The Volunteer Traveler's Handbook
The Volunteer Traveler's Handbook
Projects and Learning with Children in Cambodia
A slow whirling ceiling fan circulated the lazy, heat-drenched air as my friend Laura and I prepared our lesson plans. I had arrived at the Future Light Orphanage (FLO) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia just one week prior, and I had spent the week reading with children in the library and assisting the teachers in the orphanage's development skills classes.
Images from TV commercials that I had seen while growing up in the United States had given me all sorts of preconceptions about Cambodia, ideas that I took into my travels and volunteering in the country. But each day volunteering at FLO provided experiences that defied these stereotypes. Though many children were, in fact, orphans, they were far from destitute and lonely. The orphanage was run more like a boarding school; each child attended the local public school full-time while attending additional skills development classes hosted by FLO.
I visited FLO as a short-term volunteer. This is actually something I don't recommend when volunteering with children, but I was too naïve at the time to realize the potential dangers. FLO is a well-run orphanage, but there are many Cambodian orphanages lacking any oversight of interactions between volunteers and children.
At FLO, the 200 children share a huge compound and each dorm is run by long-term den mothers who take care of the children's schedules and needs. Short-term volunteers are encouraged to work on small projects with the older children; the older children are considered less vulnerable.
On my first day at FLO, I was very unsure of where I could fit in with the schedule and volunteer activities. Volunteering is an add-on to life at FLO, not the point of the orphanage. To help us find a way to serve, Laura and I were encouraged to talk with Bunyap, the English language teacher for FLO's teens. At Bunyap's suggestion, we supplemented his existing lessons with a song aimed at motivating the kids to learn new vocabulary, and getting them excited to practice English pronunciation.
Laura and I brainstormed on our first day and really thought about which song was slow enough to sing along with, but had a good beat and meaningful lyrics. Naturally, we taught the group a rousing rendition of "Lean on Me" by Bill Withers and we were rewarded with hilarious enactments and melodrama as they sang.
Each of the eight days I spent at FLO, I worked on mini-projects. These projects assisted the teachers as much as the children, as the teachers could continue implementing our lesson plans and projects long after Laura and I left Cambodia. My week at FLO was my first introduction to teaching English as a foreign language and I learned how Bunyap tailored English lessons to keep his teens interested. From FLO, I took away a deeper compassion for the children working so hard, every day, for the chance to have a decent education.
FLO also taught me that no lasting change made in the world is accomplished alone. I did not change that orphanage in any tangible way. But I was able to spend a few afternoons tutoring Bunyap on his pronunciation, which will, hopefully, leave a tiny, lasting improvement to his ability to teach and empower his students.
The students at FLO are trained to become the future leaders of Cambodia, according to the organization's founder. Each child is given more education and skills than the public education system can currently provide, in the hopes that English and computer skills will help them attain higher paying jobs once they graduate.
While at FLO I became Facebook friends with at least six of the teens - their caregivers cleared the connection - and to this day I frequently chat with some of them, keeping tabs on their university studies and new jobs and lending advice when they ask. Many students have gone on to work in f