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Kat & Andrew's Worldwide Adventures

Volunteering at NFO - Takeo, Cambodia

CAMBODIA | Thursday, 14 November 2013 | Views [2334]


We jumped on a bus in Kampot heading to Phnom Pehn and got off halfway, an hour and a half later, in a small town called Angtasom. NFO is generally the only thing foreigners would go to Takeo for, so seeing foreigners for this region is quite a treat. Tuktuk drivers practically fell over their own feet in excitement when they saw us get off the bus. We made sure the driver knew where NFO was in Takeo, 11kms away, and off we went into the rural countryside of Cambodia. He was so proud of his $5 fare that he would shout the number out while holding up 5 fingers as he passed other drivers on the way there!

I had heard about NFO (New Futures Organisation) through a friend, Izy Berry, who had become a regular volunteer there. Because of her, other friends had also gone there to volunteer. They spoke so highly of it that I absolutely had to go there myself. It didn't take long for me to see what they meant when they said they left a piece of their heart there.

Once we arrived at the NFO Volunteer house, we met Neville, the Director. He explained to us how he came to be doing what he does and what things we could do during our stay. Originally it started with running the orphanage but grew to opening 7 village schools and also teaching the towns Chief of Police and Monks. He was very vague about the actual schedule of how things are run and what we actually needed to do. There was no course structure to teach the kids and it seemed like we could just do anything we wanted. 

I instantly felt nervous and overwhelmed. I'm the sort of person who needs structure. I'm not much of a spontaneous fly by the seat of my pants sort of girl. Once we met some other long term volunteers that were also staying on site, it became clear that all direction and guidance was to come from them. Nic & Nige gave us ideas on what to teach the kids at school and how it all works, and I relaxed. 

They took us to the orphanage to meet the 45 kids, ages ranging from 5 to 18, that lived there. It was one big house with all the boys on bunks on the bottom floor and all the girls on bunks on the top floor. There was a work shop where they could learn to make furniture, a sewing room, and a beauty room where they could learn about make up, hair and nails. There was also an area to play volleyball - which they were very good at! 

It was a bit awkward at first as this was their home, we were strangers, and we didn't know what was appropriate. A big group of the kids came over and introduced themselves in better English than I expected. Some were very affectionate, and some were very reserved. When they asked how long we were staying and we said a week, it was clear that they were disappointed. It never occurred to me until that moment just how hard it must be on them to have people come and go all the time, especially as most of them had lost so much already. Not all of the children were orphans, some of them were taken in because of violence or parents being unfit to look after them or too poor. I instantly wished I could really make a difference in their lives. I wish I could help more.

Afterwards all of us volunteers went to Delikes, which is the only Western / Khmer restaurant in Takeo. NFO volunteers pretty much went there for every meal and it was so cheap! We could have a good meal and a drink for only $2 US, compared to the usual $4-8 + in tourist areas.
Their lemon ice tea was so good, we ended up buying a tin off them!

The NFO Volunteer house was an old guest house so we had our own room (separate single beds) and basic ensuite.  Unfortunately the fan wasn't great and it was incredibly hot, so it was difficult to have a decent sleep. The entire time we were in Takeo it felt like we were constantly covered in a film of grime and sweat, despite many cold showers. 

It was $7 a night for our room, $2 a day to rent bikes (although we didn't know this was an added cost until we went to pay before we left!) and a $25 US each registration fee. It was the first volunteer organization I had heard of that didn't charge a huge fee to participate. 

The next afternoon we all set out on our bikes to Prey Run village to teach at Lil Po school. It was roughly 7kms away in the scorching sun, down a pot holed dusty dirt road, past stunning lush green rice fields and through a village alive with animals - cats, dogs, massive pigs, cows, ducks, chickens etc 

As we passed the simple wooden homes, we heard a high pitch scream of delight from the children as they spotted us. Hordes of them rushed out onto the street yelling "HELLO HELLO!!!" with humungous grins, jumping around in excitement and high fiving us as we rode past. It was the most bizarre experience! It felt like we were famous or were Santa Claus! Its amazing that after foreigners visiting the village almost every day for 5 years, the novelty still hadn't worn off for them. 

