It can be difficult to find volunteering opportunities that fit your schedule, budget and interests, but it is possible to make your own opportunities! Below Margaret, deputy principal at an Australian Christian school, tells Voluntales how she used her own professional contacts and skills to contribute to La Valla school in Cambodia.

– How did you find out about La Valla? Which volunteering organization did you find it through?

I didn’t actually go with an organisation. I work at Trinity Catholic College which is a Marist School and I heard about Cambodia when I went to a Marist dinner in Brisbane. At this dinner they talked about their Solidarity projects which included La Valla School in Phnom Penh. I visited Cambodia one year and, as I had heard about this school run by the Marist Brothers as part of their Solidarity project, I went out for a visit. I then asked the Brothers if I could come and volunteer there in the school and they agreed.

There is some information in the links below.,-hope-for-tomorrow

– How long did you stay there for?

I went for 4 weeks, and am going back for 4 weeks this year.

– What were the best parts of your experience?

Talking to  and seeing the children at the school and being amazes at their positive and cheerful outlook on life even though they are so disabled, and in a country where disability is nowhere near supported as it is in Australia

All of the teachers and many of the support staff were also disabled and seeing what they have achieved, and seeing what great teachers they are with no formal education is fantastic.

Getting to know Brother Terry who has spent 18 years at the school was great. Seeing the passion and commitment is very inspiring. Also seeing someone actually walk the talk of the founder of the Marists (Marcellin Champagnant) and to know so committed to a mission and a belief is humbling.

My work was to look at the teachers, at their teaching and to report back on my observations. It was also to give recommendations as to ideas that the school could take on. This was very interesting because, whilst most teachers couldn’t speak English very well, and I could speak no Khmer, the behaviours of teaching can transcend language barriers to an extent. I did have a translator to work with at the end and she translated the documents into Khmer and she was with me when I gave feedback to the individual teachers and to the Principal (who could speak Russian, French and Khmer but no English).

I was also working with three disabled young men who had been employed at teachers by the school but they had NO training so I was asked to give them so basic training. I found this very challenging as it had to be so basic I found it hard to delve back to when I started teaching to find the VERY basics. Getting to a level to help them was very hard. I found their enthusiasm and willingness to absorb what I had to say was great, but sad too as I could do so little in such a short time and they wanted to know so much.

– Were there any other particular challenges?

Challenges were the language barrier and my concern about how this type of review would go because of the language… but it seemed to work.

Other challenges were that I saw so much enthusiasm from the teachers and students about technology but there is no money for the school to get computers and internet access.

– Would you recommend it to others?

Certainly, but it is not like some volunteer situation that does it for a business or in a structured way. Most volunteers there have some link to the Marists schools in Australia and many of the volunteers are the students on Immersion experiences.

– Anything else people should be aware of?

I found Cambodia very easy to travel to in around. People were very helpful. I didn’t travel outside the capital much so can’t comment on that. I did go for a weekend to Saigon by bus and that was pretty easy. I was never hassled or felt afraid and I was a lone woman walking around etc. However, Brother Terry was a little concerned as he said things could happen. I bought a mobile phone and was able to contact Brother Terry if I had a problem (which didn’t happen).

The main issue is the traffic and the non-existent road rules. I nearly got run over once. The car ran over my big toe and grazed my elbow – pretty close. I was a bit lucky with that.

– Finally, approximately how much money was needed for this trip?

Airfares were A$600 return with Air Asia

Accommodation was A$1000

Visa A$25 (which is so easy to get on-line)

Spending money for the basics – A$100 to A$150 per week

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