Saturday, 21 January 2012

Centre for Children's Happiness & the Dilemma of Being a Voluntourist

In planning our trip we were a little uncomfortable with the prospect of simply travelling for so long without doing any work of any kind.  We thought that somewhere along the line we could stay put for a little while and perhaps do some work on a volunteer basis. We thought that it would be at the Centre for Children’s Happiness and as we mentioned in a previous post, we had touched base with the organization before leaving on our trip and again on route.  A boy who grew up at the centre lived with friends of ours while he was studying (on scholarship) in Victoria and we had heard great things about the work they were doing.  Our correspondence back from the director had been fairly limited and we were initially a bit perplexed.  Once we got to Cambodia and started to learn more about volun-tourism we understood much better.  

The area of volun-tourism is growing all over the world and judging from what we saw it is exploding in Cambodia, particularly in orphanages.  Tourists are increasingly interested in contributing more than just the dollars they drop as they travel.  Volunteering with local organizations in need can help enrich travel experiences in a way that site seeing alone can not.  It is pretty easy to volunteer in Cambodia and when it comes to orphanages in many cases it is much too easy. There are a lot of places where it is common practice for folks on holiday to simply drop in, hang out with the kids, take some pictures and maybe even do a little work for a while.  It does not take much of an imagination to figure out what the ease of entrance to orphanages can lead to.  For starters, unfortunately it can be a pedophiles dream and who really knows who the vulnerable kids can be exposed to.  It can also mean that the children are dealing with a constant turnover of do-gooders with good intentions showing up for at times even less than a week and then disappearing from their lives, most often forever.  Is this fair? There are also concerns that places that go through many volunteers spend resources on facilitating volunteer activities rather than taking care of the needs that they have been set up to take care of in the first place.  To further the complexity there is a broader issue of an ever increasing number of orphanages perhaps making it too easy for families in need to send their children away.  Arguments are made that resources would be better diverted to helping extended families care for their children rather than making it easy to send them away.   We were quite shocked to discover how complex the situation actually is and as we learned more we rethought how it might be best for us to help the Centre for Children’s Happiness.

We did finally hear from them and they welcomed our visit.  We decided to postpone our decision about volunteering there until we met with the director and had a better feel for how we might be able to contribute.  Once we met with him, had a tour and hung out at the Centre for a while it was pretty evident that we would not likely add great value by volunteering for a short time.  The director himself said that the best way for us to help was to buy them much needed rice.  We had a feeling that our presence may be more of a distraction than a help and our being there would serve to satisfy our need to feel a little altruistic more than it would actually serve the centre. 

The centre is doing amazing work and it was very moving to see the children and the environment.  We were all touched.  In Phnom Penh there are thousands of people, hundreds of them children who live in horrid conditions at the Steung Meanchey dump where they work picking through garbage.  It is as bad as you can imagine, riddled with death and disease.  The Centre for Children’s Happiness in located fairly close to the dumps and they save children who live at Steung Meanchey,  giving them a home and an education.  The facilities t the Centre for Children’s Happiness are in no way glamorous but the children have beds, food, education and people who can care for them.  They are not living and working in a garbage dump.

 The centre houses 111 children and provides education for many more.

The newly opened school below...

Two of the senior students showed us the girls and boys orphanage as well as the elementary school.  As we walked through the area and observed the poor conditions it was another reminder of how fortunate we are to have been born in Canada.  Seeing the smiling faces of the children and watching them play, however, reinforced that regardless of circumstances,  we are programmed to find joy in life itself. 

Many of the boys were playing soccer and wow - they were good.  Playing without shoes, on a makeshift field in the searing heat, they could kick the buts of any triple gold team in Victoria.

The cattle didn't seem to mind when the ball bounced their way.

The Centre for Children’s Happiness surrounded by grubby dusty streets, tar paper shacks and roaming garbage eating cows may only be a few miles from down town PP but it is far away from the oasis of the tree lined boulevards, colonial buildings and striking monuments that most tourists see.

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