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Life As A Cambodian Orphanage Volunteer

Purposely, we kept our expectations of living amongst 90+ Cambodian orphans to a minimum. All we really knew was this: Ash and I would pour our hearts and souls into the children yet we would depart having learned more from them.

Sugan Cane Being Processed For Sugar WaterUpon attaining our thirty day visas at the antiquated Phnom Phen airport after a convoluted process involving an army of immigration officials, we were met by Ben and Mike (volunteers) with two tuk-tuks waiting curbside. Turning off Russian Boulevard kilometers before the riverfront hustle and bustle, the motorcycle driven carriage rambled down a narrow street full of sugar cane juice makers, shopkeepers sitting on low slung stools, and scraggy dogs running amok. Walking through the gates of Palm Tree Orphanage, we were greeted by a host of smiling Cambodian faces. It was one of those moments that you relish to relive a thousand times. From that instant, we felt at home and wholly determined to do all we could for the disadvantaged youth.

Palm Tree Orphanage Entrance Group Shot with Lang Dy and Da

Meat, Tomato, Rice DinnerOur digs were simple, yet had its own bathroom, a mossy net, and most importantly, air conditioning. When the mercury hits 100 degrees Fahrenheit on most days, our American blood boils. The kids however, set up camp on the tile floor beneath a blue protective net each night, their bodies acclimated to the choking heat. Feeling constantly dehydrated, our crowning possession was a twenty liter crystal blue distilled water dispenser, which cost $1.00. Our daily intake of white rice would make Uncle Ben proud. However, while the kids had a sparing helping of vegetables or fish, the volunteers had a healthy portion of protein alongside the nutrition-less ashen kernels. When I was rather hungry, I would eat Ashley or Lindsey’s (another volunteer) helping of meat or fish. But mostly, I would fool my stomach by loading up a bowl of rice with orange hot sauce. Despite the cook’s best efforts, we both left Cambodia much slimmer.

Our Room Complete with Mossy Net Greg Deep Cleaning Bathroom

8 Shirts, 1 Pair of Pants, All Cusom Fit - $53Getting around town cost a song and the chauffeurs waited adjacent to the Palm Tree gate. $2.00 per person would get us the comfort (and slowness) of a tuk-tuk to any desired location. Or $1.00 for a thrill ride of sorts on the back of a motorcycle that disregarded traffic signals. For the most part, we opted for the tuk-tuk driven by a lovely Khmer man with a wooden arm, a disfigured face from a bullet wound, and a smiling face riddled with gold teeth. Though we used his services at least twenty times, he would always ask for an amount well above market price and a laughable negotiation would ensue. This dusty street is also the set where we purchased toothpaste, barbecued mini clams, iced coffee in a baggie, cheap custom made clothing, and assorted fresh fruit. Here, my beard experienced a straight edge razor for the first time at the hands of a local barber.

Street Barber with Straight Razor Odom, Bory, Greg Riding Tuk Tuk

Every morning began at 5:30am when the kids would join Dr. Boo for calisthenics. As they stretched, there seemed to be an unspoken competition as to whom could count to ten the loudest. Adjoining the girls dorm indoor common area, our room was a beehive of noise once the orphans rose from their tile floor slumber. After tussling and turning for two additional hours, our wood door would swing open with the kids’ delirious excitement and a rush of baked air slathering our bodies. By morning, we tutored three boys who were falling behind with their studies. Playing games such as “PIG” aided their ability to spell, but more importantly, the personal interaction with native English speakers for one hour each day proved beneficial. We would then switch gears and corral the smallest children requiring additional attention into the shade beneath the girls dorm. In one month at Palm Tree, Ash and I colored more than ever before. More often than not, we had double the kids than the eight we were assigned to help. It was a blast working so closely with all the unique little personalities. Reviewing the rainbow with these special orphans will forever make us fond of the color purple. The children pronounced it “purpel” with an emphasis on the latter syllable. It melted our hearts.

Greg Teaching Little Ones About Colors Coloring

Teacher's Copy of Middle School ExamAfter lunch of, you guessed it, white rice, Ash and I would look high and low to locate a local school for children with learning disabilities. In America, almost every school district offers this specialized education, but Cambodia has its focus elsewhere. More on this subject and effort in a later blog post. Almost every child attends the public Khmer school for half days and the other half is spent in Palm Tree School. Ash and I acted at substitute teachers on occasion, mainly instructing students of various ages on correct English grammar, both written and spoken. Thus, our structured time with the orphans focused on development of English skills. Ashley and I did not speak a lick of Khmer, so even our free time spent with them pushed along this agenda.

Ash Teaching English Professor Dietz

VolleyballAs night would fall, the older boys – men really – played competitive volleyball, females approaching womanhood took turns removing lice from their scalps, boys kicked a soccer ball, and girls sitting in tight circles competed in a Khmer form of rock-paper-scissors with plastic trinkets being the victor’s spoils When dinner of white rice and a form of protein would become monotonous, we would join the two other volunteers at Mike’s Burger House. Located in a Sidexo petrol station, the food was mediocre, but Mike had indeed perfected the rootbeer float. With the night air still stifling, the children were as active as ever. But when 9pm rolled around, the steel gate separating the boys and girls dorms would lock and calmness would follow. Defeated by the heat and non-stop energy of Palm Tree, a retreat for R&R in our air conditioned room was sounded.

Girls Playing Rock Paper Scissors for Plastic Dinosaur Pieces Greg with Mike of Mike's Burger

Indeed, we gave our full selves to help the noble cause of Palm Tree Orphanage. Just by living amongst the family of 90+ orphaned children imparted perspective, taught us lessons about relationships, and proved that happiness does not discriminate by social class. Thirty days later, we left with tears in our eyes, rips in our hearts, and experiences that will continue to shape us for years to come.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Volunteering your time internationally is usually more costly than one would think. Want to help prevent bush fires in Oz? Dig wells for an African village? Build homes in Southeast Asia? Most organizations charge each volunteer some form of fee for items along the lines of materials, lodging, and food. This is in addition to plane tickets. We have met multitudes of international travelers who desired to help a specific cause and were rebuffed by the prohibitively high costs. Finding a “free” volunteer opportunity abroad, like Palm Tree, is tough, yet incredibly worthwhile.

  • Your Garden

    Life As A Cambodian Orphanage Volunteer…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)

  • ericajoh

    This post made me happy! I'd be interested to learn if you got this opportunity directly at Palm Tree Orphanage or via an organization?

  • fofs

    Erica – We came across the opportunity to volunteer from a former coworker of Greg's in Chicago. He resigned from the same company to pursue his philanthropic dreams with his organization, EGBOK. You can read more about EGBOK here:

    - Greg & Ash

  • Gary

    Great writing above. Hi, my name is Gary and my 19 year old son is traveling around the world doing a gap year. He was in South America for 5 months, and volunteered at a Hogar in Lima, Peru for 8 weeks. He is looking to volunteer his time and enery and enthusiasm for life. He loves kids and has been a counselor at a summer camp with kids for the last 5 years. How do I get in touch with the Palm Tree Orphanage. Their web site is down today. Morgan is currently in Africa, but will be landing in Bangkok on Feb 4th. He has a 2 1/2 month window where he would love to help at the Palm Tree Orphanage. Can you help me out get Morgan in contact with the right person? Cheers! Gary

  • Greg

    Gary – Great hearing from you and we are so proud of your son. I hope our email exchange was helpful and Morgan was able to assist at Palm Tree Orphanage. Keep us posted!

    Greg & Ash

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