There are many people interested in becoming a volunteer. Frankly, there are also many misconceptions about volunteering. You can find online guides of how to become a volunteer. There also well established and big organizations offering such opportunity in a very systematic process like the United Nations or middle organizations. I will not build here an online guide, but I will share my experience of years in a country like Cambodia, so famous for its several humanitarian organizations and volunteers.
Volunteers are not tourists
The first thing you have to think is why you want to become a volunteer. I have seen volunteers coming to Cambodia just to become visitors to the country. Some get interested in join a humanitarian organization in an exotic country like Cambodia not because they want to serve humanity, but to know a new country. These people become very often a disturbance to the organizations that host them. The so call volunteer spends few times in what he or she intends to do, while going around the provinces as any other tourist visitor.
We are not in the world of Cinderella
Other persons have a very romantic idea of volunteering. There is a tendency in many to think that poor people is beautiful, cute and kind as they are described in Hollywood movies and Mexican love-stories. To this kind of persons I would recommend to watch a movie like City of Joy (Roland Joffé, 1992). The movie is, actually, a good documentary of what we mean when we talk about volunteers.
Poor people is not beautiful or kind or cute as in Cinderella (Walt Disney, 1950.) Maybe children and young people can get to be a little like that due to their innocence, but in general poor people is rude, impolite, vulgar and ungrateful. In a country like Cambodia, a foreign volunteer can be seen as a walking wallet, as any tourists, even from those persons you think you are serving. If you want to become a volunteer, you must be aware that maybe they will not say to you ‘thank you.’
Please do not fall in the mistake to approve loans for individuals. That smiling young man you are teaching English or that girl with so cute smile, coming to ask money from you for their desperate situation. Know this : you are already helping them. Second : real needed people do not know how to ask. He or she are just very intelligent. When you become an object of loans and they see you as a bank, please notify the administration of the organization. They will know very well the case and take it under consideration. If you want to donate money or resources, let it always in the hands of the administration.
Please, do not make promise to the poor. If you say things like I will bring you to my country, you are a bad volunteer. Just like that. Poor people can get illusions very easy, especially young people and children. Do what you came to do. You are not a rich to promise things. They will wait seriously that you will fulfill your enthusiastic promises.
Look for your skill, your profession, your likes. Look for organizations that share your talents. It is definitely the best way to feel you are really useful. If you are a chef, there are plenty of organizations that will appreciate your support. If you are a sportsman, young communities will welcome you. If you like to teach languages, a school is your place. If you are a mechanic, look for a technical school.
Don’t promise too much
Nobody is expecting that you are Mother Theresa of Calcutta or Gandhi. You are what you are. Your time is precious for you. Offer what you can offer. You live in Cambodia and you have your own business or you are enjoying your pension. You can offer two hours per week. Say it as it is. Say ‘I can give to your organizations two hours per week’ and it is good. In two hours you can share a lot. Don’t promise what you cannot fulfill. You will get disappointed people rather than good friends.
Study well the organization you are going to apply
Don’t fall inside a hole. Study very well the organizations you want to apply as a volunteer. Stop for a moment and don’t get the enthusiastic feelings to dominate you and choose the first thing that appears. Many organizations can be just a facade.
There are organizations that have principles, ideologies or tendencies that maybe will not fit your own ideas and styles. If you enter into such organizations, you will finish into crushes. Read the mission and vision of the organization you want to apply and what others say about them. Get your idea before you apply.
Look, when you apply to become a volunteer, is technically the same as you apply to get a job. Maybe you will not get a salary, but you will get benefits such as experience and a future recommendations from that organization. Please apply in the same way you are applying to get a job. Do not abuse of your conditions saying that they need you. A mediocre organization or a group without experience, probably will accept the first guy knocking their doors, but a serious organizations cannot be bullied with sophism like you need me.
Present your CV, references and letters of request with the same seriousness to apply for a job.
Request an introduction or training
Don’t start just as if you knew everything. The same as you come to a new job, ask an introduction to the organization, its rules, people, etc.
Respect the experience and talents of the organization. Don’t think that a country like Cambodia is a jungle of savage. Very often you will find Cambodians with a lot experience, wisdom and creativity. You are not superior to Cambodians just because you are European, US citizens, Canadian, Australian or Japanese. Cambodians have also their knowledge. They have survived centuries and they are descendants of a great Empire. Respect it.
To the end…!!!
As I suggested before, you will not come into a Walt Disney World. It is the City of Joy…!!! You will face troubles too. Maybe you will be bore sometimes. Maybe the language barrier will be difficult. Maybe the cultural crush will despair… Be brave! Show you are a real volunteer. Be at the side of the poor.
A temptation is to look for other foreigners and create ghettos. It is not good. Stay with the Cambodians you came to serve to.
Do not disturbe!
You come to serve, to support. Don’t expect benefits from the organization like salaries, pocket money, travel expenses, bonus, gifts… You are doing a service to the poor, a humanitarian service. That organization was born to serve the poor. You are not definitively in their budgets. You come to help them to fulfill their mission. Do not abuse of their kindness and resources. Produce as less expenses as possible.
Don’t come to Cambodia with all your house! Practice simplicity. Cambodia, although poor, has as much markets as any other part of the world. Remember that we live in a globalize time. Any single comb you find in the mall of your town, you can find in Cambodia too… so don’t bring heavy luggage with things you can buy here.
Be aware of the climate
If you think you cannot work in a tropical land, because you come from the Siberia plains, choose a cool country to work and not Cambodia. Though remember that we are humans and we can get accustom too.
There are much advice about to be a volunteer, but I share it with the experience of 12 years in Cambodia, seeing persons from the five continents working in my organization. Most of them very beautiful and talented people, old and young. I appreciate especially those who assume a very professional attitude toward my children and youth. They want to give their best, as they were doing a very serious work in their countries. Also those who give tenderness, respect and dignity to our people.
Don’t be afraid! Be a volunteer!! If you are 18 or 80 and you have a talent to share with the poor, we wait you.