Volunteering in Cambodia, Part 2: Playing with Kids and Playing Teacher

Our second entry picks up from where we left off at end of our first entry, when we were introduced to our volunteer placement New Hope for Orphans in Pursat, Cambodia. We met several kids and spent some time playing with them before departing back. Once we got back to our homestay, we talked about our initial thoughts about what we saw at the orphanage and tried to formulate a game-plan on what we were going to do. We didn’t really get any specifics for our responsibilities, so although we were eager to start working with the kids, we also knew there would be quite a few challenges ahead of us.

Week 1: A slow start and figuring things out

Like I said, our responsibilities weren’t very clear. Our schedule was set up for 2-2.5 hour sessions in the morning and afternoon, with two separate sets of kids, with a two-hour lunch break. At the time, the director was away but we were able to call him to ask what they expected from us and what previous volunteers did. In short, our responsibilities were to watch over and play with the kids and teach them English.

To say we were woefully unprepared for the latter task might be an understatement. None of us had any teaching experience or bought any teaching materials, and we were expected to help these kids grasp parts of the English language in two or three weeks. The kids kept addressing us “Teacher Ling, Teacher Mat, Teacher Lydia,” so we had to do our best to be teachers.

We looked around for what resources we could work with to build some kind of English teaching activity. There was really not much available to us but we did find a few previous lessons they worked on. It was the best we had to start with.

For the first session, we focused on over introductions, learning each kid’s names and playing some games. We brought a game called Jumbling Towers, which is pretty much the same as Jenga. They seemed to like that game. We did have a lot of fun playing with them and their enthusiasm is really infectious; they were always smiling and laughing, despite their tough conditions. We also talked with the kids as much as we could, learning more about their personalities and their English capabilities before heading back to our homestay for lunch and recharge.

For the afternoon session, we were planning to do more of the same with the new set of kids. But we were caught in a torrential rainstorm. We were sheltered under the gazebo for 30 minutes and everything, including ourselves, got soaked. After the rain subsided a bit, everyone moved to the main building. We got to talk with the kids and played with them too. They were all also very enthusiastic and energetic, constantly running around and playing their favorite games. Later, the rest of kids came back from school and joined us in the fun. It was a good first day hanging out with the kids and getting to know them.

On a side note, the working environment was very brutal for us. It was routinely 90-95℉ or higher and the humidity was killing us. We also had to wear long pants and shoulder covered tops for cultural reasons. It was definitely very physically draining on us, so the lengthy lunch break was desperately needed for a recharge, as we would often shower and take naps. What was crazy to me was some kids were wearing layers of shirts, sweaters, jackets, and even wore gloves! I don’t know how they do it!

Getting into a groove

The next couple days were mostly the same routine; we would go teach and play with the kids in the morning, go back home for a two-hour break, and meet the kids in the afternoon to do the same. We came up with a few English lessons with basic spelling and pronunciation. The kids also did some drawing exercises with some basic English words. Things seemed to be progressing relatively well and we were getting an idea of the capabilities of each kid. And whenever kids answered a question correctly and completed their lessons, we rewarded them with stickers and fruits that we got from the market. They loved the fruits because fruits like apples, grapes, oranges and bananas were luxuries because they are mostly imported or cost too much.

We eventually met the director and ask for more information about the kids and their needs. The important basic necessities they needed were rice and medicine. Some of the kids had open sores and wounds that needed to be treated, and Mat is a nurse so she knew what medicines to get. Lydia and I contributed 200 kilograms (440 lbs) of rice, which would last for four months for the entire orphanage of 40 kids.

The director also said we could try teaching English with the older kids in the evenings. We were already unsure of what we were teaching the younger kids, but we were willing to help with whatever they needed. At least it was more clear with the older kids since it was much easier to communicate with them. Primarily, we were going to focus on their lessons from their school and help them with anything they didn’t understand. But we didn’t get a chance to do any lessons for the first week since we had some other things going on.

During one of the late afternoons, for $20, we hired an ice cream truck to treat all the kids. Everyone was able to get a cone with two scoops of ice cream and an ice boba drink, which is a pretty darn good deal if you ask me! The kids loved it and it was great to see them enjoy it. For us, we consider ice cream almost as an everyday commodity, but for them, even at 50 cents for ice cream and a drink, it’s a welcome luxury.

