Volunteering in Cambodia, Part 3: 5 Cold, Hard Truths of Volunteering Abroad

When we decided to volunteer for the first time in a childcare program in Cambodia, it’d be fair to say that we had an idealistic vision that we could leave a positive imprint and change the lives of kids in need. After all, reading other volunteers’ testimonials led us to believe that we could have a major impact at the orphanage we were placed. But volunteering is not always a rosy picture and we were facing that reality that our volunteering wasn’t going to have any real impact.

There’s nothing we regret about our volunteer experience and we would volunteer again. We learned more about the world and we learned a lot about ourselves. The knowledge and the bonds we gained are invaluable and will only help us grow. However, if we had a chance to do it all over again, we probably would’ve done a few things differently. There are many things we wish we knew before volunteering. Here are five cold, hard truths that we learned while we were there:

1. We weren’t prepared for how bad things really were.

This one caught us by surprise since we both had been in countries that had socioeconomic issues and thought we had a moderate understanding of what to expect. However, it wasn’t until we got involved directly did we realize how shocking and different our perceptions were from the real life. We really did struggle to adjust for all the various harsh conditions, such as the extremely hot, humid weather, polluted air and water, diseases, and poverty. Each day was mentally and physically draining when we really began to understand what the people were up against.

2. Things weren’t always what they seem.

When we were assigned to an orphanage, our assumption was that most kids, if not all, would be orphans. After all, we thought the volunteering organization carefully vets the programs they work with. But we found the majority of the kids we worked with had at least one living parent and some see them fairly regularly (this is common in many so-called “orphanages”). This upset us and challenged many of our personal beliefs about volunteering and childcare programs.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for some of these programs. We currently sponsor two kids from the orphanage with terrible backgrounds and the program does put the kids’ best interests at heart. But unfortunately, many programs are ethically compromised and exploit the kids to unsuspecting volunteers and tourists. It is incredibly important to do research prior to volunteering in similar programs.

3. Short-term volunteer programs may have minimal impact and could even be counterproductive

This is based mostly on our personal experiences and other information we came across for childcare programs, but there are many reasons why short-term programs are discouraged. The main point is you virtually have no time to establish any meaningful relationships with kids you work with. In the first week of our program, we spent a lot of time trying to remember the kids’ names and finding out what their personalities and skills were. By the time we made any progress, our second week was up and we had to leave. With children that are not living with or have no parents, establishing long-term and meaningful relationships is important towards their development. Those can’t be achieved in a mere couple weeks. Additionally, some kids can suffer from psychological issues with the frequent recycling of volunteers, which can harm families and communities. You’re much more likely to make a real tangible impact with long-term volunteering.

4. If you’re not a teacher, then you shouldn’t be teaching

One of the things asked out of us was to teach English to the kids. Well, none of us had any teaching qualifications or prior experience and we could not speak Khmer to communicate with the kids and properly translate or explain words or phrases. You also can’t really teach much during a short-term volunteer stint. We didn’t have many resources and there was little information from previous volunteers. We created a few of our own lessons, but it was unlikely the kids would be able to retain that information in such a short period of time, and we didn’t have a curriculum ready to pass down to the next volunteers. It’s an impractical cycle and not beneficial for the kids. They needed a real teacher with real training and experience, who could provide a structured curriculum, and keep track of the kids’ progress. It especially frustrated me that instead of paying the volunteer organization setting up our placement, we could’ve have donated money to hire a teacher instead.

In the end, we fundraised enough money to hire an English teacher for a year so the kids could be properly taught. For $1,900, every kid got an English book with lessons and followed a structured curriculum.

5. We weren’t going to change the world

Like I said, we thought we were going to make a meaningful impact in these kids’ lives, but we ended up doing very little that could be construed as significant. It was very discouraging for us and made us feel like we were completely useless.

This doesn’t mean you should be discouraged from volunteering. It’s important to look at the big picture; we couldn’t change these kids’ lives right then and there, but we recognized some problems and were able to address at least one of them. So even if change happens one small step at a time, it is a big step in the positive direction. We are hopeful that our contributions will slowly open up a brighter future in the years to come and will influence others to do the same.

Bonus Tip: Research, research, research before volunteering.

There are many sources citing the many conflicts and negative impacts of volunteering. Regardless of what program you’re interested in, do your due diligence and thoroughly research to make sure you are in a legitimate program that prioritizes the communities involved and fits your skill-set. It can potentially make a much more meaningful and rewarding experience for the volunteer and for the programs that are being helped.

Leave us a comment below on your experiences as a volunteer.

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  1. Well, first of all you should really be proud of yourself! Your post is really humble and informatif! Unfortunately, I don’t think I would be able, emotion-wise, to cope with this work and orphaned children. But I am happy that people like you are strong enough to get involved with all their heart! So, hats off to you!

    1. Yes, had I known about them, I wouldn’t have rushed into volunteering. It worked out for us, but talking to others has not yielded the best experience.

  2. Oh, thank you for your post, this is so useful !!!
    I was supposed to volunteer in a school in India too but it never worked somehow.
    Instead I still went to India but I found a job instead. It was great, but I had troubles to adjust the first month too.
    I still want to volunteer outside of my home country so I’ll Pin your post !
    Thanks =)

  3. Thank you for sharing this! I often see people asking about doing these types of volunteering projects convinced that it’s an amazing thing, and while it may be in some cases, I’m afraid that people often overlook the possibly detrimental effect that voluntourism has on local communities. I have so much respect for you for discussing this openly, as not many bloggers do. I also love that you were able to donate money for a program that you found lacking when you were there- that’s how you have a real and meaningful impact, even if you’re not physically on site anymore. Great post!

    1. Yeah, there’s a lot showing the benefits of volunteering but doesn’t address those negative effects to “voluntourism.” It’s pretty shocking how many organizations that pose as great volunteering opportunities, then take advantage of the volunteers’ kindness and does not benefit local communities at all. We were fortunate that it worked out for us but many times it doesn’t work out or is not helpful.

  4. Volunteering abroad must be such an enriching experience. I appreciate it can be hard at first for sure, especially in a place that is so different from where you come from, but the overall experience must be life changing! Even if you won’t be able to change the world, contributing to make it better can be even more important

    1. It can be a good experience for the volunteer but we have to be sensitive that we are actually helping the community, not just making ourselves feel good. It’s more important to find out if you’re actually helping out the communities rather than just going and say you did some volunteering. Many times, volunteering can have adverse effects

  5. Very interesting post on volunteering and a very honest one too. Independently of the good will of the volunteers is really important to ask what is the real impact, and if positive or not, on the situation and the people.

    1. We saw many articles about the benefits of volunteering for the volunteer but rarely saw the potential negative impacts to communities until just before and after we volunteered. We really need to be careful and honest with ourselves about whether we truly help the communities.

  6. Very honest response to volunteering. Unfortunately so many people think they are going to help, when they could cause more harm than good. What a brilliant idea to fundraise for an English teacher!

    1. Volunteering can definitely be a double-edged sword. Even for the English teacher, we had to really think and ask questions carefully that it was the proper thing to do. We’re still very torn about volunteering/voluntourism but there are many ways that volunteering is impactful and people need to do a lot of research before committing.

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