• Elana Withnall

Volunteering Abroad.

Updated: Jun 26, 2020

That one time... I taught PE to kids in Cambodia.


What do you think. Putting your westernized life on hold. Your work, your training. Your family, your friends.

To aim to impact, someone less fortunate life would be like...

Well it was very different to what I anticipated.

ACPE Cultural Experience Program, 2015

What a whirlwind, exhausting, challenging, emotional, knowledge-filled, joyous, adventurous - journey of my life

I fell in love with the country.

The vibes.

The people & their hospitality.

Most of all educating those children in the skills of physical education and seeing the up-most joy it brings.


In saying that, I have felt things I never felt, heard stories you couldn't dream of, and witnessed the development of children living in devastation and poverty.

In Which was one of the most incredibly rewarding journeys - I've ever been fortunate to experience!


Those kids faces, when entering classrooms for the first time.

Are some of the most happy, Some Of the most enthusiastic and some of the most attentive children, I've had the privilege to teach.

But it's so humbling to think. Behind the smiles, that are far from fading.

Is a child living in approximately $0.70/ day.

A child that may have experienced abuse, death, or simply an impoverished life; since the day they were born.

Yet, they still manage to be some of the happiest kids - I've ever met in my life.


The Cultural Immersion Program, lead 15 ACPE students to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Where we taught a PE program and fundamental life skills to school children, belonging to the Cambodian Children's Fund; which is a centre for regrowth, development and heating. For some of Cambodia's most destitute communities.

Our days, consisted of 3 X 1 hour teaching blocks in the morning. In which we split into different groups and had the responsibility of coaching a variety of sports to the children of different ages and learning abilities.

The sports we taught included:

Soccer, rugby, AFL, netball, basketball, cricket, frisbee and swimming skills.

We would have a short lunch Break (in which I always took the opportunity to nap or go for my run) and then another 3 X 1 hour teaching block in the afternoon, with a different variety of classes.


I've always had a passion for teaching.

That's why I became a coach & then a personal trainer.

But This. This was a teaching experience like no other.

Educating the munchkins; with a language barrier, no knowledge of physical education But showing us the upmost enthusiasm and gratitude; makes for one incredible journey!

Knowledge is free. And a gift. It's whether you're prepared to give your time to share it with others; is the question.

What a testimony to the ACPE team, in their selflessness, their determination and their willingness. To the outcome of how successfully every single person took on on challenge of this experience.

And took it in their stride.

I was so privileged to work alongside such legends, make memories together, share once in a lifetime moments and make some new, life-long friendships.

The evening program / 'Food Program' was our night activity.

This consisted of a food distribution, system. Which was so routinely planned our by one of the young leaders of the school - all the kids knew where to go, the order of operation and all couple-of-hundred of them, didn't dare to push In or make a fuss if they missed out on their glass of milk.

It begin with hand washing and drying. I fortunately was in charge of this for a few evenings. A simple western act, of washing your hands before a meal and drying them properly - allowed me to have an insight into how grateful these kids, undoubtedly were.

Each child would thank me, for simply drying there hands. With a bow (only used for people of high authority) and ''Akun Tran'' a formal ''Thank you.''

It made this job such a delight, to see the gratefulness; in such a small gesture these children were being provided with.



The children would then receive a small bowl of some kind of rice of noodle dish. And then proceed to the ''shower program.'' The volunteer's role in this situation involved ensuring the kids dry their hair properly, apply their own talcum powder to their arms and chest. And then we had the joy of styling the kid's hair.

This was exciting for me. As I only have brothers as siblings. It was like I had hundreds of little sisters, to braid their hair.




Again, a simple gesture of hair styling or brushing - was so gratefully received. I was humbled to have helped them, so little. But the smile on their face said it all!

I made some special little friends, that were especially drawn to me and would pay special visits everyday.

One of these darlings, I nicknamed 'Mini Beyoncé.'

I met her in free time in the playground, where I was playing hand clapping games with some younger girls about ages 7-10yrs. This then turned into picking up and spinning around games, which quickly turned into tired Lani and lots if girly giggles as we all got dizzy very quickly.


Mini Bey, approached me asking to okay the clapping game like all the other girls. She then strangely requested that I sing.

I thought sure, what would they know?

She requested 'Celine Dion.' Of all artists and we bonded over knowing all of the words to the Titanic theme song together!

It's quite funny to us, westernized people to think the song still gets readily played on Cambodian radio as well as some K-POP and Americans hip-hop tunes; for an eclectic mix of sounds.

