As a mature International Development student in London I set out to make the most of my summer break, I have volunteered in several western countries and wanted to take my skills further abroad this time, and I wanted to use my skills in IT and finance. Cambodia has always interested me, I had a friend who volunteered here many years ago and she spoke of the troubles that the country had faced and how resilient and friendly the people are, it is a place that has sat in the back of mind for a long time.
My search for an NGO that incorporated technology, education and community support wasn’t’ especially easy. There are plenty of NGOs working with children and adults in Cambodia but I kept encountering the same barriers, I couldn’t find the child protection policies of the NGOs online and also I kept being redirected to a third party that organised voluntourism visits to orphanages and schools and only provided the NGO with around 25% of fee for these visits. These practices often result in the exploitation of children for profit and don’t actually help change lives.
When I found JWOC, it seemed to tick all the boxes and after an email exchange and Skype call, I knew I’d found a place that is extremely focused on sustainability and puts the needs of the children and the local Khmer people at its core. I believe that education is the cornerstone of society and that it is a fundamental tool in alleviating poverty. Often digital literacy gets put to the back of the pile when it comes to education in developing countries but in our rapidly changing world it is as important as any other form of literacy and thankfully JWOC recognise how important STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) is. So I set myself to fundraising and booked my flight to Bangkok (for a quick stopover).
After leaving the chaos of Bangkok behind, I boarded the plane for a one-hour flight to Siem Reap, the first thing that struck me whilst flying over the Cambodian countryside was just how beautiful and green the landscape was, it reminded me of home. The tuk-tuk ride to my hotel was my first real taste of Cambodia, it was dusty and my senses were bombarded with lots of new sights, sounds and smells, this is a continuing theme here in Siem Reap. Coming from the UK, I had prepared myself for the “culture shock” but I was still stunned to see how people live, the levels of poverty and the lack of infrastructure.
As I walked through the gate on my first day at JWOC I was greeted by smiling, happy children but that’s not just unique to the children, everyone here always has a smile for you. The staff welcomed me and gave me a tour, I know that JWOC relies on donations to keep operating so I was extremely impressed with the facilities, it just shows what people working together for a common goal can achieve, and it is truly civil society in practice. I was introduced to Sitham, the IT teacher and computer technician and my first class in the computer lab.
I’ve spent the last few weeks working with some amazing staff, I’ve implemented a new system for online learning which gives real-time data for teachers to see how each student is progressing with their typing and other educational games. This will enable teachers to be able to give support to those who need it and praise those who are excelling and also know exactly who is working and who isn’t, allowing for a more robust lesson. I have been helping with teaching techniques and confidence building and fixing several niggling IT problems within the lab.
I have visited a local village with the community support team and witnessed the amazing work they do in the outlying villages around Siem Reap and how their programs help those who do not have access to education, this was an eye-opening experience as the villagers are mostly illiterate, have restricted access to electricity and no running water. The levels of poverty are truly heartbreaking but the work performed by JWOC is vital, sustainable and aimed at the roots causes, it is truly commendable work.
The children and adults who attend the Free Classes show a real willingness to learn, there is a drive for knowledge resonating throughout the students and it is evident there is a strive for constant improvement within the faculty. I set out to leave something in place that will benefit the students and the teachers and improve the IT classes, hopefully, when I leave they will have a fully functioning data collection system that will be used for future classes. Technology is vital for education and if utilised correctly it can profoundly change the way people look at the world, it can open doors of creativity and new freedoms.
My visit to South East Asia hasn’t just been about work, I have spent 3 days in Bangkok, I have experienced the wonderful temples of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, I have visited the capital Phnom Penh and the province of Mondulkiri, to visit an elephant sanctuary and I have experienced many other facets of this beautiful country. I also plan on visiting Vietnam before I leave.
I would like to thank the staff and pupils of JWOC for welcoming me into their amazing family, everyone has gone above and beyond to make sure I fit in here. JWOC is truly an asset to Cambodia and if you are thinking about volunteering, fundraising or donating then I can assure you that your efforts are going to the very best cause. I’ll leave you with a quote, which I think encapsulates the spirit of JWOC – “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world” – Nelson Mandela.