In 2010 Sian embarked on what would have been a year long backpacking trip around the world. Four months into the trip her mother was diagnosed with cancer and she returned home. She visited India, Vietnam and Cambodia, in this blog post she reflects on that trip:
I have always wanted to do something worthwhile, make a difference, change a life, get involved with something; I saw volunteering as an ideal way to give back to the country I was in. Prior to my trip I endlessly googled volunteering options in the countries I was due to visit but I was put off by the astronomical costs involved. Many organisations ask for thousands of pounds for a week or two helping out a project. Yes, I had saved enough money to travel, but I certainly could not sacrifice half my budget for a small volunteer project. Then I found NFO.
New Futures Organisation is based in Takeo, a small town in Cambodia. After emailing the director, I was surprised to learn I could simply turn up and volunteer in the orphanage and with teaching English in village schools. I payed an average local price for accommodation and meals at the volunteer center and in exchange offered my skills to the organisation. Like most westerners born in the 80’s, for me the word orphanage conjours up images of crying Romanians banging their heads against the bars of cots or starving Ethiopians with distended bellies, surrounded by flies. When I arrived at the orphanage I was expecting the worst but my concerns were washed away by the NFO kids.
The orphanage housed around 50 children aged 7-18. A lot of them were economic orphans, they had families in the outlying villages who simply could not afford to look after them. At NFO they got a place to stay, 3 square meals, schooling and an endless supply of crazy volunteers to learn from. The kids were like sponges, soaking up every new bit of information from the volunteers. Learning about which country they came from, their families and jobs back home and which teams they liked. They loved to talk about anything and everything, learning new words and practising their English. Gadgets were also a favourite, the kids would crowd around the latest iPod touch game and happily snap each other with volunteers cameras. During my time at NFO I played endless games of Jenga, painted pictures, played with Lego, made friendship bracelets, took part in reading workshops, talent shows and football matches. I planned to stay for a week, but I was having so much fun I extended it to a month.
Due to the constant flow of volunteers and their eagerness to learn, the children were all top of their English classes. They enjoyed practicing conversational English and word games like hangman were often played. Some of the older children had gained places at university in Phnom Penh and NFO were hoping to support them through their studies.
My time at NFO truly was a wonderful experience and I am so glad I chose to spend a quarter of my travels there. Due to the recent death of one of the directors, NFO is being restructured and volunteering is currently not available. However I am sure when the new directors get things up and running the volunteer program will be just as exciting and rewarding as the previous one and I wish them every success.
Have you volunteered abroad? Would you like to? Do you know any similar projects? What do you think of volunteer tourism?