It was probably Sunday morning when it hit me. Running through the yard with at least 3 chicks in one hand and a bundle of children’s washing in the other whilst simultaneously kicking a football back to one of the children and shouting to some of the others to help me gather in all of the birds and clothes before the monstrous raincloud overhead burst its seams. At that point it hit me what an incredibly lucky person I was to be doing all this, here- And how much of a departure from my ‘former’ life it was.
I’d first seen the opportunity at the Centre For Poor and Orphaned Children, in rural Cambodia, on the Workaway website. At that point I hadn’t met the charismatic and brilliant director of the project, Mr. Kim Ny, nor heard his story.
Mr. Kim was born into a family where love and compassion was in limited supply, and with a disability which rendered him unable to walk unaided. He was also blessed, however with an insatiable desire for education and enhancement. With neither the funds nor the support to assist him, he crawled 6km to school each way, every day. Every single day. In the rainy season the teachers would not allow him in the classroom because of his muddy state and in the dry season he would burn himself on the journey. Despite all this, he learnt and improved his lot, and decided to embark on a mission to help the country’s unfortunate children.
CPOC today is a marvellous place which is run on an absolute shoestring on the basis of donations alone, as well as the efforts of volunteers such as myself who visit and help for as long as they can. Children are given love and warmth, and encouraged to become self sufficient, supported all of the way into jobs and even their own businesses. The centre operates as a family setup, with the older children taking the place of older siblings and providing guidance, support and the odd clip around the ear!
CPOC does not just care for children who have lost both parents. The children at CPOC have a variety of difficult home conditions, fleeing domestic violence, alcoholism on the part of one or both parents and other issues such as sheer poverty rendering their parents unable to care for them.
Early on, I was glad to have been given a project with some of the older residents, Leader and Meng. We had to design and build another shower block to help all of the children get clean and ready for school in the mornings. It was fantastic sitting with them encouraging them to think through the problems and solutions, and to draw a plan for the construction. During this time it was clear how bright and knowledgable they were, with boundless enthusiasm. I helped Leader with learning about Excel in the evenings, he’s a really bright young man who is destined for University and a big future, with a desire to design robots after University. Meng’s a funny, engaging guy who is following in his footsteps, and both of them act as responsible big brothers to the younger children.
I also had my first introduction to English teaching. Very much in at the deep end really, but enjoyable nonetheless. With the luxury of plenty of volunteers around, we taught in pairs, really helping to ensure all of the children were at the same point and remained engaged. Despite this, some of the groups were a real challenge. The 1.30pm class included a wide range of ages and abilities, with very young children also there, who clearly had not yet learned to write properly. I cannot imagine how hard it is to learn English, particularly in written form, coming from a basic level of Khmer language: the characters are completely different and the spoken language reliant on completely different tones.
One of my most challenging lessons was at 1.30pm on a hot day, trying to teach children the time of the day, and trying to keep a very tired class focused and on track. Very few of the students completely got it, however at the least they were speaking and repeating in good English. It struck me and my co-teacher later that probably none of the children had previously been taught how to tell the time, and in the countryside there’s very little need for clocks.
None of this matters though when you realise how much the children love and value coming to the classes. That’s the main thing… If I can end a lesson with no voice through having sung the time song 5 times together and they’ve enjoyed the lesson, it’s a successful lesson. I did have to laugh afterwards when I met one of my students at the little cafe opposite, where she works with her mum. I asked her the time, whereupon she fixed me with the kind of withering look that only a nine year old can manage, and simply said “No”. Ok then…
I learnt loads working at the centre. Practical stuff like building chicken houses and perches from random bits of bamboo, and also resurrecting long-lost knowledge about fixing bicycles, desperately trying to patch up the centre’s creaking fleet. I love going practical things, and constructing solutions from nothing. We managed so much during my time at the centre, but there was always plenty more to do. Fixing the dirt road to the centre to ensure that the minibus could still make it through the ruts. Raising the chicken fence for the arrival of new ducks. Laying the foundations for the buildings and gardens of a new centre nearby. New skills and enjoyable teamwork.
Other stuff too, like riding and driving various vehicles around the tracks nearby to run errands. It wasn’t until I did it that I realised I had actually never ridden a moped before. Time to learn!
