By Sarah Gordon
Hello all! I came to Cambodia for a third time this past August for my second experience as a volunteer for the Ponheary Ly Foundation. I originally came to Siem Reap with my parents when I was in ninth grade.
We were going to stay in the Seven Candles Guest House, and prior to arriving I did some research on the PLF and fell in love with their mission and inspiring work. I did some fundraising within my community through bake sales and letter-writing campaigns and ended up raising around $3000 to fund scholarships for teenage girls like myself. After visiting the programs on the ground and meeting incredible people such as Ponheary and Lori, I knew that this wouldn’t be my only trip to Siem Reap.
I returned the next year for six weeks, living at Seven Candles and working at Knar School, doing arts and crafts, and at a local girl’s dormitory in the evenings. Those six weeks afforded me the time to truly familiarize myself with Siem Reap, Cambodian culture, and the PLF. It was my first time away from home without my parents, and I was just sixteen, so I found that my independence and self reliance increased exponentially. I continued to be enthralled with my surroundings. Siem Reap provided the perfect location for me to have the feeling of both a small city with amazing restaurants, cafes, temples, and people without the chaos and relative danger of a larger city. I was able to get around by myself, navigate the streets in between my favorite locations, and soon speak enough Khmer to communicate.
The best part of that second summer, however, was volunteering. I discovered that when you put your all into the work that you do, you get a ton out of it. While I was working around six hours a day (more than I ever have, as a teenager!) I felt grounded with purpose. I learned to be flexible as schedules changed and supply stores would inexplicably close. I spent every waking hour either with the incredible kids in the PLF programs or planning what I would do the next day. I was still a bit young and a little shell-shocked by being 12,000 miles away from my hometown in America, but I felt Cambodia root itself within my soul, and I spent the next year imagining myself walking along Wat Bo and wondering what the children I had grown close to were doing.

Naturally, I jumped at the chance to return for a third year. I spent a little over a month in Cambodia this past year, and experienced the satisfying feeling of truly knowing a place. I was able to greet the tuktuk drivers by name, use my Khmer (which I can never do in America), and consider myself friends with the teachers at Knar and Tchey. Not only that, but I found that the year between being sixteen and being seventeen made a huge difference. I felt a million times more confident, both in my ability as a teacher and as a single traveller in a foreign country. I felt, in entering Cambodia, that this was truly the year that Siem Reap would start to feel like a second home, and this proved true.


This year, I worked to expand the Arts and Crafts program I had begun at Knar to Tchey School, which I had never been to before. While I was initially sad not to return to the beautiful Knar school and work with Chenda and Ka’on, I soon found that the children and teachers at Tchey were just as wonderful. Another PLF volunteer, Stephanie Mustari, recently blogged about how arts and crafts may seem like a “fluffy volunteer experience”, but how it is an incredibly unique experience for the children who usually sit in class all day in a fairly non-interactive environment where they are taught to “memorize and repeat, memorize and repeat”. The ability to have a creative outlet is an incredible thing to have and a really fun thing to provide a volunteer.
My arts and crafts activities ranged from carefully planned and tested to virtually improvised, and I definitely recommend the former. Old favorites that i carried over from Knar included playdough (which none of the kids had ever experienced before) and mask-making (which is initially a struggle for the kids, as I push them to be utterly creative in creating a fantastical “face”). I introduced other activities which were wildly possible, such as rain-stick making and dream-catcher making, incorporating the legends behind such crafts from Native American cultures. The activity that the kids asked for over and over again, however, was friendship bracelet making. I had filled almost an entire suitcase with yarn from the States before leaving, and by the time the month was over, all of it was gone. I think that this really speaks to the advice that the most meaningful crafts you can do with kids are the ones that they can keep and use afterward. Playdough might be fun, but I can just imagine it going into the trash as soon as the kids get home. Making paper flowers and paper mosaics was fun for the hour that they filled, but there isn’t much to do with them beyond that.
I found that my prediction was fulfilled–Siem Reap and the PLF had become a second home. I can’t recommend the experience enough for anyone else. It’s a lot of work and is overwhelming at times, but the payoff will last me for the rest of my life. As I apply for universities now, I find myself writing all my essays about the students in Cambodia and their impact as me, and I can only hope that I will be able to return next year before setting off into the next chapter of my life.