia. If you plan to volunteer in Cambodia, or any other destination, research is very important. Read on to learn more.
Volunteering In Cambodia
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 first contacted an organisation whose founders are from Milan. What interested me the most was a program they run to support 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 their report writing. My volunteer role 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.
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. It also allowed me to learn more about how the organisation benefited the community.
I could have gone towards something such as Teaching English, but I had learnt of how teaching and working with students should not be done by someone with no education training. The best way to volunteer ethically is to make use of the skills and training you already have.
The Reality Of Orphanages In Cambodia
Il Nodo is a not-for-profit organisation which runs several projects all over Cambodia. 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. The Kampong Thom children do not have parents to teach them the values one can learn from playing sports at a young age. It 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 the 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.
It is possible to create positive change and support projects without having direct volunteer contact with the children in care.
+Travel For Change does not encourage supporting orphanages without first ensuring the appropriate background checks and child protection standards are in place at the facility.
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!