By Jack Reynolds
During the summer of 2012, I returned to Cambodia for the third year to volunteer at the Ponheary Ly Foundation (PLF). I traveled with my close friend, Jamie Stafford, and the rest of his family. As a group, we would be responsible for helping the foundation across a range of areas. In previous years, I had volunteered for the PLF in various ways, such as teaching English lessons or playing soccer with Khmer school children. This year, however, I wanted to do something entirely different. I asked Ponheary whether I could implement a swim and water skills program for select children. The idea was to teach a group of 10-12 year olds from Chey School how to swim in a fun, yet educational manner. As a varsity swimmer and an assistant swim coach at a swim school in New Jersey, I was particularly excited to share my passion for the sport with children who had little experience with any type of organized swim program. I knew the children had exposure to bodies of water, such as a large Baray or reservoir; the monsoon season also brings massive flooding, which in the rural areas can create quite deep ditches of water, dangerous for children.
I also understood from Ponheary that children teach other children. While I might only be able to reach 20 or so children in this program, I became confident that they might be able to share what they learned with others. In terms of the lessons, we needed to get permission to use the pool at a local western hotel. Additionally, I brought the requisite swimsuits and goggles. While the children were of mixed abilities, I decided to organize sessions focusing first on treading water, basic pool safety skills, and survival techniques. This included a lesson on how to save another person from drowning and an overview of basic stoke techniques for free style, breast, and backstroke. The goal was to increase the children’s knowledge of basic pool safety and survival skills. Furthermore, I wanted the children to feel completely at ease in the water.
Before I knew it, I was in the pool with my first group of children. There were six in all. In order to effectively teach them, I enlisted the help of my friend, Jamie. He worked with me in the pool. Together, we felt prepared for anything. Almost immediately, however, we encountered a few minor problems. The biggest issue I soon discovered was the language barrier. Most of the children we were teaching knew little to no English. Often, I would demonstrate what we were going to work on, only to be greeted with blank stares and much Khmer discussion. They wanted to learn, but were not at all sure what I was asking them to do. So I decided to increase my use of hand gestures. I followed instruction with whistle blowing to signal time for a new area of learning. The two hour daily lessons were thus organized down to the minute, with simple demonstration as my guiding principle.
By the second day of lessons, the program began to take shape. Jamie and I felt we had made a breakthrough. There were some children, obviously, that needed a lot of help. For these kids, we had to start at the very beginning. Essentially, we would take them by the hand into the water, and gradually let go as they became more comfortable. To my surprise, however, others needed almost no help at all. They had been swimming long before I came. For them, we focused on stroke improvement and survival skills training.
While we only touched a handful of children, I think the swim program made a new start at Chey School and it is something I would encourage other volunteers to continue. I also hope to come back next year and do this again. The kids really seemed to enjoy the experience, and while I hope they will never need the survival skills, at least, they have a better sense of what to do in an emergency.
For me, I felt a tremendous sense of satisfaction working with the kids and watching their fun and growing confidence in the water. At the very least, I will always know they had a fun time at the pool. Each lesson, while informative, was filled with lots of laughter and smiles. The kids had a great time, and that alone was a great satisfaction for me.
I hope to have made a small ripple in the tidal wave of support for the Ponheary Ly Foundation.