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Monday, August 20, 2012

Unforgettable Experiences

For the last 4 weeks volunteers from Oxford University have joined us to help run summer activities at the school. In her post Emily describes what they did and what she learnt.....

Before volunteering with JWOC the majority of my experiences working with children had been either informal ones with my younger brother, or in a formal structured environment: Religious Education lessons for four and five year olds in Surrey had been timetabled  by some higher authority, and there the messiest activity was colouring-in. Consequently, JWOC was a breath of fresh air. We were given the responsibility and flexibility to create our own activities and schedule rather than being given a set structure. Nearly all decisions were made by us: including whether to have arts and crafts or games, which volunteer would lead which activity, and at what time. Scary? Absolutely terrifying; but at the same time wonderfully rewarding. 

Once we got to grips with the organization and children, not to mention the climate, it ran like a well-oiled machine (or at least a well-watered one; it was the rainy season, after all). It produced some fantastic results, ranging from animal masks and a giant toilet-roll snake to homemade globes. Given the length of the summer holidays it felt fantastic to provide an opportunity for Khmer children to fill their time with both fun and educational activities, sometimes without even knowing it: country bingo and animal Pictionary both went down tremendously. In fact, the whole summer school was a two-way process. We learnt valuable skills about organization, got to spend time with some extraordinary children, and, more importantly, felt that we were able to provide a service for the community.

These activities wouldn’t have functioned without our Khmer interns. Each of us had one intern to work with, and these working relationships proved invaluable to communicating with the children. The ability to translate within milliseconds was a much-lauded skill. I was paired with Chheng Oun, a twenty year old student at Hun Sen High School in Siem Reap.  Chheng Oun was exceptional in rallying the children during activities, as well as being a pretty good footballer. Oun lives in a temple in Siem Reap with monks, while his family of five (three brothers and two sisters – a shock for someone with only one brother!) live in a village outside of town. He wants to become an English teacher or a politician when he is older, and in his free time enjoys visiting Angkor Wat. Perhaps one of the most surprising facts about the Khmer interns, though in hindsight the most understandable given the Khmer education system, was how much they loved high school lessons and learning English. Oun’s favourite book is the English dictionary! Given some of the negative attitudes toward education in England, this was very refreshing.

Chheng Oun also accompanied me to a rural village to observe the Clean Water Project run by JWOC. This project involves building wells, teaching about hygiene, and provides water filters for families. One morning we travelled with three scholarship students around different households in order to interview residents on hygiene practice. While the questions were hard to follow given the language barrier, the village itself was an eye-opening experience: witnessing Khmer lifestyle focused upon agriculture was a significant contrast to what we had observed in the cities. The positive impact a well could make was made manifest, and the enthusiasm with which the scholarship students worked was wonderful.

Overall, JWOC has provided me with some unforgettable experiences and skills. Having just finished university, I am extremely grateful and hope to take them with me outside of the education system. What have I learnt over the past month? That you need a lot of games to fill one hour (though you can never have too many rounds of ‘Splat’ or ‘Duck Duck Goose’); if you try face-painting expect to it to turn into body-painting; and that being able to think on your feet is essential for arts and crafts, games, lessons, and, it seems, life.

With that in mind, my top tips for anyone volunteering next year with JWOC to help with the summer activities would be:
1. Always keep a smile on your face.
2. PLAN!
3. …Be prepared to change that plan.
 

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