On our travels our aim has been to volunteer as much as possible, whilst exploring different countries and cultures. From the minute we arrived in Cambodia, we were exposed to such poverty and shocking homelessness including many victims of agent orange and survivors of the Khmer Rouge. This really encouraged us to do what we could to help.
After our fantastic time spent with the Vietnam YMCA, we decided to contact the YMCA Cambodia to see how we could get involved. After meeting with the Executive Director and seeing what a great cause this was, we decided to spend a few weeks a the YMCA Cambodia Learning Centre, a school for children of a local village, which funded community projects in Cambodia. We planned to spend our time teaching children aged 2-16 years old, as well as redecorating the nursery room, and redesigning the school playground.
On arrival to the school, the exterior of the building was quite simply a health and safety officers paradise. In the UK this school would have been closed down before even entering the building. Motorbikes parked in the children’s play area, piles of bricks stacked next to swings and dozens of mice and cockroaches running around. Once you entered the building it was actually quite a nice school, much more developed than what we have seen in other countries, however, cleanliness was a big issue. The older students had fairly nice classrooms with whiteboards and they had decorated them with their work and kept them tidy, but we were appalled by the nursery room which was for the children 2-4 years old.
All of the children had fevers and it was no surprise based on the condition of the room they were sitting in five days a week. There was mouldy foam flooring which the children constantly tripped over, rotten curtains barely hanging from the window, dirty walls, ant infestations in every corner and the worst part, a bathroom that we could not even bare to enter because the stench was so foul. What we did notice though was the sink was blocked and had quite obviously been for some time as their was actual life beginning to form! Little tadpoles were swimming around, this may sound funny but it is no joke when this is what children were exposed too. We decided to make redecorating that room our key focus, as well as teaching the children English.
For those two weeks we became full time teachers, and we can tell you it was no easy task! We spent the weekend before lesson planning and shopping for prizes, stickers and game ideas for the children, this was super fun. Their little faces were so delighted each time they won a prize or a sticker and it was a joy to see. For the younger students our teaching varied from nursery rhymes, colours, animals, comic strips and basic English. For the older students we helped with their pronunciations, grammar, new vocabulary, and even taught a bit of syntax and sentence structure to some evening classes of Cambodian Adults which we really enjoyed, it took us back to our uni days! The children were enthusiastic to learn and extremely happy to have us with them, but we must admit teaching seven classes a day was tiring and very hard to keep the smaller children entertained all of the time. Neither of us are teachers and after this experience we give our upmost respect to them!
At the weekends we got an insight to these children’s lives when we went to do a bit of shopping at the local market, which has a name that actually translated into “dirty market.” This was where most of the children lived with their families who all had stalls selling meat, fruit, veg, toiletries and other general bits. The market stunk and the flies around the fresh produce was gross, we had to walk through holding our noses! The only good thing about this place was the fact we were greeted by so many of the kids from school with huge smiling faces wanting to introduce us to their parents. The children were filthy, still in their school uniforms on the weekend presumably because they had no other clothes and were all helping out on the stalls, doing what they could to help make a living. Again it was another moment for us that made us realise just how privileged and sheltered our lives have been growing up in the UK.
So, with our mission being to completely freshen up the nursery room, we bought materials and paints and got to work. We ripped up the horrid old foam flooring to clean and disinfect the floor underneath, which was actually well tiled! We ripped down the horrid curtains and pulled off the peeling paint from the walls. After washing everything what felt like a million times, we painted the walls white which instantly made the room feel so fresh, we also painted pictures the best we could (neither of us are artists!) as well as sticking educational posters on the walls. Once finished and comparing the room before and after we are not shy to admit we are so proud with what a difference we were able to make. Unfortunately we could not sort the bathroom out, that needs professional work! But hopefully the nursery room will now be a much more enjoyable environment for the little ones to be in.
Next we focused on the playground, which was of a decent size and location it just needed sorting out. We informed all staff at the school that bikes were no longer to be parked in the play area. We moved the bricks to the front of the school and asked for them to be collected, we picked up the litter and washed the floor and walls as best we could to try and ensure that the rodents stayed away. We then painted the walls with rainbows, weather and animals making for a brighter and safer environment. This is a playground after all and is meant to be fun!
The two weeks quickly passed as we were so busy having a great time, meeting and teaching the children being our highlight. It was definitely the hardest voluntary activity we have participated in, but seeing the results at the end and knowing the children would be happier and healthier were well worth it. We can only hope that the staff at the school are encouraged by what we did, and amongst themselves decide to keep the school clean and continue to make improvements!