A Volunteer's Perspective

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[excerpted from a regional magazine]

Language Arts Teacher Visits Cambodia

My girlfriend Melanie and I learned of the opportunity to visit Cambodia through a friend with whom I had worked during past summers in Alaska.  Having completed his medical school residency in 2006, he had since put his new degree to good use by establishing a non-profit organization for health, education and community development in Kampot, Cambodia.  The town of Kampot, located just inland from the southern coast along the Kampot River, is a relatively small and quiet community sustained by fishing, fruit farms and a dusty strip of small restaurants and guesthouses.  Though not nearly the tourist destination represented by the nearby Sihanoukville or by the storied beaches of Thailand, Kampot has both the charm and location to attract a modest but steady stream of coastal travelers, and remains thankfully free of the heavy crowds, commercial pressures, and crime that come associated with some of the more popular tourist sites across Southeast Asia.   

            As volunteers for the community development and educational branches of Solaid International Melanie and I assisted local school teachers with materials and techniques for teaching English, and were also invited into their classrooms each day to work with fourth, fifth and sixth grade students.  Collaborating with the in-country directors for Solaid, all of them native to Cambodia, we also spent many days traveling to small communities up river, meeting the families that decided where and to whom the Solaid development funds would be directed.  We spoke regularly with rural school directors, and gained a real sense for Cambodian village life.  To correctly impart all the details of our experience would be as difficult as it would be space-consuming, but it suffices here to attribute a few general traits to the people: welcoming, hospitable, hard-working; and a few descriptors to the educational infrastructure: minimal, stretched to the point of breaking, and in serious need of international support.  The educators with whom we collaborated and spoke (in some cases with interpreters, in others through broken English) described without a trace of self-pity the conditions under which they labored.  The school buildings themselves -- single-walled, concrete structures with classrooms opening directly into courtyards -- had no electricity or running water.  Licensed teachers received an average salary of fifty dollars per month.  For extra income, most teachers offered supplemental classes, extending their classroom time each day to roughly 9 hour-long periods, after which many of them faced a ten to twenty mile motor-bike or bicycle ride over muddy roads and single-track trails to reach home.   When we asked initially whether donations of pens, pencils and notebooks might be helpful, the teachers responded by saying that they would much rather receive funds with which to build make-shift latrines or to buy water filters, the latter of which would offer students at least one source of clean drinking water each day.  

Though these educational and social needs were both eye-opening and discouraging given the devotion of the teachers we met, we left the town of Kampot after our stay with many inspiring after-images of cultural richness: ferry-rides filled with laughter in which small canoes threatened to capsize under the weight of our party, riverside huts where the teachers would eat their lunch before diving into the water for an afternoon swim, and a farewell adventure in which our new friends led us through mountain rivers, countless villages, and the tunnels of a sacred Buddhist temple on the outskirts of town.  Perhaps the strongest impression of all came from a school director with whom we met and spoke several times throughout our stay, and from whom we had learned much in the way of quiet authority, patience, and resolution in face of unimaginable challenge.  Upon receiving a water-filter we had picked up and delivered as part of the Solaid initiative, he closed our final conversation with the traditional Khmer bow, palms pressed flat together.  “I am very glad" he told us in careful, measured English, “that you came to Cambodia.”  We could not help but agree................