Volunteer trips are becoming more popular nowadays as more people want to do meaningful travel rather than just ticking countries off the bucket list. Right when I finished school, I knew I wanted my travel plans to mean something! So before I started university, I decided to try volunteering at an orphanage in Cambodia for a month. While the experience was definitely rewarding and eye-opening, there are just a few things I wish I knew beforehand.
Sign up with a volunteer organization the first time you go
Volunteer organisations answer all of your questions before you go. The organization arranges your transportation, accommodation, in-country support, meals, etc. This is why volunteering isn’t free–all of your travel needs are covered by the organization. However, if you’d like to return to the orphanage after your initial volunteer trip has ended, you already have the connections, so you don’t need to go through an organisation again.
Go for a longer period of time
My biggest regret is not staying for a longer period of time. Before I went, all of my friends and family said, “Wow, a month is a long time!” but it really isn’t. High school groups often organise a two-week trip in Cambodia and visit two or three orphanages to teach underprivileged kids for a day. What difference do you think that’ll make? A week later a different group of students will come and teach them the alphabet again. Learning is about consolidating new information by using it in different ways and then testing yourself. Learning is also cumulative, and without the structure of having the same teacher with the same teaching style for an extended period of time, gaining cumulative knowledge is nearly impossible. How can a student recall or revisit information they learned with so many different teachers coming and going? Two weeks of volunteering at an orphanage as a teacher might make you feel like a saint. After all, you taught the students something new everyday, right? But how much of that information is retained a week later? A month later? You’ll never know! Personally, I tried to test my kids regularly and on topics from previous weeks, but even then, a month seemed like it was the bare minimum for even ONE topic to encode in their long-term memory. My recommendation would be 3 months minimum, at least for volunteering projects that involves teaching.
Be prepared to do more than what you signed up for
I originally signed up as an English teacher, with the intention of teaching them music if I could. However, I somehow managed to find myself in other roles such as disciplining the children who were living at the orphanage but weren’t taking my classes, taking a child to the hospital after he fell off his bed (head first!) and writing documents and reports for the orphanage. In retrospect, I would’ve never had the opportunity to do these things back at home as I don’t have the relevant qualifications, so I’m glad that I had so many learning experiences. However, these responsibilities became very stressful at times, to the point where every now and then I felt as if I needed a holiday from my holiday! Remember to keep this in mind when choosing your volunteer role!
Money isn’t the only thing you can donate
Truthfully, orphanages exist in countries where poverty is extremely widespread. And where do orphanages get their money from? Volunteers. We volunteers want to do good things to improve the lives of those who are less fortunate than us, and occasionally we do it by donating money. Orphanage managers realise that pretty quickly and then do everything they can to have you donate more and more. That can become a problem for college students on a budget. Just don’t forget that while money is important, you can also donate your time, clothes and toys which are also valuable.
Keep things in perspective
Everything you do while volunteering at an orphanage should be both present- and future-oriented. You should remember that, unfortunately, you probably won’t be there for long. Therefore, you should think of how the project will keep running after you leave, and prepare for when the next volunteer arrives. You should make sure to set your students up for success both while you’re there and after you leave.
If you really want to make a difference, keep the connections and keep coming back
Like I said, learning is an extremely gradual and long process, and as much as it applies to the students, it also applies to you. While you’re volunteering at an orphanage (or anywhere else), you’ll gradually learn about how the facility is run, the language, the culture and a lot more than you’d think you would. The next time you’re back, you’ll just learn a little bit more. Plus, everyone at the project will be so happy to have you back. It’s like you’re part of an extended family ☺
Volunteering at an orphanage is a worthwhile experience
It’s been almost three years since volunteering at an orphanage in Cambodia, and I STILL talk about it non-stop. Because of this trip, I’ve made an oath that every trip I make would be a long-term trip, where I can stay at a place and really learn about the culture. Since this trip, I have even started working as a teacher after realizing it was something I am passionate about. I learned so many things about myself while volunteering and I believe I am the independent person that I am today because of that trip. I swear to you, volunteering abroad could be the best decision of your life. What are you waiting for? Go out and start searching, somewhere, anywhere!
And always remember you don’t have to limit your volunteer experiences to just orphanages! There is so much good you can do with your time all over the world. When you have found out just what and where you’d like to volunteer, check out our cheap student flight deals to get you to wherever you need to go.