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Orphanage tourism: The volunteer’s story

Siem Reap Lane

Leah Holzworth worked with Khmer families in Seattle and studied South East Asian public health at university before moving to Cambodia in 2009. There she embarked on a bumpy ride and a steep learning curve.

“My story was like many volunteer teaching stories I’ve heard. I met a nice moto driver, he took me to a poor school and asked if I could help out. I said yes and ended up teaching for two hours in the evenings, Monday to Friday. I was there for a few months. I knew nothing about teaching English but loved my time with the teens and felt (pretty) good about what I was doing.”

As Leah became closer with the people in her new community, she uncovered stories of abuse and corruption.

“I was not prepared to handle this sort of situation. There was nothing I could do. The people involved wouldn’t let me report the problems. They were too scared of the consequences and I didn’t feel I could go against them, I just didn’t know enough. There was no way for me to get involved appropriately or effectively. I felt horrible about it. This is where I learned my lesson about getting involved as an outsider with illegitimate organisations.

“[Orphanage tourism] is a huge issue, with over 300 ‘orphanages’ in Siem Reap province alone, most I would say are not run properly. It’s a huge problem and I think it continues to get worse as more people realise they can make money from it. People see the poverty in Cambodia and they want to give back but don’t know how.”

She described how tuk tuk drivers and guides take tourists to orphanages that are depressing and designed to encourage people to hand over their money, or buy over priced rice or school supplies.

“The money gets used by the orphanage directors for nice cars, houses, motos and expensive phones… I have heard stories of directors who used the money to pay for their own children’s private education.”

Leah went to the US for a few months and then returned to act as interim-manager at another “school/orphanage” that provided sustainable agricultural training. Again, she was the only foreigner onsite. She only lasted a few months in the job before deciding that she wasn’t capable of fulfilling the role and that someone with more experience should be employed in her place.

“That was a big learning experience,” she said. “I found I could not be effective as I didn’t have the right skills or experience for that role and in the end I wasn’t happy. I had to recognise my limitations in order to do what was right for the school and for myself.”

She then started work with ConCERT, a not for profit organisation who provide information to people who want to learn about volunteering, donating and just about Cambodia in general.

“I was fortunate to do volunteer work with Michael Horton, the Director and Founder of ConCERT Cambodia,” she said. “My experience with the ConCERT team was really eye-opening.”

ConCERT’s catch line is, ‘helping you to help’. The Siem Reap based charity aims to reduce poverty by connecting people who want to help with suitable local organisations. They emphasize the importance of financial transparency and working in partnership with local people.

“There are a lot of great organisations in Cambodia who work with children. It’s just a matter of doing your research and not just reacting to the emotion of wanting to do something. Everyone has the ability to help, and to give back, and to feel good about it. Just take the time to make sure it is right for you and for the organisation.”


About Katherine Latham

Copywriter, journalist, writer.


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