While other Year 12s were out partying during schoolies week, two intrepid Mountains boys decided to look for an alternative to celebrating the end of 13 years schooling.
Winmalee High students, Ben Skinner, of Valley Heights, and his good mate, Omali Hungerford-Mason, of Medlow Bath, volunteered in Cambodia for almost four weeks, teaching English to struggling school students living in a small village in the outskirts of the capital, Phnom Penh.
“It was a bit outside the box, but very fulfilling,” Ben, now 18, said.
“My mum was also more comfortable with me going to a third world country than to the Gold Coast for schoolies, but it was all our decision anyway.”
Their passage was organised through volunteer aid organisation, IVHQ — International Volunteer HQ (www.volunteerhq.org or www.facebook.com/camvf.org) — and the Cambodian Volunteer Foundation. IVHQ has placed 30,000 volunteers overseas since 2007. It cost the boys about $700, not including their airfares.
During the visit, the two students helped crowd fund a fleet of bicycles and a new toilet for the school with one other Australian volunteer, by “spamming my friends on Facebook for money [for the project],” said Ben. Many of the students would have no other lessons, other than the two hours of English the boys donated each day, with a local translator’s help, he said.
The IVHQ website said many young Cambodians looking for jobs get rejected because they speak very little, or no English, due to the fact that most parents cannot afford the education.
“We came back and realised how lucky we were, it’s a cliche I know but it’s eye opening,” said Ben.
Before the visit the pair learnt bits of the language through an English/Khmer dictionary phone app, but once they hit the ground, the lack of modern day resources was very apparent.
“There was a big overhanging tin shed, dirt floors, a board to write on,” Omali said. “It was pretty much a slum.”
But the life changing experience has already left the young men keen to return once they finish their first year at university.
“Leaving the kids was heartbreaking,” Omali said, adding, “I’m definitely going back and for longer next time.”