Volunteering: How to be a real help and avoid frustration

Watchin movie and reflecting on it with children at Takeo
Watchin movie and reflecting on it with children at Takeo

Inès is BOOKBRIDGE fellow at our learning centers in Cambodia. In this article, she writes about the challenges of volunteering abroad.

If you volunteer, you can arrive to love it or hate it. I came to Cambodia to volunteer for a whole year. I had been preparing myself for such an experience for long time. Volunteering abroad for long term was something I had always wanted to do. So I am enjoying this experience a lot, with its lights and shadows. But I also know that not everyone has a great experience while volunteering. What can make the difference?

For me volunteering is mainly about giving to others and about helping others but I know very well that most of the time we can even get more than we give. I also know that even if we only want to help sometimes we may do the contrary. Yes, you have read it correctly, sometimes volunteers do not help. Only because we can have the romantic idea that volunteering is helping, it is not always like that. So then, what? What can we do so this works for everyone?

Teacher training at Chreav Learning Center
Teacher training at Chreav Learning Center

Let me share with you my opinion and some ideas that have worked for me.

On the one hand there are the organizations’ duties. For more than eleven years I was working in a small foundation in Badalona (north of Barcelona). During all these years I was working very close to volunteers coming to the different projects we had there, so I know that if we want that a volunteer really helps there is a lot of work behind too. Interviews, trainings, meetings, etc. are necessary to select, welcome and accompany volunteers. So when thinking about volunteering try to select an organization that takes care about these things.

Workshop with families at Takeo Learning Center
Workshop with families at Takeo Learning Center

On the other hand there are the volunteers’ commitment and attitudes. I will list some that I consider important.

  • Probably the most important for volunteers, and even more for people volunteering abroad, is to be open-minded and flexible. Try to be critical with your western or northern-centered points of view. If you volunteer with BOOKBRIDGE, for example, you will have a wonderful team (country teams, country development manager, CHs, former and current fellows, etc.) that can guide you and answer your questions about your cultural shocks.
  • Be respectful. Nothing to add. If you are not going to be respectful you’d better stay at home, hehe)
  • Reflect about your commitment. What can you offer? For how long? With BOOKBRIDGE you will need to set up your goals for your fellowship. For doing a good job my advice is to try to match the Learning Center’s needs, your skills and expertise, and sustainability. If there is a need you cannot cover you can say no or if you have a passion or some skill that you think it can help propose something. If you are beginning something new, will it have an end before you leave or will it need to be continued
  • Gratuity. Even that probably at the end you will have the feeling that you got more than you gave; to be rewarded or recognized cannot be your motivation. Gratuity is about giving without expecting to receive. It is about being aware of what are your expectations. Are these expectations centered on what you can do or what you would like the others do?
Presenting a project to families at SmILe Academy
Presenting a project to families at SmILe Academy

Finally I would like to add that each experience is unique because each person is unique. In my case it is helping me a lot to keep constant, sincere and open communication with many people that I would like to thank you:

  • Community Heroes in Cambodia. Thank you Kimsorn, Ravy, Sanith, Sreydieb, Vannak, Sothika and Sothy.
  • Cambodian country team. Thank you Sokhan, Sanha and Peou.
  • Teachers at the different learning centers I have been. Thank you to all of you.
  • BOOKBRIDGE team. Thank you Monika, Jella, Ruth and Carsten.
  • My CAP Team. Thank you to North and South.
  • The rest of the BOOKBRIDGE family that I am in touch with. Thank you all.
  • And last but not least a special thanks to Linda, current fellow in Mongolia. Sharing with another fellow about our daily experiences, challenges, achievements, feelings… it is a great support.

2 thoughts on “Volunteering: How to be a real help and avoid frustration

  • Sophon Seab says:

    As ex-CAP member in Siem Reap, I also thank Inès for your passion and love to help our Cambodian people, i always think that you are unique and hero to volunteer team to help first particularly at Smile Academic. Your experiences either equips many Cambodian or the World with new changes.

  • admin says:

    Dear Inés, thank you for sharing these insights. We are grateful for your Fellowship! Carsten

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