As I walk up to the communal area, I am met by Mikee, the General Manager of Hope Agency, and
the most casually (yet suitably) dressed Headmaster ever, in a tee shirt and ¾ length, light and airy
trousers. In his early 20s, he is Chinese/English and has been at Hope well over a year. As with the
other leaders of the charity, Mikee is driven and passionate about making it work and giving these
families more. Quiet, effective, modest and organised, for a young man, he has a real future ahead
in whatever endeavours he follows.
I am introduced to a few of the volunteers not currently teaching, most of whom were young enough
to be one of my own children. A very mixed, but very friendly team, I was made welcome from
the off set. As lessons finished, more volunteers returned and I was happy to see some of my colleagues were nearer my age and would be able to talk about things I actually knew about, rather than P-Cent or Kanye Z. Short lived relief, as three of them leave within the next week.
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Then I meet Jason Han, the founder of Hope and one of the nicest men you could meet. Unassuming, polite, funny, driven and dedicated to the cause, as I get to know Jason more, those initial thoughts don’t change, rather they are enhanced. Jason is local to Bakod, and so has the village, and its surrounding area, in his thoughts, to give education and empowerment to the
children and families of this otherwise impoverished area.
Later in the week, I meet the third musketeer, John, who is co-director and, amongst other things
within Hope, runs all the media/marketing side of the charity (as well as running his own company in
parallel). John is from Leeds (we all have crosses to bare), and alongside Mikee, helps coordinate the
logistical side of having up to 40 volunteers around week by week. An inspirational leader, John
really knows how to keep the young volunteers organised.
I arrived on the one night during the school week when alcohol is allowed on-site – QUIZ NIGHT!
Now I like a pub quiz, but this evening takes it to whole new level! Two different people per week
run it. The theme for the quiz is announced, team members and team names are allocated and,
based on the team name, fancy dress plans are underway – this is not your “sit round a table and
quietly answer questions” type of quiz. Oh no! This is interactive, raucous, chaotic, but most of all,
fun! Fancy dress can be made from anything, and trips to the local market can help with supplies,
but absolutely anything can be used – I used some old mouldy pipes for my Spider from Mars – a lot
of work goes in to it but a lot of joy comes out.
Next morning, and despite the previous days 24 hours travel, and the insanity of quiz night, it’s up
early, and time for a proper look around my new home. The volunteers’ facilities on site are basic. A
communal living/dining area, with a mixture of table and chairs, hammocks, a kitchen area where a
wonderful local lady comes to prepare and cook breakfast and dinner, a dormitory block made from
a converted shed with single and mixed gender rooms comprising of steel bunk beds each with a
mosquito net, mattress, and ceiling mounted fans. A recently completed shower/toilet block
sits behind the dorms – and that’s it. Oh, and a new chicken coup.
Fifty yards up the road, past the frog chorus ponds, hidden by an overhanging tree, is Bits Place – a
house with a food stall and a seating area set up outside. That, it turns out, is our local shop, dry
cleaners, post office and bar. Drinking alcohol is not permitted on school grounds, so this is our
sanctuary after a long hot day, to share a cold drink, swap life stories, bond, and enjoy a game of
All volunteers help around the site starting with chores at 8am each day. These can range from
cleaning the shower block, garden tidying, to washing-up. Even with youth on their side, many of the
younger volunteers struggle to get up for chores, much like being at University I imagine. Not so for us
old farts, respect for responsibility on our side, we are amongst the first to appear.
And so, my name is added to the teaching and chores boards, and I am in. My time teaching begins
tomorrow. Time to try and sleep – on the top of a bunk bed – under a net!
The lack of air-con in the warm, humid dorms makes my first, and several following, night’s sleep
very uneasy. Occasionally cooled by the oscillating fan, trying to sleep in the heat is itself a chore not
listed on the board. In time, I do acclimatise, but it takes a while.
Each class is given a name, and my 3 daily classes were, in age order, The Cheetahs, Little Monsters
and The Morning Glories (yes, really). Each one at different levels of education, each one with
different characters, but every one of them with children who want to learn, who love it that people
want to come and teach them, to support them and to help them aim for a better life.
