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The volunteer's heart translates across languages

By Beth Moody, Class of 2011, Marshall School of Business



Traveling to Phnom Penh in May 2010 wasn’t just my first trip to Cambodia; for me, the trip was my first experience outside of the United States. Although I was excited to expand my world view and to provide much-needed assistance to the impoverished local community, I was worried about how much of an impact I would be able to make in just three days. Moreover, I was overwhelmed at the prospect of facing a language barrier (no one in my group spoke Khmer) and other unforeseen but sure-to-emerge cultural differences with the poverty-stricken families we would meet.

Luckily for me, I was immediately put at ease by the warmth and hopefulness of the Riverkids’ participants. Within minutes of starting my volunteer experience, I learned a valuable lesson: the expression of true emotion – happiness, desire, faith, optimism, excitement, sorrow, misery, and dejection – does not get lost in translation.

Getting the details just right on playdough  

Our first day spent volunteering with Riverkids, an NGO dedicated to preventing human trafficking, consisted of an advocacy tour that served as an introduction to the community and created a foundation for our group to more deeply understand the day-to-day experiences of the children whom we would work with the following days.

The tour consisted of three main segments: garbage collection with the children, tours of the slums and interviews with Riverkids’ families, and visits to various locales where sex workers plied their trade (e.g., massage parlors and beer gardens).
Up bright and early at 6:30 a.m. Monday morning, our guide and translator Soklee Wong arrived to pick us up at our hotel. Soklee is an experienced Riverkids staff member whose passion for improving the slums and reducing the instances of young girls being drawn into the sex trade was inspiring. Soklee is writing a book that retells the stories of the women she has met while conducting these tours. Each day, she explained, she finds it more difficult to translate their heartbreaking stories into print.

We (six MBA students and one professor from Southern California) began the advocacy tour at the Alexandra project, one of the main sites where Riverkids houses its programs, and after a brief introduction, we headed out to follow some of the children on garbage detail. These children roam the city streets daily on foot, carrying large colorful sacks used to collect discarded items like plastic bottles and soda cans that they can sell to recyclers. The first thing I noticed when I met the three children was their bare feet. Despite the long walk over the dusty terrain cluttered with rocks, garbage, and animal droppings, these children wore no shoes.

50 cents earned in 3 hours could barely compensate for the calories burned and is still insufficent for the family.  
We traveled a few miles walking a short distance behind the children, getting to see the bustling streets of Phnom Penh up close for the first time. Though it was early, the day had begun for locals, so many cars and motorcycles crowded the streets as we passed homes where people were cooking and eating breakfast outside. We walked for about 45 minutes, but the kids were not successful in completely filling their bags, so it seemed like a bit of an off-day from a collection standpoint. One of my first interactions with the kids occurred when we returned to the Alexandra project. I had an emptied the water bottle that I was drinking from, so tapped one of the young boys on the shoulder and offered him the bottle for his bag. He slowly extended his hand and took the water bottle from me. The huge, toothy smile that he rewarded me with was heart-warming and heart-wrenching at the same time. I wanted to give him a hug, express positive acknowledgement of the job he had accomplished, to do something to help him. Instead, I nodded and returned his smile, excited to work with the kids directly the following day.

Slum dwelling  
We were all looking forward to touring the slums to get a better understanding of how the Riverkids children live. Soklee took us to two different slums, one on the riverbank and one by railroad tracks. The slum by the riverbank was squalid. Garbage piled under the houses, all of which rested on tall stilts. We curiously watched the everyday activities of the residents, careful not to stare in an attempt to establish some level of comfort. As we stopped in front of a house with a slim, worn woman, Soklee asked us if we had any questions to ask her. I think that were all caught by surprise because we had not fully prepared ourselves to interview the poorest of the poor in a country where more than one-third of the people live on less than 50 cents per day.   And now, with a resident of the slums adjoining the river smiling glumly at us, we were not sure what to say. What questions were off limits? What questions would or even could cause further discomfort? What was this woman’s story?

We started asking broad questions very tentatively (“How long have you lived here? How did you get here?”), but as the conversation progressed, we began to open up and ask more personal questions. The first woman whom we interviewed had contracted AIDS, transmitted by her ex-husband who had been a customer of local sex workers. He left her with no place to live, and she was too sick to find stable work. As we departed to go meet and interview more families, we left her with appreciative but tight-lipped smiles and a few words of encouragement. While it was difficult to be positive after listening to her story, I understood that she was living day-to-day, and for her at least, life moved on.