And thus began possibly one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life. I was hanging idly around by the shop in between classes, when Mr. Kim came in and announced that he had to go to a meeting at a new centre ‘nearby’. I was IT, the chosen one. Since the centre ‘s Tuk Tuk was out of action that just left a motorbike and a moped… So, wheelchair goes on back of the motorbike leaving, er, me and Mr. Kim on a small put-put moped. Really small.
If you’ve ever wondered what true fear feels like, it’s having your first ride on a motorbike down 10km of muddy, rutted dirt roads and then a further 35km of crazy Cambodian highway. With a disabled man who is the local equivalent of the Dalai Lama hanging precariously onto the back of said moped. Which handles like an absolute pig and has quite literally no brakes on it. That’s fear. We made it, though… And managed to adjust back in a bit of braking pressure. Phew. An hour’s journey each way, including a deep flooded road on the way back and yes, I really did need that lunchtime beer upon returning. I expected great things from the moped for my next trip on it, just me up to the local temple for a spot of meditation but no, the thing still handled like a pig even with only one person on it.
The current centre is pretty well established now after Mr. Kim and the children moved there a couple of months ago. But still it was a shock to the system to be quite as far ‘off the grid’ as we were. The living conditions were rustic to say the least. The room where I was staying was rented from the family next door, and was basically a wooden shack with a thin mattress and a single layer of floorboards above the family, and their pigs. Pigs which initially woke me up at their 5am feeding time however I subsequently didn’t notice. I was super glad of my bargain silk sleeping bag liner from Vietnam providing at least psychological protection from the spiders…
I also realised with utter horror at 4am one morning, with a crumbling stomach and urgent need to visit the facilities, that the house’s compound was locked overnight, separating me from the toilet of our centre next door by a completely unclimbable fence. I will elaborate no further however I am eternally grateful to the dark corner of the compound and the small carrier bag which found its way into my shorts pocket.
Aside from that, the centre only currently has one shower room/toilet shared between everyone- With around 15 children and 15-20 volunteers this is pretty tight! The water for bathing comes from a well down the road, therefore refilling the tanks is a somewhat laborious exercise involving the running of a leaky hose and long electrical cable to a pump. If there’s electricity you get the luxury of a running (cold) shower, otherwise it’s buckets.
Here I will express my utter contempt for one of the several ‘volunteers’ who came to the centre for 2-3 days and did precisely nothing to help, treating it as a free hostel. Her hour-long shower at the cost of everyone else and apparent failure to actually pay upon leaving an indication of the minority of travelling freeloaders. You really do need to spend at least a week or so to give any sort of benefit to the centre rather than just making a ceremonial papal visit… I would have loved to stay longer than my 2 weeks but sadly my flights out were already booked. There will be a return visit!
It’s not all work work work at CPOC. The children get up really early and have a full schedule of classes and chores during the week, so at the weekends it’s nice to all relax and have some fun. On my first weekend there we played an “Olympic Games” where all of the children competed against each other in a range of sports and quizzes. An absolute riot and great to see everyone enjoying themselves together.
That night we had some music from the volunteers and a sing-song with the children, before watching Tarzan. CPOC really does feel like a family at times like this and it was touching how quickly the children bonded with us as older brothers and sisters. I’ve never really had much contact with children before, and prior to my experience at CPOC I found them generally terrifying, but I think I’m over it now!
Being in the middle of the Cambodian countryside as we were, there was also plenty to see and do outside the centre. Less than 10 minutes walk away is a fantastic river for swimming, lazing and messing around in. The kids loved it, particularly when we were there trying to relax and being dive-bombed by flying children. They loved to fish too, which was a good supplement to the daily rice and vegetables.
The countryside surrounding the centre is lush, in the truest sense of the word. It’s like the world with all of the colours turned up to 11, from the vivid greens of the rice paddies to the deep blue sky and clear, star-filled nights. Within a short distance of the centre is a beautiful rural temple for quiet moments and contemplation. And huge monitor lizards within the rolled up prayer mats- It’s only a shock the first time!
