“I’ve never seen another volunteer organisation that takes so much care”

By Sallie Grayson. Filed in people and places history and info, project background, volunteer stories  |  
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people and places volunteer road show – Newport Pagnell, 19th November 2011

by  Michael Horton, Chairman and Founder of ConCERT, people and places’ Cambodian partner

Michael chats with potential volunteers

After receiving the invitation to my first roadshow in early September, (and finally sorting out all the logistics necessary to attend it), I began to wonder what the day would be about.  “A gathering of past, present, and possible future volunteers”, said Sallie, “Come and talk about Cambodia, and you can answer any questions about our Cambodian projects”.

That proved to be a pretty good description of events, though, as I mention below, my discussions with people covered a wide range of topics.

After giving a brief talk explaining ConCERT’s work, , I then gave some background to the Cambodian projects, and in particular, the issues they are trying to address.  There are 7 volunteering options in Cambodia, based at 2 main projects.  One project is at a community centre that works with families living in extreme economic poverty, providing holistic support that includes education, healthcare, and income generation.  The other project works with children as young as 13 who are in Cambodian jails.  Children over 13 are tried in the adult legal system and many go to adult jails in Cambodia – many more very young children are living with their mothers in prison.  As I write this report there is an article in this morning’s newspaper about children in Cambodian prisons – read it here

Everyday life for the vast majority of Cambodians is far removed from the norms of western society and the people our projects are working with are particularly disadvantaged, even by Cambodian standards.  Volunteers’ backgrounds frame their life experiences and shape their expectations; how can it be otherwise?  This makes it difficult for volunteers to prepare themselves for their placements, and the preparation and support given by people and places is one of the company’s greatest strengths.

I was very fortunate to speak with many people during the roadshow.  Discussions included ConCERT’s work, the specifics of life in Cambodia, why and how I found myself living there, questi0ns about the projects, and, of course, what the weather is like…  In amongst all the questions there were two items that people raised repeatedly:

  1. those who’d never volunteered before said, “I’m not sure that I have any skills that would enable me to be useful”
  2. those who had volunteered said, “The most important things I learned were to have patience, to be flexible, and not to have preconceived ideas about what can be achieved”

These comments mirror what we hear in the office in Cambodia; (interestingly, there seems to be a general rule that the more skills a person has, the less convinced they are that they have anything to offer…)  In my view, this attitude also reflects a healthy dose of maturity and realism.

All too often we see would-be volunteers who have been led to believe from many agencies, (schools, universities, tour operators, other volunteer placement organisations, the media), that it is easy to volunteer and “make a difference”.  The volunteering experience is packaged as an easy option “off the shelf commodity” and the underlying problems that the volunteer is supposed to be helping to solve or reduce are sanitised and simplified, pushed into the background, or conveniently ignored.  In many cases there is little rigour in the screening/selection/matching/briefing process; rather the volunteer is sold “the wonderful volunteer experience” they will have. The focus is all on what they will get out of it instead of what they can bring to the community where they’ll be working.

Proper preparation is vital for a successful volunteer placement.  ConCERT was asked by several volunteer placement organisations to partner with them and I declined their offers as I felt they were weak in this area and too focussed on providing some sort of experience for the volunteer without fully understanding the local project’s/community’s needs.

Well briefed, well placed, volunteers who are sensitive to the realities of where they will work, and who have the needs of the people they wish to help as their priority, can achieve great things.  Creating the conditions for this to happen isn’t easy and requires real commitment.  Having witnessed at first hand the level of research Dianne Ashman put in to the Cambodian projects to ensure she understood what

Dianne in the conCERT office in Siem Reap

their programmes were trying to achieve, why they needed volunteers, and what the volunteers would be doing, I can say that I’ve never seen another volunteer placement organisation that takes so much care over this aspect of volunteering.  Add that to the care they take preparing volunteers before they leave home and the result is a pretty impressive operation.

That people and places attracts so many volunteers who doubt their ability to make a positive contribution is a marvellous endorsement of their approach!!  That those same people are then sufficiently well prepared to be sensitive to the situations they find themselves in speaks volumes.

I look forward to welcoming volunteers to Cambodia, and really hope I can be back in the UK for the next roadshow.

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