Photo credit: PROJECT SMILE

Spending 2 weeks in rural Cambodia changed these youths’ outlook on volunteering

Three Temasek Polytechnic students share their experiences on their Youth Expedition Project to Cambodia.

Tricia Kuan

A tiny coffee addict with a really weird frog obsession.

Published: 15 November 2022, 2:52 PM

It’s morning in a rural village over four hours away from the bustling city of Phnom Penh. Under the blazing sun, waves of heat rise from snaking dirt paths as the distinctive clang of hammers cut through the quiet of this otherwise sleepy village.

Following the noise, you will find a team refurbishing a classroom in a local primary school. But these are not your full-time construction workers.

Instead, they are a group of students from Temasek Polytechnic (TP) who have embarked on a Youth Expedition Project (YEP) called Project SMILE in an effort to provide service to an overseas community through donations, education and construction projects.

YEP is a service-learning programme launched by Youth Corps Singapore in 2000, which aims to nurture youths with a desire to make a difference in Singapore and overseas.

According to Youth Corps Singapore, there were approximately 200 trips made yearly across 11 countries consisting of ASEAN states, China and India, with about 4,500 youth participants in total.


Amid the pandemic, YEP goes online (YEP-GO) was introduced so that youths could continue to do good for overseas communities virtually. PHOTO CREDIT: SCREENSHOT TAKEN FROM YEP WEBSITE


Project SMILE marked the very first YEP to take place since the pandemic broke out. On Sep 26, the team of 35 students set off to Cambodia for two weeks in the hopes of being able to make a difference to the local community.

Motivations for signing up

When 19-year-old Shai-Ann Paul first joined TP, she heard her seniors speak fondly of their YEP experience. This cemented a positive image of the project in her mind and she developed a desire to partake in it.

However, she was met with disappointment when the YEP which was supposed to take place during her first year of polytechnic was cancelled due to the pandemic.


Shai-Ann finally got to fulfil her dream of participating in YEP this year. PHOTO CREDIT: PROJECT SMILE


The opportunity would eventually present itself again when the school announced the resumption of Project SMILE. She immediately jumped at the chance to sign up for it. 

“I wanted to make an impact on someone’s life by the end of the trip,” she shared. 

Similarly, Benjamin Lee, 18, felt that Project SMILE would be his first opportunity to do something meaningful for an overseas community on a large scale. 

Preparations before the trip

As one of the facilitators for Project SMILE, Benjamin shared that being involved in various leadership positions in school was helpful when it came to preparing for the project, especially since teamwork and communication were essential.

Alongside him were six other facilitators who oversaw two departments – one in charge of preparing teaching materials and another in charge of donations.


Teamwork was not only important for the project participants during their preparation process, but also while they carried out their service project. PHOTO CREDIT: PROJECT SMILE


As part of the donations team, Benjamin and his schoolmates pooled together monetary and physical donations with the help of school staff and alumni, before sorting and packing the donations into 34 duffel bags.

The other team was focused on the planning and preparation of lessons for the Cambodian students. As part of this group, member Natashalilah Abdullah recalled having to rely on the team’s Early Childhood Development & Education students to give guidance on how they should go about planning lessons.


The team used some of the money they had collected to purchase books and other resources to engage the Cambodian students. PHOTO CREDIT: PROJECT SMILE


Natashalilah and her team anticipated possible language barriers during lessons. As a result, they had to think outside the box to create teaching materials that wouldn’t require complex explanations.

Reaching out to the community

Partnering with a charity organisation, Help2Help, Natashalilah and the other participants got their hands dirty in a series of different projects for the rural villages they were supporting, including Kampong Kdei and Kampong Chikreng.

They started each morning by giving the primary school students lessons in English, Mathematics and Science. Despite the language barrier, Natashalilah and her team were able to get by with the help of three translators.


The youths conducted many of their classes outdoors. PHOTO CREDIT: PROJECT SMILE


Every day, the team was greeted by eager students who awaited their arrival by the main road. Knowing how much they enjoyed the lessons was encouraging to Natashalilah, who initially thought that her lack of a teaching background would affect her interactions with the students. 

