Jaime’s testimony, Volunteering at ISF
April 20, 2017
A lot of people are more and more interested in volunteering while they are travelling or even living in a country. At Soulcial Travel, we aim to help those people to find volunteering opportunities abroad by connecting them to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) listed on our website. That’s how we got to know Jaime, a former volunteer at ISF (Indochina Starfish Foundation), one of our partners in Cambodia.
We asked him about his experience for anyone who may be reluctant to volunteer abroad.
It truly changed my life, and in a way I haven’t regretted for a single second. (Jaime)
Don’t hesitate to read the following testimony to discover about his story at ISF and the impacts on everybody’s lives.
If you also had a great volunteering experience, feel free to share it with us by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Can you tell us a little more about yourself? Age, nationality, Interests?I am now 41, I’m from the UK, and had worked as a communications manager for NGOs for around 9 years previously in the UK. As I grew older, I found that my need to try to do something positive about injustices in the world grew. I was also a passionate traveler, who had explored Europe very thoroughly and who longed to try something more adventurous – so after saving money I set off on a trip from England to Australia, without flying.
How did you find about ISF and what did you decide to do as a volunteer there?Before I set off on my trip, I knew an 18 month holiday would leave me feeling a little decadent and guilty, so wanted to find a way to contribute something positive along the way. A friend of mine had told me about the desperate poverty in Cambodia, and how wonderful and warm the Cambodian people were in spite of their hardships. I began to research NGOs I might be able to help. I looked for NGOs who were doing really impressive work and might find some genuine use in my communications skills. I found an advert for a teaching job at ISF and while I didn’t want that position, I wrote and offered them my help as a communications consultant. I was very impressed by their ethos and what I read about the impact of their work. I was delighted when they said yes.
How long did you stay there and what were your missions?My first stint at ISF was just over two months and my job was to look at all the communications – including social media and the website – and make recommendations on how to improve them so that their profile would be increased and they would be better placed to raise funds. I consulted extensively with all of the local staff in order to fully understand the organization, so its ethos, values and practices were fully reflected by the communications. I later returned for a further two month stint, where I worked on generating positive media coverage.
What were the positive aspects of your volunteer experience? And what about the negative aspects?The positive aspects were almost overwhelming. I found the young students I met incredibly inspiring. Because of the horrible poverty they came from, and their recognition that education was the only way out, they were all so happy to be in school. They were passionate, intelligent, funny, warm and hard working in a way I’d never seen in such young children before. Just as importantly, the whole of the ISF team – mostly Cambodians, with only 2 or 3 western staff – were brilliant. They were so passionate about the work they did, and serious about improving the lives of the kids – while also being incredibly fun and friendly. Many of them remain very close friends to this day, and they are the primary reason I live in Cambodia. The only negative aspect is that these kid’s home lives are often very hard, on a scale which you probably can’t imagine without having been there. The slums they live in are desperate and drug-ridden, and many of their family lives are highly dysfunctional. The most difficult moment for me was when one of the children’s fathers, an alcoholic, drowned one night. I had grown very fond of that child, who was a constantly smiling little star, and when I saw how heartbroken and fearful he was after that it was very emotionally grueling. But these aspects were always counterbalanced by watching the positive steps forward the kids took every single day.
Would you recommend volunteering with ISF?A thousand times yes. A wonderful organization, with exceptional values and people. It truly changed my life, and in a way I haven’t regretted for a single second.
Did you experience a cultural shock when arriving in Cambodia?A little. I had by then seen much of South East Asia, so the chaos and dirt didn’t shock me as much as it might if I had arrived there having never left Europe or America. But seeing the reality of the kid’s homes, in some of the most awful slums in Asia, that would be shocking to anyone.
What is the most striking memory you have from this experience?I remember arriving at work each morning at the same time as the school bell rang, and making my way to my office through a crowd of yelling and grinning kids who were rushing to class, each of them high fiving me as I passed by. It was the best way to start a work day which I have ever experienced.
Do you have an anecdote to share with us?As I have already said, I worked in two separate stints for ISF, 6 months apart. There was one boy I really liked the first time round. He just had a very warm and happy personality, but he couldn’t speak English, so our conversations never progressed much beyond saying hello to each other and smiling. When I returned six months later I saw him almost immediately, and he seemed to have grown five inches. When he saw me he remembered me instantly and then said, very formally and politely, “”Hello, Jaime. It is very good to see you. Are you happy today?” I was so stunned that I almost didn’t answer, but when I did we were able to hold a conversation. It was the most beautiful illustration of the education ISF is able to offer, and means that boy will have a bright future where once he faced only the misery of child labour and scavenging through Phnom Penh’s piles of garbage. It made me so proud to be part of this amazing organization.
Thank you Jaime for sharing your experience with us!