My first class with The Morning Glories, I was asked by Kirsten, lead teacher, to stand and tell the
class about me. Age, where I lived, children, family, etc. Their job, in return, was to make notes and
over the weekend, write up what I had said and recite it back to me on Monday. Quite a strange
experience having Cambodian children you’ve only just met, telling you about yourself, but we
laughed together at some of their translations, we clapped at each presentation and we bonded
from there on in.
Each school day runs in much the same way, but this should not belittle or undermine the
importance of what happens on a day to day basis. With different classes running at the same time,
it should be easy to get distracted by other classes, their noise, their fun, their laughter, but each
class concentrates on what they are doing. The teaching leads, the assistants, the children
themselves, all are there to educate and be educated.
The sense of fun, combined with the real essence of wanting to learn, make this such a joyous place
to teach. The older students have a vision, a yearning to make a better life for themselves and their
families, borne out of the help and support Hope is giving them. The younger kids laugh, play and
interact with all the teachers. No mobile phone or tablet distractions here, running, playing ball
games, rounds of tick, this is what real childhood school days should be about. And all with the
background lives of relative poverty. The West has so much to learn.
Classrooms are a mixture of construction. A brick built block of 2 rooms and a materials storage
area. A wooden framed room with no glass in the windows and a corrugated roof, deafening when
the storms hit. A cement floored area covered only with a corrugated metal roof canopy to keep off
the sun’s rays, and an open-air area under a tree. Each teaching area has either a wipe or blackboard
and wooden desks, many home-made, for the children to sit at.
Every other Friday certain classes are taken to either play football or go swimming. We took our
Little Monsters swimming on my second Friday. The look of expectation on their faces as the tut-tut
bounced along the dirt track, the joy of being in water, of using me as a human climbing frame to
jump off, simple things that mean the world to these kids, is wonderful to see.
“Teacher Ian, throw me the ball”, “Teacher Ian, can I get on your back and you swim”, “Teacher Ian,
race you”. Don’t they know how old I am??!! But I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.
As well as teaching on site, there is a relationship with a local orphanage, where volunteers can
spend the morning playing with, and teaching, another group of willing children. The demographic of
the Hope students is poor, but these orphanage kids have even less. But for the support and care
they receive from volunteers, their material possessions are almost nothing. And yet, as with all the
children I met, they are happy, they love learning, and playing and laughing.
I saved some of the toys I had brought over to give out at the orphanage – the faces on the children
as they scrambled to build a polystyrene aeroplane or open a Peppa Pig sticker book, were priceless.
As with many kids, their concentration threshold is limited, so soon the planes were dropped and it
was time for a game of football. Some stayed around the play table, sitting on the knees of the
volunteers, as if their favourite aunt/uncle had just arrived, while the older ones were in class, being
taught English to help their futures, just like the Hope students.
Whilst the orphanage is a home for these kids, their accommodation is basic. The beds had wafer
thin mattresses, making them appear very uncomfortable. Thanks to the tremendous efforts of
certain members from Hope, Lou and Kirsten in particular, enough money was raised to buy 75 new
mattresses. Both these young ladies, as well as fund raising for the orphanage, were teaching leads
at the school, had been at Hope for months and had amazing relationships with the kids they taught
– neither of them yet 21. Respect to them and all the young volunteers for their hard work and
As if running Hope School and supporting the local orphanage wasn’t enough, during my time at
Hope, Jason, John and Mikee had secured another way to support the local community, by getting
an agreement with the local authorities to teach English to 150 students at the local Khmer school,
Vihea Kapuo School in Angtasom. Not only would this help and support yet more children in the
community, it also meant that the growing number of volunteers had another project to focus on. As
this was a new venture, it needed the more experienced teaching leads and some of the new arrivals
to spend their afternoons at VK, while the rest continued at Hope. Even though the school had more
desks, materials and facilities than Hope, it was still very basic compared to Western schools.
I spent one afternoon at the school, and even though these kids spoke very little English, their
willingness to learn was no less enthusiastic. As with Hope, different classes with different ages and
Unfortunately, I understand that the school has since been closed, luckily a lot of the students have been able to come to the main school to get taught and the second school will be reopening in April!
In addition, to ALL the TEFL, Hope also support and organise a food bank to help the needy, and run
local litter collections – I was not really involved in these, so cannot write much about them, but
they highlight how much is done to try and empower these people through Hope School – so much
more than just a school, it’s a future.