I’m not used to communal life and so it was all a bit of a culture shock at first, feeling spookily like the film The Beach. To add to this slight unease upon arrival another of the volunteers had come down with suspected Dengue Fever and was resting with a high temperature in the dorms. I really hoped it wouldn’t be like The Beach where the Swedish guy gets left to die in a tent, and after about 48hrs I was reassured that he was getting better. There aren’t many mosquitos around this area, but they can carry nasty stuff. Along with the spiders, scorpions and rice paddy-dwelling snakes. Anyhow…
I soon adapted and met some of the best people I’ve seen travelling from around the world. It was really refreshing practical people doing something worthwhile rather than the Gap Yah crowd all the time. I do feel I’ve learnt a lot about how group dynamics work and how important it is to make a positive contribution.
I struggle a bit with big groups and wasn’t expecting there to be so many people there, it’s a popular placement!
The cafe across the track served as a bit of a social centre for volunteers in the mornings, meeting for great iced coffee and other snacks. Three generations of the same family work there, and both of their children came to classes. If CPOC was not there, the children probably wouldn’t have been learning English at all. It’s easy to judge parents for making their children work, but when times are hard in the countryside children have to be ready to help their parents, there’s no choice if it’s a choice between eating or not. During harvest times the number of children in school drops considerably. Subsistence farming is a hard life and Cambodians are seriously tough, stoic people.
I was lucky during my visit that we got to go on a centre outing. All of the volunteers coming along divided the cost of 3 minibuses between us, so the kids were able to travel free. It was a seriously early start and then a somewhat vomit-inducing trip, firstly along the terribly rutted road to the highway and then the incredibly windy road up the mountain at the end, but it turned out to be an amazing trip that the kids loved.
The first stop wasn’t of terrible interest to the volunteers, I suspect all of us have seen approximately 12,553 Buddhas in our travelling lives, however the children enjoyed themselves throwing themselves off the rocks and occasionally coming back with presents of flowers which looked suspiciously like they might have, erm, not been wild…
Our next stop was at the top of the hill, where there is an abandoned hotel, quite cool for exploring, and a great view of the surrounding countryside. This area was an absolute motorcycling Mecca judging by the amount of big bikes taking the curves at Warp Factor 10. Looked good fun, and a surprisingly good road. However, what was to come next became the absolute highlight- The waterfalls:
Now initially we all hung around at the top taking in the view, until we noticed that some of the more intrepid members of the group had actually found the path down to the bottom and were heading under. Lots of us at the top subsequently became brave and joined them, over a slippery river crossing and then some huge rocks on the way down. This was all completely worth it…
We all piled in, under and around the thundering water, even the smaller kids. Children in Cambodia are seriously tough and self-reliant, and grow up fast. Not once during my 2 weeks did I hear any tears. This was no exception, whilst we were gingerly picking our way across the slippery rocks and fast current other children were running across and splashing us all. I did become a little ‘concerned parent’ as we were leaving though and Sophak was gingerly crossing the fast stream. There was, after all, another huge waterfall about 20m downstream… Eeek!
And so, we picked our way back to the top and piled back into the buses for the long trip home, via the pleasant town of Kampot on the way. A long, long day for everyone on the bus and within about 10 minutes of starting off all of the children were asleep on the volunteers. I’d have loved a nap however keeping 2 sleeping children from falling onto the floor of the bus as we zigzagged down the mountain seemed a more pressing need.
Back to the centre, and an early night for most. And then sadly, as soon as it had begun, my time at CPOC was over. I’m strongly intending to return once I have done my CELTA course and to dedicate a month or two to the project, as I can see the fantastic difference it makes to all of the lives touched. Mr. Kim has big, big plans for the future and the opening of new centres to help more children in need, as well as community projects like well building.
Now, if you’re reading this far you will hopefully realise how worthwhile a project this is. This is the begging bit. Seriously, how many charities do you know that DIRECTLY benefit needy children? And how many of those charities pay CEOs and shareholders? I can personally vouch for the fact that CPOC is run on an absolute shoestring- Proper day-to-day last dollar left kind of stuff.
The new centre will cost $150 a month to rent the building. That’s less than £100. Imagine how much more good could be done if a corporate organisation pledged even just £100 a month. Please, if this strikes a chord then contact me, or look at the link below, and consider donating. If all goes well I will be running a further fundraising programme next summer to buy some desperately needed textbooks and curricula to formalise the English teaching.
Hey, call this a crazy idea, but if you wanted the best ever team-building exercise and committed 2 weeks to the project your team could help build the second new centre…