The beauty about traveling for a longer time is that you can engage in certain activities which you probably would never get to during a 2-week annual leave. Long before we left Connecticut last year, we planned to do some volunteer work (teaching English) in an orphanage called “Savong’s Orphan Center” near Siem Reap in Cambodia.
Languages – Passport For A Better Future
Speaking foreign languages represents a huge opportunity for young Cambodians. The better one can speak English, the higher the chances to find a decent job, especially in the tourism sector. Since 2005, Mr. Svay Savong has provided free English and Japanese education to more than 600 children and currently 38 orphans from surrounding villages. (BTW, he is the founder of Savong’s School and orphanage – a wonderful and ambitious guy of our age, who really impressed us). The classes are mainly held by volunteers; either they teach alone or in liaison with local teachers.
Poor Public School System & Crooked Organizations
Almost every orphan has an international sponsor (often volunteers like ourselves). As a result, the children have the chance to get private schooling (in addition to the free English classes in the orphanage). The public school system is not outstanding. Teachers are paid very poorly so many teachers only teach if you pay a little money! This prevents many children from poor families from attending school. But there’s another problem. There are crooked organizations, orphanages that have developed in recent years, whose owners do not see the children’s well-being as a priority – these guys are more concerned about the donations (or, let’s say, the money they pocket for themselves). Therefore, we really did some good research well in advance and we know that we have picked the right foundation!
The Two German English Teachers
For almost 2 weeks we were able to support Savong’s team and it was definitely one of the most valuable experiences of our trip. Though, on our first day we were pretty nervous. Sure, our English is not bad, but teaching it is another cup of tea. But hey, everything turned out great! The local teacher even praised us as, in comparison with natives, we would speak so much clearer and slower, not using slang words constantly…
From the very first minute, the children conquered our hearts and souls! We were absolutely thrilled and delighted with them. Everyone welcomed us with such a unique kindness; they are incredibly charming, cheerful and active, polite, inquisitive and extraordinarily eager to learn a second language. In class, we mostly focused on subjects relating to the hotel and hospitality industry. (Note: Amazing, how much one remembers from the hotel management training 10 years ago). We wanted to teach things that are meaningful or relevant for the kids’ future careers and, of course, we also wanted them to have a good time with us. We had some cool ESL games for the little ones and focused on role-plays for the older students (e.g., booking a hotel room, waiter and guest in a restaurant). Further, we gave them general waiting staff rules/tips (and we customized our tips to include the “issues” we have noticed while traveling through Southeast Asia).
The good thing was that we could truly feel everyone’s appreciation; the students showed so much interest, asked questions and showed us that they enjoyed our lessons. Some of them even suggested topics which they would like to learn the following day. Seanghai (picture left with Robert), for example, wanted to study English expressions, which would help him once he can start in his dream job: He is 15 and wants to become a tour guide for the temples of Angkor Wat after he graduates.
After school we still had plenty of time to get closer to the kids. Robert played lots of volleyball and soccer with the guys – definitely fun, but a sweaty affair at around 35°C. In the meantime, Brigitte improved her UNO and memory playing skills with the girls and the little ones… also great fun – especially Cambodian UNO rules are quite amusing.
Helping the Medical Center
From Duncan in New Zealand, who is Savong’s major contributor, we knew that the orphanage also operates a medical center. A doctor kindly provides her services to people from surrounding villages. She does so free of charge. The clinic has ~30 patients per day and therefore they urgently needed a system to track their patients’ medical history. As soon as we heard this, we decided that we want to help. After we found a decent quality laptop, we started searching for a suitable and easy-to-use software. Fortunately Robert found one just in time and without asking for it, the company provided their software for free (www.biosoftworld.com)! Well, our late-afternoons and evenings were also quite busy: Robert worked on the installation and customized everything to Savong’s clinic. Brigitte added the orphans into the system and developed an easy-to-use manual with lots of screenshots and “live examples”. As you probably can imagine… both of us were in our element!! Finally, we hope that the new tool will not only improve the daily work of the clinic team, but also enable them to treat more patients in the best possible way.
Living Space Of The Orphans
Back to the kids. Currently, 38 children live in the orphanage. They are not strictly orphans – almost all of them come from difficult family circumstances. Some of the parents are deceased or heavy drinkers, but many grew up in poorest peasant families with no financial resources to provide enough food for the kids. Subsequently, education is just a far away dream or luxury for such families. Then there are kids, who had to physically work for their families’ businesses/farms… from dusk till dawn. Obviously, for them there was no time to think about education. In Savong’s orphanage, they have a chance – they have food, a place to sleep and they can attend school.
Although the kids eat quite healthy, we had the feeling that they pretty much eat the same thing 3x per day: rice and a small piece of fish; occasionally noodle soup. Still, they are happy. There are also 3 simple bedrooms everyone shares. These are tiled, but no furniture or mattresses. The few pieces of clothes they possess are often shared and only stored in boxes. In 2 rooms there is a small wooden bed frame (donated by other volunteers), which the orphanage is very proud of. Nevertheless, most kids sleep on bamboo mats on the floor – for us all of this is strange, for them it’s normal – it’s part of their culture.
Should We Compare To Western Standards?
You may very well understand that the experiences we had really touched our hearts. On the one hand, it is heartbreaking and sad to learn and see the children’s circumstances. On the other hand, it is genuinely fascinating to see them happy and content every day.
All of this is a completely different world for us, but in the meantime, we have learned that we must view each culture individually and not constantly draw comparisons to the West. This also means that we should not feel bad, because we perceive our life as “better”. We simply live in a different society – our culture shapes us differently… it’s just how it is. Compassion is okay and important, but too much compassion makes you sick and depressed – it prevents people from being proactive and from taking action. Hence, we realized it’s a lot better to just pull oneself together, don’t sit and watch and initiate first steps towards progress. Be delighted about every little step and regard the experiences as your personal treasure. Personally, they will always remind us how important it is to appreciate our standards and comforts at home!
For sure we will never forget our time at Savong’s Orphanage and we want to support the team in the long-term. We carry the smiling faces of the “little nerds” J in our hearts – but also the sweet hugs and words when we left them: “Thank you teacher”, “Goodbye teacher, I will miss you.”
Last but not least, we were extremely happy that Brigitte’s Dad was able to visit us in the orphanage on our last day. More about our off-the-beaten-track journey with him in a couple of days…