After titanic was reminisced, I asked if she knew any beyond? I decided to perform 'Say My Name' as Destiny's Child #1, and within a couple of minutes she was able to recite the chorus back to me.


I am still amazed! This little girl, spoke very basic English - but was able to sing that song to me - in English, and with sass I must day. Every day I visited her in the playground.

The darling, then decided she'd hang by me, full of high-5's and hugs; every single time I've taught in her playground

One thing Always remained true.

Her enthusiasm, when seeing us walk in each day, never decreased.

And her smiles only got bigger !


One memorable heartfelt moment with mini Bey, was on our last day teaching at CCF. Distributing all of the sports equipment equally to all of the seven different graded classrooms.

And I wanted to give her one of our teaching shirts as a gift.

She attended public school in the morning and I sadly thought I missed out on saying out goodbyes.


So I gave my shirt to one of her friends, to pass along and that was that.

As I took some equipment to her playground, for the last time (ACPE Donated and distributed evenly to all of the classrooms) There she was! Running toward me, rocking an ACPE Tshirt, which came all the way past her knees.

She just embraced me and cried and cried and cried.


Knowing I was going back to Australia. And then explaining to her this was our last visit was heartbreaking. But so touching. As her little tears rolled doe her, still bravely smiling face. I said 'Slanh Nek Nak' which means, I'll miss you, in Khmer.

She said back to me, 'I love you Lani.' Then we both cried.

Goodness me. The impact a 7 year old can have on you.

I'll never forget her, or the joy she Brought to everyone around her.

Bless her cotton socks.




Getting around Phnom Penh was made easy by our lovely ''Tuk Tuk'' drivers.

This was men, driving a motorbike, with an attached carriage or some kind. Some decked out with cushions, lights and artwork. Some very minimalist and safety-questionable.


But $2 to get to the other side of town, or popular destinations like the Central Market place for shopping or our favourite restaurants made for a fun experience.

We had pre determined mini-busses booked, for our travels to the schools. Roy and Dan, our bus drivers became infamous for their weaving through morning traffic. Their ability to get through tiny alleyways to make short cuts on our journey; or the simple but maybe most difficult task of them all - putting up with out karaoke to and from school everyday, as we would relive classic 90s hits and other RnB favourites; to pump us up for the long days / nights ahead.


My training program while in Cambodia, wasn't quite what if hoped for.

With 35 degree days and 83% humidity, I had to wake up at 5:30 everyday just to get a jog in.

But it was well worth it! To jog along the Mekong River, in Phnom Penh at sunrise every morning.


I was in awe, everyday.

Taking in all the beauty; as this town awoke.

As I ran past this palace. The riverside temple. The flags of the world, displayed beside river. The sights and smells of road-side market stalls.

The people, out and about even before the day had begun.

And the warm smiles, of locals. I jogged past everyday, who begin to recognize me.




I found a park where I would do my strength and conditioning training. There were no gyms where we were staying, but I found these concrete & mental, barbells just lying by a tree in a park along my run.

They were approx 10-15kg each.


One was slightly broader, perfect for dead lifts and cleans.

The other, more narrow for my squats and lunges.

I planned a cross-fit-esque workout every day. Consisting of a series of squats, lunges, cleans, Bulgarian squats, chest press, military presses, triceps dips, burpees, mountain climbs, push ups and 30-60m sprints. To ensure my functional and event-specific strength was still up to speed. And what a sweat sesh they became!


One of the hottest days I can remember, while teaching was the annual ACPE + CCF sports Gala Day.

This involved two hundred kids, playing a 'Round Robin' Competition of:

Soccer, AFL, ultimate handball, volleyball, dance, cricket & more.


Allowing the kids to showcase their skills we've taught them in the last two weeks

So proud of the confidence these kids have developed. And regardless of the near 40/degree day the toughed it out - still with smiles on their faces! And What a Joy it was, witnessing the innate happiness, sports can bring into children's lives.





The Killing Fields.

An immersion of culture and emotion, On our Sunday-Day-Off teaching we took a bus; to one of the saddest places I've ever visited.

It was here, thousands of innocent Cambodians, were taken to the end of their life. During the reign of the Khmer Rouge; from 1975-79.

The followers of this extremist communist party lead out to murder anyone who was worked in politics, who was of higher importance, education or simply dressed better than the everyday person.


The organization is remembered especially for orchestrating the Cambodian genocide, Various studies have estimated the death toll at between 740,000 and 3,000,000, most commonly between 1.4 million and 2.2 million, with perhaps half of those deaths being due to executions, and the rest from starvation and disease.

