4 October, 2017
Travel

What I’ve Learnt From Volunteering at a Cambodian Orphanage

4 October, 2017

Whether you’re keen to get involved in opportunities in HK, or looking to combine giving back with travel, the ripple effect really does run as far as you let it.

I read somewhere that “by taking care of yourself, you take care of others, and by taking care of others, you take care of yourself.” It’s never held more truth to me, as I pack my suitcase full with medical supplies and children’s clothes for another two-week stay at Kais Village Community, a Cambodian orphanage that feels a world away from my Hong Kong life.

Whether you’re keen to get involved in volunteer opportunities in Hong Kong, or looking to combine giving back with travel, the ripple effect really does run as far as you let it…

What I Learned From Volunteering Abroad

About KaisKids:

Sunny and Karen, who run the NGO are warm-hearted, generous people who are working to keep needs met. The registered charity focuses on everything from refurbishing schools (supporting the future of over 170 children), to outreach programmes that provide foster care, food, medicine, education, transport and emotional support for HIV-infected children in Phnom Penh. The actions at Kais are driven by necessity.

On site at Kais Village, there are a few nannies, a cook and a guard (a lovely husband and wife duo, Mr. Liang and Kun Thea). When I was there last, the only person I could properly communicate with in English was one of the kids: a 14 year old girl who you’ll often find doubling as a chef/doctor-in-training. You can find out more about what KaisKids does here.

What I Learned From Volunteering Abroad

The thought process:

With the controversy debating the benefit of orphanages, it’s always worth doing your research properly. Whilst I will openly listen to the argument that ‘privileged’ people flying into less economically developed communities can be counterproductive, it all comes down to one question: how can we help? All we can do is ask and listen. Because no amount of research will tell you what it feels like to say goodbye to a 12 year old boy who you heard say his first word at age 3. But feeling invested and connected doesn’t necessarily enable the most benefitial model. If we pause to consider where resources are most needed, we can make sure our skill set, time and funds are invested in a way that is sustainable and measurable.

It’s a shame when our desire to do “the right thing” ultimately results in us doing nothing. Mostly because we’re worried that we aren’t helping in the best – or right – way. This worry comes from a place of care, but I’m working on channelling my apprehension in the right direction. When care is processed productively, it evolves into research and, eventually, results. It would be a waste for worry to make us stagnant.

My initial experiences of volunteering taught me how little I know. From offering breakfast to people who live in Hong Kong’s caged homes, to travelling to teach in children’s schools, there’s always more we can learn – and always more we can do.

What I Learned From Volunteering Abroad

The backstory:

When I was 14, I was fortunate enough to go on a school trip, where we spent some time at Kais Village Community, an orphanage run by the NGO, KaisKids in Treng Trayoeung (the translated spelling is still debated through the village), a few hours away from Phnom Penh. It was the first time that I understood what the word “fortunate” meant. I realise how privileged I am to say this, but, visiting an orphanage was the first time I truly felt (and saw) that life could be irrevocably unfair. In all honesty, my precious little heart couldn’t really handle it. It was the most beneficial shock to the system any spoilt teenager could encounter.

I couldn’t understand why I was born with countless opportunities that other kids, just like me, may never know. I couldn’t understand why there were so many people living without the things I take for granted on a daily basis: good health, food, safety, security, unconditional love, even readily available entertainment. It’s nine years later and I’m still working on translating that confusion and concern into something more efficient and tangible: action.

What I Learned From Volunteering Abroad

What to expect from volunteering abroad:

I’m now gearing up for my second trip back to Kais Village this year and there is still an infinite amount I don’t know. So, I’ll tell you what is true for me. I’ll tell you what I do know:

I do know that Disney’s Frozen soundtrack and Adele’s “hello” are just as popular and overplayed no matter how far you travel to escape. I do know that singing whilst sweeping the kitchen floor suddenly feels normal, when you’re the backing vocals to an energetic 13 year old, waltzing around with a broom in her hand. I do know that relentless trust is the most enabling thing.

I do know that smiles are understood and accepted, no matter what language you speak. They are the most cost-efficient domino effect the world has ever known. I do know that hugs are helpful for all participating parties.

What I Learned From Volunteering Abroad

I do know that care is shown in countless ways. I do know that food tastes better when the 14 year old cook is sat opposite you – talking about how she used boiled water to clean the spoon, to avoid “breaking the western toilet”. Gratitude is something you can cultivate.

I do know that children feel love in all sorts of ways. Love happens quicker here. Connections are formed faster because they are so actively sought. Hands are held and arms are tugged on, and my lap is rarely left unoccupied.

I do know that education should never be undermined. It’s phenomenal to watch how responsive and receptive children become when you invest a bit of time, energy and effort into their development. They flourish with one-on-one sessions, but also feed of each other’s energy. The kids at Kais, and particularly the children with special needs, show huge signs of progress in short amounts of time.

I do know that the potential to make a positive difference is in all of us. And I do know that there is more than one way to do the right thing.

What I Learned From Volunteering Abroad

What you learn from the kids:

When I went shopping in the village market for fresh fruit, veg and eggs with my 14 year old tour guide and gossip companion, Hary, I told her to pick anything she wanted from the stalls. New flipflops, a pair of wellies, a cap, a bag? She repeatedly declined and finally ended up politely asking if we could “maybe” spend that money on some extra grapes so the younger kids, without teeth could get some fruit. Safe to say, we left with grapes.

