During our stay in Cambodia, we spent two weeks volunteering with Hope Agency at a rural school in Bakod Village, Takeo Province. Hope is the brain-child of Jason Han, a local whose vision is to improve the lives of underprivileged Cambodian children through education.
Despite running away from home at a young age to escape his family’s poverty – and without finishing high school – Jason still managed to secure a place at University and teach himself English. He set up Hope to ensure that children in his community would have a better childhood than he did; to eliminate child labour, encourage sustainability and self-sufficiency in the community and allow children to enjoy their childhoods.
Hope is located in the heart of rural Takeo, around 3 hours by car from Phnom Penh. As we drove in on a winding dirt track, we couldn’t have felt further away from the hustle and bustle of the city we had just left.
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Fields seemed to stretch for miles, wooden houses stood high on stilts, weather-beaten farmers worked their fields by hand and children cycled by on their way to and from school.
Everyone we passed greeted us with grins, waves and shouts of “Hello!” Despite living in poverty, the people of the surrounding villages are happy, friendly and so welcoming, and are improving their lives day by day through sustainable farming and education. The night before we arrived, a house party had gotten underway to celebrate the completion of a neighbours new house: locals and volunteers alike were welcomed in to enjoy the Cambodian celebration, which involved a lot of beer, dancing and singing (as all good celebrations do!) On another occasion, we were all invited to lunch with Jason’s family, where we perched cross-legged on tables and tucked into huge plates of rice, chicken, omelette and vegetables.
When we arrived at Hope, we joined a team of around 20 other volunteers, some of whom had been there for months, others for only a couple of weeks. But no matter the length of their stay, they all agreed that it was one of the best experiences of their lives. We began by shadowing lessons: watching the other volunteers teach the alphabet, phonetics and even grammar to eager young children, I couldn’t imagine myself having the confidence (or the English skills!) to stand up in front of a class…but we were encouraged to jump straight in, get out of our comfort zone and make the most of our time there, and by the end of my second week, I was leading 3 classes a day, ranging in language skill from Complete Beginners to Advanced! Nicola travelled every day to another school, where she also quickly found herself teaching children of all different ages – and anyone who knows Nicola will know that her enjoying working and playing with children is Kind Of A Big Deal.
The children at Hope were so inspiring: most of them help their families with work in the mornings before going to Khmer school, and then voluntarily attend classes at Hope in order to improve their English, and consequently expand their employment opportunities. They were all so enthusiastic and eager to learn, and it was such a rewarding experience getting the chance to teach them.
We left feeling like two weeks wasn’t nearly long enough, but felt privileged to have had the opportunity to meet these amazing people – Jason, his warm-hearted family, the volunteers who have dedicated so much of their time to improving the lives of others, and, of course, the fantastic children of Hope School.
I would strongly encourage anyone who is considering doing this kind of volunteering abroad to put aside their fears and just go for it – it is such a rewarding and inspiring experience and is one that you will never forget.
Jason presenting us with certificates on our last day at Hope.
If you want to know more about Hope Agency and the amazing work that Jason and his volunteers have done, check out their website at www.hopeagency.org