Riverkids workshop with fingerpainting  
Throughout the afternoon, the interviews painted the same story – lives destroyed by sex work and disease, families trying to survive in extreme poverty, and children forced to work to help their families in lieu of receiving a proper education. Despite the seriousness of the destitute conditions, the people we spoke with treated us respectfully and were very open to sharing. Still, there were times when we were crammed into their one-room homes and the air was thick with unspoken emotion. One of the clearest memories I have is when a woman spoke of her young teenage daughter, her only remaining child, who left her home to earn money as a sex worker. As the woman told her story, her eyes welled with tears, and I had to take a few deep breaths to keep my emotions in check. I waited until we were leaving her house, putting our shoes back on, to wipe my eyes dry. These moments were intensely emotional and private. While I did not take any pictures of the residents we interviewed, their faces and these interviews will live on within me for quite some time.
The final portion of the advocacy tour was an introduction to the sex trade in Cambodia. We gathered in the small back room of a massage parlor, outfitted only with a bed and dim lighting, decorated with pages of local fashion magazines. In our interview with the masseuse, a twenty-something sex worker, we learned that she keeps just 20% of the proceeds of her jobs, meaning after a typical $10, 45-minute service, she will take home just $2. Her typical week might consist of three paid massages, so she had no choice but to keep working in the massage parlor and offer special services just to have access to food and housing.
Art class in one of the classrooms  
ater in the afternoon, we visited a local market where sex workers would prepare for their nightly work. The market was a frenzied maze with young women getting their hair, nails, and makeup done and purchasing flashy new dresses and accessories. One of the truisms of sex work was that the most beautiful girls earned more money, so these young women did not hesitate to invest in services that would package themselves as a top-tier product. There was a buzz of excitement I felt while in the market. I assume that this ritual of getting ready was one of the more enjoyable parts of a young sex worker’s job, a time to gossip with friends and enjoy beauty treatments.

Our final late-night stops were at several local clubs and beer gardens, where sex workers go in droves to seek potential clients. Every beer garden had a different vibe that catered to its clientele. One club on the river catered exclusively to the locals. The most disturbing beer garden, dubbed Martini, catered exclusively to western men, sex tourists. This venue required a special security screening before we could enter. Our personal belongings were carefully searched, item by item, to prevent cameras, alcohol, and other prohibited items such as guns from getting into the establishment. We only stayed in the complex for 10 minutes, but it that was all I needed to fully understand the operation. I was surrounded by dozens of Caucasian men in their 60s and up who were flirting and dancing with Cambodian teens that were at least two generations younger. I felt sick and was relieved when we left to go back to our hotel. By this time, it was nearing midnight and the streets were fairly empty. We rode back to the hotel crammed into a single tuk-tuk in silence, attempting to digest and make sense of the day’s activities.

Working in one of the Riverkids classrooms with cheap local materials and creativity  
The following two days our time was split amongst activities with the Riverkids children and consulting with the Riverkids’ staff. Our activities with the children centered upon using local ingredients to create sustainable art materials for the children. Our main activity was creating homemade version of Play-doh (using flour, water, salt, oil, food coloring, and a heat source). When we arrived on site, the children excitedly gathered in a circle around us and we explained the process of making the pliable, putty-like substance we know as Play-doh. We wanted to make the activity as interactive as possible, so we had planned to enlist three or four children at a time to help us measure out ingredients and combine them in the pan. A few brave children raised their hands when we asked for volunteers.

We had brought along several different recipes, realizing that each end-result would probably differ in hot and humid Phnom Penh from our previous test results in mild and dry Southern California. We were right. Our first batch was so bad that we had to throw it away!

Lots of creativity came out through playdough with the kids  
Fortunately, when the ingredients combined, a fun science-project fizz was generated, and the kids were completely in awe of the reaction. We quickly dumped out the bad dough, but to my surprise, when we asked for volunteers for our next try, every single child raised their hand and (I think) yelled out the equivalent of “me, me, me”! Subsequent attempts were much more successful, and as we cooked in the hot sun, we began to practice English with the children. The children had just learned how to say colors, and we had purchased food coloring with which to dye the dough. As we would hold up dye before adding it to the dough, we asked the crowd to say the color. The kids successfully identified the primary colors with no problem and even were able to get some of the more advanced colors correct – in English. We quickly learned that yellow and pink were a favorite among the crowd, so we doubled the amount of we made in these colors for the kids. Before we knew it, the kids had to leave to go home for lunch, and we assured them that they would be playing with the dough the next day.

