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The In's and Out's of Short Term Volunteer Opportunities in Cambodia

Cambodia

So you’re drawn to volunteering in Cambodia, but you only have a week or two to spare; what next? First, know that you’re in good company; from ancient temples to crowded cities, elephants in lush jungles to dolphins on glimmering beaches, teaching children to building houses, Cambodia has much to offer the intrepid volunteer. But when you only have a short amount of time, how can you find a program where you can make a real difference?

What to Look for In a Volunteer Program

Navigating the different options for volunteering in Cambodia can be confusing, and as a short-term volunteer, you’ll want to be especially cautious and thoughtful about the process. Keep the following in mind, and you’ll be well on your way of finding the perfect program for you.

1. SUSTAINABILITY AND IMPACT

The most important consideration – even more so than volunteer work and costs – is whether the work you do is sustainable and has a tangible impact on the community. Be wary of any program whose promises seem too grandiose, but also look for programs that tangibly measure and clearly explain their short-term volunteers’ impact.

2. NEEDS OF THE COMMUNITY

Remember that your goals as a volunteer always come second to the goals of the local community you work in, and your work should never take the place of what could be paid employment for a local resident. As Daniela Papi, the founder of PEPY tours in Cambodia, has explained to Go Overseas: “A good volunteer is one who is willing to do what is needed even if it isn't glamorous, sexy, ego-boosting, or always fun. No, volunteering does not need to be "tough", but it should be about filling the needs of the organization not about putting your own needs first.” It’s an important step to adopt this mentality yourself, but it’s crucial that your chosen program provider do so as well.

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3. PROGRAM REPUTATION

A program’s reputation amongst its alumni and peer organizations is an important indicator of quality. Start by reading past participant reviews, and ask the organization for contact information for alumni, or see if there are any events in your area where you can mix and mingle with other interested volunteers and program alumni.

Also remember to look for the 3 A’s: accreditations, affiliations, and associations, which demonstrate an organization’s reputation. For example, the IVPA (International Volunteer Programs Association) measures a number of standards to highlight member organizations who represent excellence and responsibility in the field of international volunteering.

4. VALUE

If you’re only volunteering for one or two weeks, you might wonder why some programs are more expensive than others. As you look at the prices of various programs, focus less on the actual cost, and more on the value of the program you get for that cost. Here are some things to consider. If you're particularly money savvy, you may devise a plan to volunteer abroad for free.

  • Always ask organizations for a breakdown of their program fee. Any reputable organization will gladly give you this information and be proud to brag about what they offer.
  • Most programs that are more expensive are so for a good reason – they provide more resources to you, like language lessons, cultural activities, a full time staff, food and housing, and sometimes even insurance. Many of these programs can also give you fundraising resources.
  • Don’t skimp on the “extras.” Break Away, an organization dedicated to supporting alternative break groups, counts orientation, education, and training among their eight components of a quality alternative break. Another important consideration is whether the program has at least one permanent staff member onsite in Cambodia to support you. Language instruction and cultural activities can also help ease culture shock when you only have a short amount of time to acclimate.

If you partner with a sustainable organization that is structured specifically to utilize short term volunteers effectively to have a broader impact, you know you’ll be part of something larger than just yourself or your short time of service.

Popular Types of Volunteer Opportunities in Cambodia

Let’s be honest: you’re not going to single-handedly halt the spread of HIV, end poverty, or save endangered sea horses in Cambodia in just one or two weeks. However, if you partner with a sustainable organization that is structured specifically to utilize short term volunteers effectively to have a broader impact, you know you’ll be part of something larger than just yourself or your short time of service. Here are some feasible ways to make a difference as a short-term volunteer in Cambodia.

1. CONSERVATION, ANIMALS, AND THE ENVIRONMENT

With a landscape varying from lush jungles to coastal beaches and island chains, the ecological diversity of Cambodia provides ample opportunity to assist in conservation efforts. Keep in mind that the rainy season is June through August, so outdoor work is much less likely then.

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  • Projects Abroad’s conservation project on a tropical island in the Gulf of Thailand/Cambodia provides scuba diving lessons so volunteers can research endangered sea horses, clean up beaches, and support community development work in local villages, all in as little as 2 weeks.
2. TEACHING AND WORKING WITH KIDS

Volunteers can help combat Cambodia’s high dropout and illiteracy rates by teaching English and vocational skills, and can support street children, dropouts, and orphans through numerous children’s centers. Volunteering with children is no easy task - be sure to come to Cambodia with energy to spare, mental prep, and a true heart for youth. Witnessing the hardship these little ones endure can be challenging on a multitude of levels, and those volunteers not thoroughly prepared may be especially affected.

  • Projects Abroad offers a number of opportunities to work with children through their Care Project, with a minimum commitment of only 2 weeks.
  • Globe Aware offers 1 week programs teaching English and working with kids in Siem Reap and its outlying rural areas, and also does an excellent job of addressing the controversy surrounding volunteer work in orphanages and explaining how to avoid orphanage tourism,” an issue of increasing concern in Cambodia.
3. HEALTH AND HIV/AIDS EFFORTS

Volunteer opportunities in the healthcare sector are more limited in scope for short term volunteers, but between injuries caused by landmines and a high HIV/AIDS prevalence, especially among drug users and sex workers, Cambodia is certainly a top destination for medical and public health volunteer work.

  • Global Service Corps runs an HIV/AIDS Prevention Program in Cambodia that is open to volunteers serving for as little as two weeks.
4. PHYSICAL BUILDING AND COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT

A growing demand for housing, sanitation, and clean drinking water have given rise to numerous short-term physical projects, which can be an excellent way to make the most of a short-term volunteer experience.

  • Habitat for Humanity’s Cambodia branch manages projects that average from 1-2 weeks in length, but can be as short as 4 days.

Navigating the different options for volunteering in Cambodia can be confusing, and as a short-term volunteer, you'll want to be especially cautious and thoughtful about the process.

When you’re only volunteering for a week or so, the impulse can be to rush into the search and go with the first option that speaks to you, but the extra research you do now will absolutely pay off once you’re on your volunteer adventure of a lifetime in Cambodia. As long as you keep these considerations in mind and thoughtfully weigh all of the options, remember that only you will know which opportunity will be best for you, so trust your gut, and make your dream of volunteering in Cambodia a reality.

Photo Credits: Wikimedia, cambodia4kidsorg and Greg Grimes.

Megan Heise

After two years of helping volunteers and interns prepare to go abroad with Cross-Cultural Solutions, Megan now works by day at Fluent City, a Brooklyn-based foreign language school, and blogs by night about her misadventures learning foreign languages and seeking out cultural experiences at Multilingual Mondays.