On the last day of our first week, we were actually scheduled to do some lessons with the older students. But there was a mix-up and we didn’t get to any lessons. Instead, we witnessed the kids having a prayer session and going over the Bible, which they did every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Everyone started off by singing several songs in Khmer (the Cambodian language) presumably about Christ. Then they all sat in a circle and read excerpts from the Bible and interpreted their meanings. They concluded the session with prayers and, despite their tough situations and environment, the kids prayed for our health and our safety first before praying for themselves.

For me, it was a profound moment that I wouldn’t forget. It showed me the incredible kindness and care these kids have even when they don’t have much. However, it also showed, despite their smiling, enthusiasm, and outgoingness, they were still hoping for better things to come. It did hurt me and made me feel a bit guilty, so I wanted to do my best to help the kids in any way I could.

Week Two: Smoother sailing, Not enough time

During the weekend, we took a short trip to Siem Reap, where we visited the amazing Angkor Wat and several other awesome temples. We also found a small shopping mall where they had a bookstore and school supplies. We went on a bit of a shopping spree buying things like English books, pencils/pens, crayons, paper, nametag holders, microphones, and several posters with basic English words and brought them all back to the orphanage. The kids looked excited and interested in their new items, so we were hopeful that they would put them to good use.

One of the posters we got was a birthday calendar so you could write down the birth date for each person. When we asked for everyone’s birthday, we found that they don’t celebrate birthdays and many of them didn’t even know their birth dates. Lydia later set up a birthday celebration for a girl named Silat with a birthday cake and candles. It was Silat’s first ever birthday celebration at age 19.

With all the school supplies and posters, it was easier to create some more constructive lessons for the younger kids. We also could identify which kids were more proficient with their English and gave them harder exercises to work on, and those who were struggling we would pay a little more attention. It started to feel like an actual classroom and the kids seemed like they were understanding some things.

For the older kids, we finally started evening lessons with things they were learning in school. They told us what they were working on grammar focusing on verb tenses. Let me tell you, if you’re not astute with all facets of the English language, it can be hard to teach and explain these things. Simple past, present, future; present, past, future continuous/perfect; present, past, future perfect continuous; that is a lot to handle! Beforehand, I did plenty of relearning my proper English and printed out additional exercises with explanations in its simplest terms. We applied those to the evening lessons and it actually seemed to help the kids understand a little bit better. I gave them just a little extra homework just to see if they understood, and when I checked their work the next day, they did really well! It was great to see the kids pick it up so quickly. Meanwhile, the younger kids were catching the swarms of termites flying around us. Turns out the termites were caught to be eaten, like many bugs in the world. It’s considered a delicacy and eaten when fried. We didn’t eat any but it was fun to watch them chase the termites.

Final day and “See you later”

Unfortunately, just when we were getting the hang of working with these kids, me and Mat’s time came to the end of two weeks. (Lydia was staying for another two weeks with some new volunteers coming, so she was going to do her best to continue with the lessons.) It was sad to leave so soon, but we made sure the kids we would celebrate our time with the kids.

On our last day, we treated the kids to a day at a pool at the KM Hotel in Pursat. For $45, we rented the pool for several hours to swim, play, and enjoy some of the amenities. After they exhausted themselves, we brought over some fruit, milk and energy drinks for them to recharge before going back.

Later, we brought back over the ice cream truck for everyone to enjoy. The kids also hooked up the microphones for some singing. We would be serenaded with songs by the great Justin Bieber and even some beatboxing from one of the kids. It’s pretty amazing to see how talented and self-sufficient these kids were with fairly limited resources. Afterward, we all sat down to watch a scary movie which, interestingly enough, was their favorite genre even the younger kids. For them, the scarier the movie the better, while I really really do not like scary movies! They’re way braver than me!

Finally, at the end of the night, it was time to part ways. We gave everyone hugs and words of encouragement, how we were amazed for their love and kindness, and embracing us like we were part of their family. We didn’t say any good-byes; instead, we said “see you later,” so that we do see each other again.

It was tough for us to leave so soon but it was also an experience to remember in many different ways. We learned many things about ourselves and still have many questions left to be answered. Hopefully, we will see these kids again soon and hope they are doing better because they deserve better. I hope we were able to make some kind of impact in these kids’ lives, but only the future will be able to tell us if we did.


Check out our full gallery with the kids at New Hope for Orphans, Pursat. Part three of our post will be coming soon and will focus on our thoughts about the program in general and question if volunteering is always the right thing to do to support a cause. Comment below if you’d had similar experiences or have any questions about volunteering abroad.

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