I have to admit I was apprehensive about volunteering at an orphanage. I’m embarrassed to say that I had images of “Oliver” in my mind, with sad, mistreated little kids pleading, “Please sir, may I have some more?”
Apparently, there is a tremendous amount of controversy surrounding volunteer travel and orphanages. Some question whether the volunteers can have a positive impact in such a short term or if the visits are potentially confusing for the children. These are big questions and I’m not sure what the right answer is. What I do know is that Globe Aware is very careful in planning these activities and that the focus is on teaching English.
We drove about 30 minutes, leaving the chaos of Siem Reap behind and traveling into a rural area. The dirt road kicked up red dust and we passed many bicycles and scooters traveling along the same narrow road. When we arrived, the students were lined up in two columns on either side of the entry. As we exited the van and walked towards them, they smiled and clapped, welcoming us with ready smiles.
We quickly separated into small groups for a tour of the orphanage. A beautiful young girl approached me and introduced herself. Her name was Lang and she was 12 years old. She began telling me all about her school. I was surprised that her English was very, very good. She spoke very clearly and we quickly eased into a conversation. She was also extremely self-possessed and confident.
Lang guided me through the orphanage, showing me the sleeping areas where 2 or 3 children share double-sized beds, about 6 beds in each room. We walked past the dining hall and classrooms and then down a long dirt path behind the school to the pig pens. There were 2 pens, 1 filled with 30 or so piglets and another pen with full-sized pigs, probably about a dozen or so. She explained that they sell the pigs to make money for the school. She also showed me the extensive gardens behind the school that grow their food.
Lang confided that she wanted to work in the tourism industry as a tour guide. I told her that she would be wonderful and that I was confident that she would succeed. I’d only known her about 15 minutes, but I told her that I was impressed with her, and explained to her what that word meant. She smiled, giggled and thanked me.
The orphanage cares for about 70 children. Our guide Dine had explained to us that the children come to the orphanage as a result of various circumstances. Some have lost their parents to HIV or other diseases. In other situations, the parents give them up because they have too many children and cannot care for them. Cambodia still has many arranged marriages and Dine also attributed some of the abandoned children to divorce. It is difficult to fathom from our cultural standpoint, but this is apparently the case.
We returned to the main area and it was time for the English lesson. All the boys and girls waited for us in a classroom, seated at long wooden desks with benches. I sat with a group of 3 young girls and we began with the lesson that had been provided. We took turns reading the provided practice dialogue between a tourist and shopkeeper. The tourism industry offers many employment opportunities, so this type of practical conversation makes sense.
We took turns reading the paper and I helped them with their pronunciation. I worked with Kem Hon, a shy young woman who is 14 years old. Though she smiled and giggled freely, she was serious and intent on practicing her English. I also had 2 other girls, Ishim and Emey, both 12. We would practice a few lines, work on some of the trickier words and then applaud ourselves when we felt we’d done something well. It was so free and so silly that it made what might have felt tedious lots of fun. Around me, other groups also erupted into spontaneous laughter or applause.
Cambodians have particular difficulty with “v” words which they tend to mispronounce using a “w” sound. I demonstrated the placement of my teeth of my lips to make the sound and they repeated after me, “Va va va voom!”. They found this completely riotous and after each repetition, we would all burst into giggles once again. The combination of laughter and learning was actually quite effective and I was pleased that the girls’ pronunciation improved in the short time we worked together.
The time flew by and before long it was time to go. I hugged my new young friends goodbye and climbed back into the van. On the drive back to town, all of the volunteers marveled at the focus and concentration of the children, most of whom had been up since very early morning. They were all hungry to learn and grateful for the opportunity to practice English with live tutors (as opposed to learning from television or popular music). They seemed to genuinely enjoy our company and their sweet sincerity was so refreshing.
As I thought back on the evening with a smile, I realized how wrong my preconceptions had been. Though these kids might be lacking parents, they were surrounded by family, brothers and sisters of circumstance that gave them a tremendous sense of community. It was absolutely a joyous place. I was already looking forward to the next day, when our group would return for another visit.
Up next…..the volunteers dig in at a local construction project.