It was because of this devastating history, that so many of these peaceful people are still broken.

Still living in poverty.

And their family history is no longer.

My heart was broken for these beautiful people.




As I walked around the site, where some mass graves are located. I stumbled upon the monument pictured here. This was where hundreds of skulls, bones, and clothing remains of the innocent victims are preserved.

This was really, real for me.


As I thought about the incredible little people I had the privilege of teaching over the week.I felt an incredible sense of sadness for them; their families and their history. How could this happen, in our world. In this world?

I took a moment, to just cry and cry.


They described themselves as ''physically well now. But emotionally broken like glass.'' And it's their responsibility to put all of the pieces back together.

A very personal journey for them. But they aim to share their story of hope, hope of a better future for themselves and their loved ones.

As I was overcome with devastation during the storytelling, viewing of the sites and artifacts; I simply pray for the world, that through history like this - we can be united and empowered to find peace.


When our teaching time was over, we were able to enjoy a short two day, trip to explore Siem Reap, before flying home.

This trip was a seven hour, bumpy, safety-questionable overnight bus ride.

But all worth it, nevertheless.

We were lucky enough to experience one of the seven wonders of the world,The ancient civilization that is, the extraordinary ''Angkor Wat.''


It is described as to be an incomparable treasure of mankind; with regard to its greatness & beauty.

We also visited ''Ta Prohm,'' where my girl

Angelina Jolie filmed Tomb Rader.

I cannot put into words: but I'm Absolutely in awe of the beauty, the stories the the civilizations of the Khmer people.

And I'll never forget the million dollar moment; Angkor Wat, sunrise.

The setting. The vibes.

The crowd; ready and waiting at 5:30am.

And to simply be - all in awe of creation & some of its finest work.




I was also in awe of nature as we visited the 'Floating Villages.' By small

Boat, we stopped by the 'Floating Forest.'

Where I had a private canoe tour, through the mangroves. It was breathtakingly serene.

I cannot begin to explain how these people live so simply, so quietly, so isolated.

But it was humbling.


And What do you do on your last night in Siem Reap, with the ACPE squad all United for one last time.

In classic Lani fashion can I volunteered myself for an ''Open Mike Night.'' By biased choice; a Beyoncé track of course; ''Halo,'' Which I happily sung; along with my gorgeous back up singers. Danced with the full band - to the pub of a hundred or so onlookers.


You only live once, right?

And on my final day in Cambodia, what did I do? Get a tattoo of course. (Researched prior for health regulations and ratings of course).

But this means something very special to me.

A constant reminder of this adventure.

That country.

Those people.

That has impacted me forever.




I grew such an affinity with those kids, the country & the program.

So many magic moments, stories, giggles as well as personal growth.

It was really sad to see our teaching come to an end.

It was comforting when saying our goodbyes that not one of the kids actually said 'goodbye.' It was always, 'See you next time.'

Bless these beautiful people, their futures and the Cambodian Children's Fund.

A massive sincere, thank you!

Once again, to all of the generous, beautiful souls - that helped Make this trip of a lifetime, possible.

You gave me the ability to make a change, share knowledge & brighten these treasure's futures.

That is something money can't buy.

I'll always remember this experience and the lives I've been able to touch.


In summary, I've come away from this experience: changed.

Not physically. But in my thought patterns, my actions, reactions.

I was challenged. I was Enlightened.

And affirmed in my spirituality.

Regardless of the world's adversities.


We're all human; we just speak a different language.

The instant look of sheer joy, on those beautiful Children's faces - when walking into their school for the first time; is something I'll never forget.

And a refreshing contrast I noticed on this journey among all of our 'first world problems' in a literal sense; when living in a Western World.


Those precious humans, I was privileged to meet; living in poverty - are some of the most genuinely happy faces I've ever seen!

They had so many hugs & smiles to share.

I'm forever so grateful to have the opportunity to help make a difference to their futures. And that empowering feeling, of being able to share knowledge, education,


If you have the capacity, if it's on your heart my friends. I encourage you to volunteer.

With whatever skills you can offer. In whatever way you deem appropriate.

Volunteer with an open mind and and open arms (ready for hugs).

It'll change your life, as much as you'll change theirs.


Cambodia as a country has so much beauty.

In its people.

It's it's surroundings.

In its vibes.

Those people, have some of the most beautiful souls I've been blessed to meet.

Missing those smiles already.

I sure hope, our worlds meet once again.

Le-hai. Akun Tran ,Cambodia.

Goodbye, thank you.


Until next time's thoughts...


Keep Dreaming & Believing.


Xx Lani

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