What I wish I was told before volunteering at an orphanage overseas

Voluntourism is a BIG thing at the moment. More people are opting for those ‘travel with a purpose’ trips (which I’m all for). I did exactly that after I’d finished high school. I’d signed up with a volunteer company to volunteer as an English teacher at an orphanage in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It all sounded perfect. But… to those of you thinking about volunteering at an orphanage overseas, read on, before you’re faced with incredible shocks (incredible in hindsight, but at the time it was stressful AF)!!

1. Signing up with a ¬†volunteer company is fine, but don’t sign up with them again:

Before I arrived in Siem Reap, all my questions were answered by my volunteer company, but when I got there, I realised that I had instead been put with a local partnered company. Hmmm… this was when I was like: “WHERE DID MY MONEY GO?” It’s easy to guess that most of it went to ‘the Western company,’ instead of the project that you’re helping out at. Still, I’m sort of glad I went through a volunteer company, as they’d given me the CONNECTION, but I’d never go with them again.

2. Go for a longer period of time:

This was my biggest regret!!! (#rememberthis). Before I went, all my friends and family said: “Wow, a month is a long time!” but it really isn’t. It’s really easy for high school groups to organise a two-week trip around Cambodia and visit two or three orphanages to teach underprivileged kids for a day. What difference do you think that’ll make when a week after that another group of students will come and teach them the alphabet all over again… 2 weeks might make you feel like a saint, where you feel like you taught them something new everyday, but how much of that information is retained a week later? A month later? My recommendation would be 3 months minimum, to really let the kids learn more than just the alphabet!

3. Be prepared to do more than what you signed up for:

I originally signed up as an English teacher, with the intention of teaching them music if I could. But, I somehow landed myself in other roles like disciplining the children who weren’t taking my classes, taking a child to the hospital after he fell off his bed, and writing documents and reports for the orphanage. In hindsight, I’m glad I had those learning experiences, but at the time these responsibilities got very stressful at times. Remember, you’re on a holiday and you shouldn’t be exploited!!!

4. You WILL be asked to donate money, and you WILL get frustrated:

The truth is we volunteers are the problem. We try to do good things to improve the lives of those who are less fortunate than us, and most of the time we do it by donating money. My orphanage manager then did everything he could to dig more money outta me. Just stay strong, and remember, donating THINGS like time, clothes and toys is much better than donating money.

5. DON’T get too attached to the kids:

Most teachers I had while going through school had their favourites, so you probably will too. And when a student knows they’re the teacher’s pet, they’d normally love you back. But think about what happens when you leave? Think about what they’d feel every time a volunteer leaves… The same feelings all over again…

6. Keep the connections and keep coming back:

So, the manager of my orphanage had asked if he could visit me in my guesthouse before I left. Turned out, I was apparently appointed as a member of the Board who was supposed to sustain funding for the orphanage. What? I had no idea this was the plan… ¬†I was already pretty frustrated with the manager at this point and had long suspected his corruption (sadly, a lot of previous volunteers here also said so). How was I going to make a difference as a girl freshly out of high school? Truthfully, my only option was to return another day to hopefully dismiss their current manager and make the system transparent.

7. Maybe orphanages aren’t the best idea:

The term ‘orphanage’ is so many meanings in Cambodia. I found out from a Ted Talk the other day that the number of orphanages in Cambodia since 2005 has risen by 75%, and the number of children living in Cambodian orphanages has almost doubled, despite the fact that the vast majority of children in these orphanages are not orphans, but children WITH parents. These orphanages are built because they attract people like us.

So what can we do? Watch this Ted Talk, and support family-based models!

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