A couple of years ago, my colleagues and I did some volunteering work at an orphanage in Thailand. When you google “overseas volunteering programs”, you may come across various websites and projects requiring volunteers. However, most of these programs require either long commitment, or the volunteers to pay program fees.
We decided to come up with our own little project, which was to build a frog farm in an orphanage located in the jungle at the Thai-Burmese border known as “Pala U Noi“.
#1: How we got started
We were going to be based in Bangkok for a few days and wanted to volunteer at somewhere accessible from Bangkok. After searching around different programmes, we came across Jungle Aid, a Hua-Hin based private charity dedicated to help improve health and sanitary standards in the displaced communities located at the Thai Burmese borders.
Through Jungle Aid, we were recommended a short project for Pala U Noi. We met one of the volunteers at Hua Hin who led us the jungle where the orphanage is located.
#2: What we observed
People at the Thai-Burmese borders are usually refugees; many whom have lost their lands, families and livelihoods due to ethnic conflicts. As a result, most of them do not have an ID and have no access to healthcare and education from the government. The villagers in this area – including those living in Pala U Noi – have limited access to health-care and education, as well as poor diets.
The orphanage housed close to 50 children from age 5 to 20. These children have lost their parents and some of them were in poor health when they first arrived. They attended school in the village during the day and help with chores at the orphanage after school. Most of them spoke Karen, Thai or Burmese but a couple of them learnt a little bit of English in school.
As the orphanage does not receive any steady form of funding, it tries to be self-sustaining through farming. They rear fishes, ducks, chicken, pigs and plant vegetables for food. In fact, we helped to pick the long beans from the farm and the girls cooked them for dinner! However, given the large number of children versus the amount of poultry, their daily meals comprise of mostly rice with only a little bit of vegetables. Eggs and meat were rare treats to them.
Therefore, a frog farm would be helpful for them as an additional source of food as frogs are part of Karen people’s diet and could be a good source of protein for the children.
#3: What we did
Living conditions in the orphanage was not ideal and the children did not have balanced meals. As a result, other than building the farm (which was completed with the help of the children), we also bought rice, milk, sugar, oil and other supplies for them from the local provision stores. We also bought some books from Bangkok to share and interact with them.
#4: Tips on volunteering overseas
- Be practical in terms of the project scale. It is tempting to want to achieve a lot during your volunteer stint. However, you need to be realistic in your project objective and goal setting based on the resources and amount of time you have. A small step can also make a difference to the community.
- Check on the partnership organisation. Many VWOs do not have much resources to build a detailed or fancy website. But google for relevant posts on the organisation, or check them out on social media channels such as Facebook or Instagram to find out more about what they are doing on the ground.
- If you are not comfortable in donating cash, don’t! In many developing countries where law is not strictly enforced on how donations should be treated, we may not know the specific purposes our cash donations may eventually be used for. Therefore, a more practicable approach could be to donate in kinds, i.e. purchase items or provide services that would make a direct impact to the community.
- Be open-minded. As with all interactions, there may be differences in cultures and living habits. Be observant, approachable and try to listen to the needs of the community you are helping.
Volunteering could be another good way to understand a country as well as its geopolitical issues and humanitarian needs. It presents a good opportunity to immense in the local community and culture. If you have some time to spare during your vacation in future, perhaps you could plan your own volunteer stint there!