At Lil Po, we met Team who is the only full time Khmer (Cambodian) teacher there. He has an endless smile and is very affectionate, eager to learn and enthusiastic. Its clear that the kids follow his lead in these factors. He teaches over 150 students ranging in ages and skill level. Its incredible how they respond to him - as a welcome to us volunteers, he directed them with a few words and they eagerly responded with various songs, hand movements or sentences in perfect unison. It was like the perfect little army and the effect of over 150 young voices all shouting and singing in unison was astounding. I couldn't wipe the grin off my face! All together they asked us one by one - How are you, What is your name, Where are you from and cheekily - Do you have a boyfriend?! Words cant even describe how it felt to witness such a performance. 

Seeing as a lot of the longer term volunteers had gone away for a long weekend, Andrew and I took over one of their classes. The little girls rushed to grab my hands, and the boys grabbed the white board, and we were lead to the nearby Pagoda which was to become our make shift class room. We had a class of 11 students, ranging in age between 8 and 12. It quickly became apparent that the ideas we had for our lesson was too advanced for our particular group of kids. As we explained what we would like to teach them, they just stared at us. So we were forced to improvise!  We managed to stumble our way through the first half of the lesson (45 minutes) and then we had a break at Thavy's iced coffee stand with the other volunteers.

Andrew and I don't enjoy coffee but we were instructed to try the iced coffee, and we had to admit, it was delicious! Thavy was an adorable lady who was so eager to learn whatever English words we would teach her. Nic & Nige had been volunteering for 4 months and it was clear that they had done a good job teaching her! It was obvious that they had made such an impact in the community as so many locals knew them and were comfortable with them, and the kids absolutely adored them. It was inspiring and I wished I could stay long enough to become so accepted and part of the community as well. (I think though that it had a lot more to do with their personality's than just the length of their stay.)

After our break, the kids were a lot more relaxed with us. We came back to a message written on the white board "We love you Andrew & Kat!" Awwww, how adorable! We played some games and had a lot of fun. As we went to leave we were surrounded and given many pictures the kids had drawn and countless high fives. We headed back to Takeo feeling fulfilled and rather special. 

We stopped in at the Orphanage for an hour before it got dark and hung out with the kids. One of the volunteers, Laura, started teaching some of the boys how to play the guitar. They were so eager to learn and picked it up very quickly.

The next morning we went with Nic to teach the police for a few hours. The lesson consisted of reading through a passage and going over words they struggled to pronounce or didn't know the meaning of. The passage was about fleas! It felt very bizarre sitting with the Chief of Police and 2 other staff, discussing the English language and fleas! Nic had an excellent banter going on with them and they loved it. We went through some questions and they were determined not to get any wrong. Before coming to a decision they would seriously discuss it among themselves and it was very entertaining. 

Once all the other volunteers were back in Takeo and more had arrived, we weren't sure what the afternoon would hold for us as we no longer had a class to teach. We weren't sure if we would be needed back at Lil Po and Neville didn't offer any direction. There are 6 other schools that would take volunteers, but 5 of them were too far away and we would have to pay extra for transport. The other one was Ben Mao, and we had been told that the kids were a lot rougher and unruly. They were still to learn classroom etiquette. 

Then the bike for our rooms were taken by someone else and I didn't know what other bike to take as I didn't want to annoy the person it was assigned too. Unfortunately most of them were broken or had flat tires as well. It was frustrating how unorganised it all was and we constantly discussed little things that could be tweaked to make the organisation better and so that all of the schools were equally benefiting from the volunteers.

Andrew pumped up some tires and we ended up following the group to Lil Po again. Team was very excited to have so many volunteers and some of the kids who don't usually get to work with foreigners had the chance to do so. When Team asked the remaining students who wanted to go with us, most of them quickly shot up their hands. We had 10 students and Team told us their English is basic so to just go over the alphabet and simple things. They were very well behaved and enthusiastic and knew a lot more than we expected. We had a lot of fun with them drawing pictures, going through words and playing games. Some of the government school kids on their break sat and watched. 

