In 2010 Sian spent a month volunteering at New Futures Organisation in Takeo Cambodia (more about that here). Since then the organisation has been through some dramatic changes, including the unexpected death of one of the directors, however it is still committed to helping Cambodians find their way out of poverty through education.
We decided that during our travels we wanted to give something back to the countries we visited. There is an ongoing debate about the benefit of volunteering and many people who would have volunteered in the past are now put off by what they read about “voluntourism” and money making schemes which have little benefit to those they set out to help. Having seen first hand the difference NFO makes to the lives of the children it helps, we felt they were a worthwhile cause to help out. We decided to spend three months of our travels working for NFO in Cambodia.
For children living in the villages around Takeo, life is hard. Their families are poor, they live in small basic shacks and farm the land around the village. Whilst school is free in Cambodia, the schools are far from the villages and most families cannot afford school uniform. The remote villages often become isolated during the wet season and travel to school is impossible. Tradition and necessity mean that children are usually required to help out on the farm, harvesting or looking after livestock, so they cannot attend school at regular times. All of these factors mean that access to education in rural villages is very low, that is until NFO stepped in. NFO run schools based in local villages which require no financial commitment from families. The classes are held at times which suit the farming patterns of the community, often in the afternoon or evening and no child is turned away.
Further to this NFO supports around 50 children with monthly care packages. These children previously lived in the NFO orphanage in Takeo. Following changes to the organisation, when the orphanage closed the children were repatriated to their villages to live with their extended families. To support the families and allow the children to continue with their schooling NFO provide rice, toiletries and clothing. This prevents the child becoming a burden on their family and protects them from the risks of going out to work at a young age. Without the support of NFO many of the children would be at risk of trafficking. Some children continue to live at NFO, as their home environment was not safe for them to return to. NFO also operates a drop in centre for at risk children living in Takeo. The children have access to study support, hot meals and a safe environment to socialise with their peers. Uniquely NFO support their children into adulthood, arranging sponsorship for university and training placements.
During our time working for NFO we have been involved in all kinds of projects. We have used our skills and taught ourselves lots of new ones! The first thing we did was reinvent the NFO website. It was quite dated with a lot of old information and did not really reflect the exciting, forward thinking organisation which NFO is today. We have also been developing resources to promote and market the organisation. We have created resources for individuals and schools at home that want to fund-raise for NFO, which are all on the new NFO website.
Another big part of our job has been trying to recruit volunteers for NFO. In the past there were lots of volunteers who turned up to work with the children, but since the restructuring of the organisation the nature of the volunteer program has changed. In order to comply with regulations, the volunteer program has to have a more strict recruitment and vetting process. With the extra costs involved, NFO has had to start charging volunteers to become part of the program, they also have to commit to a minimum of two weeks. All of the changes are positive steps which bring NFO up to international standards and help to protect the children we work with. At just $100 a week, the NFO volunteer program remains one of the cheapest options in South East Asia for volunteering with children. Many similar organisations charge thousands for their volunteer programs, which is often spent on admin and paying western support staff. The only people employed by NFO are Cambodians, any westerners providing support are volunteers like ourselves. This means that any extra money which comes in through the volunteer program is used to directly benefit the children and not spent on admin staff in the UK. We have been advertising the volunteer program online and are hoping to start a leaflet campaign around the main tourist destinations to try to recruit more volunteers. Ideally we would like to link up with an organisation in the UK who could send groups of volunteers to NFO, such as a university or college enrichment program.
We were lucky enough to go to Takeo and the villages, we visited some of the village schools and helped give out the care packages. It is hard to imagine how rural the area is until you go there. Bunseng, the project manager loaded up the NFO tuk-tuk with bags of rice, toothpaste, soap and the yearly new school uniforms for the children. We climbed aboard along with Bunseng’s wife and kids and some of the children who still live at NFO, who were keen to visit their old friends in the villages. We trundled out of Takeo town and into the surrounding countryside. The roads became lanes, the lanes became tracks and the tracks became fields. We bumped along in the noisy tuk-tuk, passing rice fields, herds of buffalo and small shacks selling fried bananas and drinks in plastic bags. As we passed through villages, adults and children alike did a double take as they saw the “Barang” (foreigners), some pointed, some laughed, most stared open mouthed as we bumped up and down in the tuk-tuk. We were flung around in the tuk-tuk as Bunseng fought against the potholed dusty tracks, at one point we had to get out and push after a particularly large hole sent us off the path and into a field. We also had to shield ourselves and the children form the surrounding trees which sprung in through the top of the vehicle at eye level.
Visiting the schools was a great experience, they were packed full of children, eager to learn and so grateful to be given the opportunity to. They sat crammed behind desks, chiming out in unison the phrases they had been practising in English. The poverty in these areas in acute, these children have nothing and without NFO, they would not even have the few hours a day they get to spend in school. It reminded us of the quote “The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you.” The short time these children spend in school, gives them a break from the difficult life they have at home, they can learn and behave as children should, no matter what life may have in store for them, no one can take that away from them.
After visiting the schools we navigated our way to a few different villages and remote houses to visit give out the care packages. The children and their families were pleased to see Bunseng and their friends from NFO, and invited us into their small, basic homes. Due to their contact with volunteers at NFO, the children have excellent English skills and were pleased to have someone to practice with. They told us about their homes and their families and showed us around their villages. In one village we had a line of children following us that grew longer with every house we passed. In another, when we had been invited into one of the boys homes, the older generation all came from their houses to have a look at us. The families we met were very poor, and with no state benefits, the help they receive from NFO is the only assistance they get. They showed us great hospitality, inviting us into their homes and showing us around. Hopefully with the support of NFO the children can continue their education and go on to study at university, gaining well paid jobs and becoming leaders within their community, helping to break the cycle of poverty.
Whilst in Phnom Penh we met up with a young man who used to live at the NFO orphanage. Thanks to sponsorship arranged through NFO, he is now in his final year of an economics degree at Phnom Penh University. He studies hard, has a part time job and enjoys his life in the big city, he told us when he graduates he wants to work for a big business in the city. On a personal level this is where NFO really makes a difference, a young man from a rural village near Takeo, who has lost both his parents as a boy, will soon graduate and gain a top job in the city. All made possible by one small organisation.
If you would like sponsor a child through NFO please get in touch with us or visit the NFO website.
If you would like to volunteer with NFO or have any ideas on how we can continue to promote the organisation, let us know!