After the day’s lessons, Natashalilah and her friends would spend time renovating a classroom alongside the local teachers – an endeavour which proved to be challenging yet fulfilling.


With all the hard work they put in, the youths felt a sense of achievement after seeing their finished work. PHOTO CREDIT: PROJECT SMILE


It took an entire week to complete the renovation, which consisted of tiling, painting and polishing the floor. After wrapping up the renovation work, the group then began preparations for the donation handouts. 

They ordered food supplies such as rice and cooking oil from the city and spent three nights meticulously sorting the food items into packs, along with donated items they had brought from Singapore. Upon completion, they distributed the packs to other villages in the area.


The group gave out a total of 1000 packs which weighed 12kg each. PHOTO CREDIT: PROJECT SMILE

Forming meaningful connections

Of all the group’s activities, what really struck a chord with Shai-Ann were visits the team made to a remote village where a family diagnosed with HIV was isolated from the community. 

On their first visit, Shai-Ann and the team trekked through 45 minutes of heavy rain with a pack of second-hand clothes to reach the village. 

It was there that Shai-Ann met Nawi, a 17-year-old student who was born with HIV. Despite being discriminated against and forced into isolation, Nawi retains an optimistic outlook on life and a burning passion for her studies.


When asked what necessities she would like from the city, Nawi’s only requests were for a uniform and bicycle she could use to cycle to school. PHOTO CREDIT: PROJECT SMILE


This, along with her dreams of one day becoming a doctor, inspired and touched Shai-Ann deeply.

Learning valuable lessons

As they endeavoured to do good, the youths found that they came across many opportunities for personal growth and self-reflection as they navigated various challenges.

For Benjamin, one such challenge came when three days of unexpected downpours delayed the team’s food and donation packing. With flooding and delays in supply delivery, the team was forced to work long into the night for several days.


Due to delays, the team would only start packing after dinner, and would only wrap up around 11pm. PHOTO CREDIT: PROJECT SMILE


The idea that things would not always go according to plan was something he learned to embrace, Benjamin reflected.

Natashalilah reflected that being without the conveniences and comforts she had grown accustomed to during those 12 days gave her a newfound appreciation for her life in Singapore.


To better understand the way of life for Cambodians, Project SMILE participants made a 21km trek through flooded waters. PHOTO CREDIT: PROJECT SMILE


Even though communicating with their homestay hosts did prove to be a challenge, it also taught Natashalilah that sincere and meaningful connections can still be formed regardless of spoken language.

“We were not able to communicate properly … however the hosts made sure that we had everything we needed to be comfortable, and they hosted us with a warm welcome. They greeted us with warm smiles and cooked warm meals for us,” she said.

Making an impact back home

After their overseas community service project, those involved in YEP are also expected to embark on a project that serves the local community.


The Project SMILE team worked with Willing Hearts for their local community project. PHOTO CREDIT: PROJECT SMILE


Benjamin worked alongside his team once more to do good, but this time for a soup kitchen.  They prepared raw ingredients and helped to cook batches of chicken with braised stock, and prepared takeaway containers at the food assembly line for an elderly welfare home.

“After our YEP, our team was definitely more open and willing to help out at Willing Hearts to support their charitable work. We found meaningful joy in the hard labour we do as a team,” he said.


Students were also able to immerse themselves in Cambodian culture during their trip. PHOTO CREDIT: PROJECT SMILE


Overall, the YEP trip was an eye-opening experience which allowed Natashalilah to learn about the Cambodian community in ways she would not have been able to from a typical vacation, she shared.

Most importantly, she realised that volunteering was more than helping others, but also doing so for the right reasons and in a way that would not negatively impact the community.

“You should take into consideration ‘is what I am doing really helping?’, ‘How can I do something that will have a (lasting) positive impact on (the community)?” she said.

To find out more about YEP, visit the Youth Corps Singapore website.

If you have a community you would like to reach out to, consider joining YEP or lead a YEP project or YEP-GO project of your own.

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