James Hong at a spelling bee he organised. Photo Supplied
1. One of the most important qualities a volunteer needs is good communication. This doesn’t mean you need to speak Khmer or English fluently, but that you are able to listen and understand. It means speaking directly with the people you want to help and learning about their problems and needs. For example, a year ago I was involved in a library development project. At first it didn’t work, but then I talked to the teachers and students and realised people didn’t really see reading as an enjoyable activity. I started a reading club during the long school vacation. Every day my students and I would read and discuss books and stories in English. I would have saved myself a lot of trouble in the beginning if I had spent time talking from the outset.
2. It is also important when volunteering to do things that you have interest in. If you like English, try teaching it to children. If you like health, volunteer your time at a local health centre. Recently, I started a project related to hand washing. But again, I wasn’t successful at this project and soon stopped. The reason was because I didn’t have any interest in health, and although I think hand washing is very important, it didn’t interest me enough to inspire me to work hard. I’ve learned that my best projects are related to youth development. I’ve had a lot of success promoting English usage at my school, such as creating music and talking clubs.
3. The last thing is you must love and respect the people you help. If you don’t, you’ll soon find out that the people won’t respect you as a volunteer. It would be impossible for me to teach my students if they thought that I looked down on them. Trust needs time to develop, but once you have it, it will make your work much easier. Two years ago, I came to Cambodia with a single backpack, not boxes of computers, large sums of money, or medicine to give away. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I only had my knowledge and experience to share. Computers break, money runs out, and medicine doesn’t last forever. Even Peace Corps volunteers come and go. But I am confident the people I have helped will continue to develop Cambodia long after I leave.