The kids at Kais have found more entertainment from empty plastic bottles, old tins and used straws (rubbing them together to create sparks), than I have found whilst watching an episode on TV, scrolling through Facebook and munching on whatever current snack I fancy. If that doesn’t make you reassess your priorities, I’m not sure what will.

I don’t know why it breaks my heart to see the children here playing with pieces of rubbish (directly out of the bin), when it clearly doesn’t bother them in the slightest. Perhaps it is because I don’t feel like they are being stimulated or driven to reach their full potential. Something that I’ve always been taught – and told – to do. Perhaps it’s because my idea of fun is so contrived, that even when I was running in the rain, barefoot through warm, grassy puddles, I was trying to teach the kids how to play Stuck In The Mud, when they were far more content just playing in it.

What I Learned From Volunteering Abroad

It is incredible to see the raw joy in the faces of children who have seen some of the less kind sides of life. It’s also interesting to observe yourself in the context. How your upbringing can result in you instinctively resisting, but your humanity results in you naturally relaxing once you let yourself. What was holding me back from running in the rain in the first place? With no phone or cash in my pocket, no appointment to rush to and no people I’d rather be spending time with – why did my initial reaction seem to be ‘no’? And why did ‘yes’ feel countless times better than cowering undercover, waiting for the sunshine?

It’s difficult to say what exactly the individual kids need when, for the most part, they seem relatively content, not knowing of life any other way. It takes being there to realise there is more than one way to live life to the fullest. Safety, structure and fun just looks (… tastes, feels, and smells) slightly different here.

What I Learned From Volunteering Abroad

What you learn about yourself:

I’ll be the first to admit it’s hard to leave your Hong Kong mind behind. One of the recurring questions I get asked relates to hygiene and safety. I’ll disclose that this was a hurdle for me too. But when you’re out of your ‘normal’ context, your priorities shift. I had no choice but to quickly accept the things I could not change. To accept each moment without fear of the future (yes, that may be a cockroach on your bed, but at least it’s not on your leg. Yes, that may be a snake in the shower but – AGHH, there’s a SNAKE in the shower!). To accept each moment as if I had chosen it. Because, really, when you think about it, I did. I chose, and continue to choose to visit Kais, so wishing away my time would be counterproductive, crazy and cruel – to myself, and to the kids I’m working to support.

And though I’m learning just how valuable it can be to live in the pinpoint of the present moment, it’s also humbling to see how my own life experiences have enabled me. Questioning ‘how can I give back?’ and “what will I do next?” is immaterial when you’re teaching a child the alphabet. All you really want to know is why “C” and “K” sound phonetically the same.

What I Learned From Volunteering Abroad

Making the most of it:

At Kais, your way in is anything the kids can relate to, and they are ready to relate to it all. When I’m not teaching English lessons (often starting at 6am and running until dinner), hours are filled with singing, dancing, and drawing. Bunny rabbits, flowers, balloons and stars are all relished, recurring features. Every child is looking for a moment of genuine attention and affection.

Be receptive. Hugs are hurled at you with full speed (if you’re open to them – and often, even if you’re not), high-fives are happily greeted by their other halves, and entertainment is easily acquired. Eye contact goes a long way, tone of voice can command a room and you learn just how helpful it can be to disguise rules as games. I’ve found the same applies to any classroom.

The moments that feel the most surreal are often the moments that hold the most meaningful, raw emotion. Age, gender, status and language are all rendered equally insignificant when it comes to organic human connection.

What I Learned From Volunteering Abroad
Looking to help?

Don’t be scared off by the idea of commitment. Start with where you are, with what you have, and trust that that’s good enough. Stress about the rest later.

Volunteering has made me overwhelmingly grateful for the kindness in the world. As much as we argue both sides of the coin, my personal experiences have indicated that Hong Kong’s skyscrapers are packed full of people wanting to help. Good intentions are the foundation. Next, it’s simply prioritising what matters to you, and using what you have to be of use.

What I Learned From Volunteering Abroad

It’s 100% understandable that packing your bags may not be a feasible (or desired) option. At Kais Village Community, sponsoring a child every month is a clear way to offer tangible support. It’s US$90 each month to cover healthcare, shelter, nutrition, education and clothing for your sponsored child. Or you can opt to support the 24 children with special needs (ranging from around the clock support for 3 year old Srey Ya who suffers from a severe skin condition, to surgery for Praep who has a cleft lip). For US$25 per month, your donation goes into a central fund to benefit all 24 children. One-off donations (of any amount) are also welcome. And, of course, if you’re looking to invest your time and energy, there are countless ways you can volunteer in Hong Kong. They say charity starts at home for a reason.

Ultimately, everyone (regardless of financial status or upbringing) has the ability to help, because we all have the capacity to care. That’s the starting point. And with all that there is happening around the globe, it seems an awful waste to resign in complacency.

“I can’t change the world” is not the life motto of someone who does. Equally, aiming to change the world is so often the cause of conflict. Sometimes all we have to do (and all we can do) is expand our mindset, cultivate gratitude and multiply our contributions. The world will always need more of that.

Read more: Get Involved in Giving Back: Where to Volunteer in Hong Kong

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