The government school is free but it is required that they wear a uniform and they must provide all their own books and transport. Some family's are even too poor to do that, which is why NFO took the school to them in their own villages and provided all the books. There is no uniform and the kids wear mismatched dirty clothes and patterned colourful flannel pyjamas. Even the adults wear pyjamas out and around town. It is perfectly acceptable! Neat!

During our break, the girls that we taught the previous day ran at me with big smiles and gave me the hugest cuddle like I was the most important person on the universe. It was at that moment that everything shifted for me. I had gone to Takeo happy that I was doing a good deed donating my time to charity and doing my bit for the world. It quickly changed from patting myself on the back to being so rewarded, humbled and moved by the experience and made to feel so loved, adored and special, that I felt like I was getting more from it than they were. It was also so fantastic seeing how much Andrew was loving it too and we started thinking about cutting out other plans in our travels to stay longer. Being the planner that I am, I even started thinking about how we could commit to coming back regularly and really make a difference. How could we make it work when we have little ones of our own soon? We can find a way! I didn't want to disappoint or let down those kids, those little rays of sunshine.

Afterwards we went back to the Orphanage again. The girls there had told me that they had run out of nail polish so I got some at the markets for them. Schremon (not sure how its spelt) is a beautiful 14 year old girl and she painted my nails like an expert. Then she convinced me to play volleyball with Andrew and some of the others. Sports not really my thing but I coped!

Our third day back at the school, we had the same class as the second day. We went through the parts of the body - nose, ears, eyes etc They were very clever. Then we played some more games. From the 2 classes that we had taught, we had begun a little fan club and they were never far away from our side. The experience was so incredible and amazing that I just loved being there and being around them. But unfortunately, disaster stuck.

When we got back to the house, police were everywhere. Neville had passed away. He suffered a heart attack and his 11 year old adopted daughter had found him..... Everyone was in shock and we all sat together dumbfounded. Before going to the school I had just had a massive conversation with him about things he could do with social media and job boards to increase the amount of long term volunteers he had. Before leaving to school I had said "see you in a few hours". How could he be gone? He suffered a heart attack a year ago and hadn't be following the rules as to what he should and shouldn't eat. He also had a horrible breath stopping rasping cough that he refused to go to the doctor about. Life suddenly seemed so short and so fragile. What if, What if.....

Then the panic started. What was going to happen to NFO? The orphanage? The schools? Funding? What about his daughter? She no longer had a legal guardian in Cambodia. Fear and sadness started discussions that had the Chinese whisper effect, distorting information. It sounded like everything was going to be shut down, no one could take over and the police were being difficult. We were all asked to leave as soon as possible as there was fear that the police would try and pin liabilities on foreigners for bribes. The legalities of everything became a real mess and it didn't look like we were even allowed to say goodbye to the kids. That was horrible enough for us but absolutely heart breaking for the long term volunteers who didn't want the kids to think they had just abandoned them.

Things became a little clearer the next day. Neu & Matt, the other directors of NFO, had come down to Takeo from Phnom Pehn. Neu is 7 months pregnant so it would be difficult for them to pack up their lives and take over at this point in time. Camkids who funded half of the organisation also came down. They will take over most of the costs for the orphanage, along with other fundraising, and the schools will continue with just the one teacher each. The most important thing is that the kids at the orphanage are safe and looked after and I'm also very glad to hear that the schools will continue. Sadly though, the volunteer programme has been shut down completely. The volunteer house had been closed and vacated with most of the contents (mattresses, fans, bikes etc) going to the orphanage. Neu & Matt are hoping that in time they will be able to start it up again but they will need to find the right person to manage it, and there are many legality and paperwork issues that need to be sorted first.