While most of the kids left during this time, five older boys stuck around to play in the courtyard. Our professor and translator had left to go get everyone lunch, so my four classmates and I were alone. The kids did not speak English but had warmed up to us during the activity, so they began to play with us. The boys spent about 30 minutes performing individual gymnastics and dance routines for our amusement, continually trying to one-up the last performer. I was extraordinarily impressed not only by how strong and flexible these children were, but also at their confidence. The gymnastics and dance activities that they had learned had a very positive impact on their self-esteem. Once the kids were tired, they began to sing English songs (accompanied by hand motions) that their teachers had taught them. It was one of the most touching moments of the day. I could not stop smiling after we were serenaded with “Lean on Me” and “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” These kids were natural performers.

All ages working together  
We left our new friends early in the afternoon to travel to the Riverkids general office. We had prepared a presentation on the use of social media we would present to the Riverkids staff with the objective making actionable recommendations that could bolster the organization’s current efforts. We spoke about what makes social media so powerful. In an impromptu move, my classmate, who was leading the lecture, took out his iPhone to make the lesson more real. He connected to the wireless network and changed his Facebook status to “Helping Riverkids in Cambodia.” Within minutes, he had four comments on the new status message. The Riverkids staff was very impressed by the reach of Facebook and how it might utilize its fan page to strengthen its relationships with volunteers. It seemed we made more than Facebook friends that afternoon.
A playdough creature comes alive  
On our final day with the Riverkids, we continued our arts and crafts activities with the children before participating in a community micro-finance meeting held by the NGO. First, in the morning, the kids lined up to receive individual plastic bags containing four colors of dough we had prepared. The kids were thrilled to finally play with the homemade Play-doh and spent more than an hour sculpting creatures, food, and other everyday items. We watched the children play and took pictures as the children proudly held their final creations. I was blown away by the creativity and detail that the children put into their sculptures. Play-doh is a medium that can be used over and over again, and so it is our hope that the children will be able to enjoy the play-doh we made for a long time, perhaps even for several months. And when it’s done, we hope the staff follows our recipe to make more.
We took a break from the Play-doh to move on to homemade fingerpaints (dish soap, water, flour, food coloring). We had pre-mixed several colors so that we could transition straight into painting; fingerpaints, for some reason, are not sold in Cambodia. We gave each child a thick piece of paper, and groups of children shared plastic palettes filled with paint. The creativity continued to flow as children decorated pictures of scenery, butterflies, and their homes. We laid the art outside to dry and were surprised to see the children washing out the palettes and cleaning the other materials. They were so enthusiastic about helping us whenever they could. As the activity ended, I started to get sad because I realized that this is the last time that we would be able to engage the kids (our afternoon activity was at the Riverkids office). We stood in front of the classroom, each of us saying some words of gratitude and encouragement to the class. They left us for lunch with paintings and Play-doh in hand, grinning from ear-to-ear. Some stayed a few extra minutes to say good-bye and take pictures with us. I don’t know who had more fun that morning, them or us.
  Rolling up playdough to make brighly colored monsters

On our final afternoon volunteering with Riverkids, we attended a microfinance presentation that was hosted by Riverkids staff. Riverkids promotes crafts and other activities as a means for local families to make money, but many of the community’s residents do not know the basics about how to budget and manage money. The Riverkids staff began the presentation by broadly introducing budgeting concepts, then turned to us to present a more detailed template for creating a budget (using the concepts of cash flow – income, expenses, and savings). The women, representing about 15 local families, diligently took notes and were given the homework assignment of recording their income and expenses with the hope of eventually creating a budget for their family. These women exemplified the general attitudes of the Cambodian people we encountered. They were hopeful and ready for change and were willing to work hard to meet that goal.
  Setting out the fingerpainting trays before serious creative work begins!

After three very full days of activities, I was absolutely exhausted and emotionally drained, but very reluctant to leave. My experiences with the Riverkids staff, families, and children were so powerful and real; an authenticity pervaded everything we did. We felt an intense need to improve the living conditions and lives of the Riverkids children, and that special bond fostered easy friendships and trust. I am very thankful to the Riverkids staff for hosting us and to all of the families that opened their homes to us and the role their hospitality has played in my life. But I’m sure that they could sense the deep sense of gratitude that I felt as I left them with a knowing smile and a respectful bow, no translation was necessary.

Carrie Xu, Shirley Xu, Jesse Goldberg, Alex Ko and Beth Moody with translator Soklee Wong and 3 children from the Riverkids Project in Phnom Penh

For more information on Riverkids, visit

For information on this project for May 2011, contact Prof. Joe Nunes.