Cambodia is very big on protecting children from abuse here which is excellent. There is also a huge concern about Orphanage Tourism where kids become a tourist attraction. Tourists come for a few days, take photos like they are at the zoo, and then leave, leaving the kids disheartened and their privacy violated. I totally agree that kids at the orphanage need stability in their lives and talks of enforcing a rule of a minimum volunteer period of 1-2 months is totally fair. The kids love meeting people from different countries with experience in many different hobbies and careers - it opens their eyes to the world and the possibilities, and they really do benefit from it. NFO usually had a minimum requirement of a week and most of that time is spent at the schools, not the orphanage. A very high percentage of volunteers at NFO become regulars or long termers. There was a rule about not taking photos at the orphanage without permission. I just gave my camera to the kids and they took photos of what they liked. 

As for the schools, having volunteers to learn from and have fun with is huge for them as well. I really do hope that the organisation gets back on its feet soon. There are a lot of upset regulars and long term volunteers who are being told they can't come back indefinitely. It absolutely breaks my heart thinking that I may never be able to see these kids again. Yes, Neville could be lazy, but he had a heart of gold and did a really good thing with that organisation. Lets hope that all his hard work doesn't go to waste. NFO was earning a fabulous reputation and it has so much potential. 

Once the devasatating news broke, the weather followed the mood. Thunder and lightening boomed and torrential rain began bucketing down. 
Luckily we were allowed to go and say goodbye, so somberly we all headed out in the rain on the bikes to Lil Po. The village kids, unaware of recent events, still happily screamed Hello and wanted to high five us. Each time, it broke our hearts even more. They too will be effected by Neville's death. They wont understand why no foreigners will come past anymore. 
The kids at the school were told that we all had to leave and they were incredibly sad. One bit of bad news at a time... I'd hate to see their faces when Team told them that no more foreigners were coming anymore. How to explain why? We got loads of cuddles and everyone wanted group photos. It was devastating. Some of Nic & Niges kids were hysterical and cried.....
We went to the Orphanage to say goodbye and reassure them that their home is safe. They were very upset, terrified and worried. If NFO stopped, they would be either on the streets or separated into other homes. 

Finally, it became about Neville as a person, and not the domino effect his death had on everyone else. 
Nevilles body had been at the Pagoda being embalmed and blessed by the Monks as the hospital wouldn't take him. Because of this, being exposed to the elements, the funeral had to be quick. His family couldn't afford to send him to the UK and it would take too long to process insurance, so it was decided that he would have a Cambodian funeral and his ashes would be sent to the UK. That night we rode in the dark to the pagoda. 
He had been placed in a big box high up on a pedestal that was built and decorated with colourful flashing lights lit up like a Christmas Tree. Fireworks lit him on fire and for an hour, we watched his cremation.... It was very surreal and bizarre. The staff who had built the structure just sat in front of it and ate their dinner!  Such a different culture that that wouldn't be seen as disrespectful. The police even had Neville's daughter filling out paperwork.... Some of the kids from the orphanage were there, as well as various locals and monks. Even the staff from Delikes restaurant came. No volunteers coming to Takeo will impact their business in a big way and it will effect the markets a lot too. Schremon balled her eyes out while gripping me in a grief filled hug. 
When we left, the sky cleared and we could see millions of stars. It was so stunning and beautiful, it was like the skies were accepting him in and absorbing our pain. 

The next morning we packed up the house the best we could and everyone left (except for a few long termers who were helping clean up the paperwork side of things). 
Neville's daughter will remain with Neu & Matt until they can get her to the UK to her adopted mother. 

I was only there for such a short time, 6 days,  but the impact on me was still incredible. I feel so lucky and fortunate that we got to meet the kids and experience what we did. A piece of my heart really will be left behind there and I hope one day that we can return. It was amazing seeing the REAL Cambodia and not just remain on the beaten tourist track. Cambodia is the Land of Smiles. The kids smiles are infectious, and the smiles that break out of a stern adults face is such a huge transformation that your whole image of them changes, and you feel privileged to have that glorious genuine smile directed at you.

RIP Neville, we will remember you. 


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