Volunteering Experience of Samantha Alcorn


We’re getting speech therapy going in Cambodia and you can play a part

May 14, 2015

We have just celebrated Mother’s Day in Australia and New Zealand so naturally over the weekend I was reflecting on some advice passed onto me by my Mum. The words that have stuck with me the firmest (perhaps because they give me permission to indulge in what is a love of mine anyway) are a variation on a quote I have seen in various forms, to ‘travel, and see the world, the world is more than one page in a book.’ I’m certain this wasn’t an encouragement to take endless, extravagant holidays but rather to open my eyes to the lives lived by others. More specifically, those who don’t have the same opportunities in life that I do.

So I’ve tried to do exactly that.

This little life mantra led me in 2011 to plan a trip to several countries in South East Asia. This included Cambodia. I arrived, embarrassingly, not knowing too much more about the country other than that it housed the Angkor Wattemple complex and that Lara Croft Tomb Raider was filmed there. Fortunately, my experiences and conversations with the local people left me with a new perspective and a much deeper understanding of the country’s culture and history. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to walk away and let this become a trip remembered only by flicking through photos. I didn’t know much about volunteering overseas other than what a few fellow travellers shared with me. Meeting in tourist cafes I came across people who had done short stints in orphanages. Their experiences sounded so inspiring. I felt that with my skills as a speech pathologist, perhaps I could make a difference too.

Several years passed by. The memories and emotions I had formed in Cambodia remained strong. I revisited my idea of volunteering but became highly discouraged through reading negative accounts about ‘voluntourism’ particularly in regards to orphanages. Life progressed. I moved countries, I got married. Volunteering in Cambodia went on the back burner until one day where I happened across an ad in a professional newsletter. It shared details about a volunteer position specifically for speech pathologists for a project in Cambodia. I didn’t hesitate to make contact and a year down the track.

I can just hear my Mum saying ‘See! It’s all because you listened to me all those years ago’.

Now, what’s ‘OIC’ you may be thinking? It refers to the expression “Oh! I see,” often exclaimed at a moment of understanding, when something becomes clear. The project is about working to see more of these moments for the more than 600,000 people who have a communication or swallowing disorder in Cambodia.

And why does Cambodia keep hitting home for me? Well, because health services for people there are nearly nonexistent and as for speech therapy as a profession – it doesn’t even exist.

In brief, we are currently focusing on a training program to up skill teachers, health professionals and government officials in speech therapy knowledge. Educating teachers will better integrate students with communication and swallowing disorders into their classrooms.

I have a bit more experience as a speech pathologist under my belt now and I love the work I do. If you are a speech pathologist or person who has worked in partnership with one, then I’m certain you would find it easy to imagine why establishing universal access for Cambodians to speech therapy support would be a worthy cause.

Beyond this there are numerous reasons why OIC ticks all the boxes for me in the way they are approaching this massive challenge. I’ve narrowed it down to my top three:

OIC’s focus is local. This is not about developing an eternal reliance on overseas speech pathologists to service the community. It’s about empowering and building the capacity of Cambodian people to deliver services in their own context and their own language. That’s why OIC are working through educators and disability workers to support children to attend school and participate and communicate with their families and communities.

The OIC team are endlessly passionate about the profession and know that every person deserves the opportunity to live to their full potential. They recognise that if no one in Cambodia has any awareness of anything related to speech therapy – then for individuals who have disabilities related to communication and swallowing, this just can’t happen.

OIC are spending a great deal of energy advocating and building awareness of the profession throughout the country. This will ensure that Speech Therapy can be recognised as the priority we as speech pathologists know it is, at every level.

This final point leads me to tell you….

OIC are going stand up in front of the United Nations and influential members of the Cambodian government to highlight the need for speech therapy.

In order to deliver a powerful message OIC will find 20 children who need speech therapy in Cambodia and tell their stories. Video, photos and narratives will be used to tell their tales. These stories will help change perceptions and attitudes towards these children, which is critical to getting people and organisations on-board to address the gap in health services.

And now for the best part!

I get to extend the opportunity for you to have a long lasting impact on the future of speech therapy in Cambodia too.

You can do so simply by visiting our campaign page in the lead up to the meeting, reading through the information and videos, sharing this with your networks and making a contribution to the campaign.

Your support is very much appreciated.

First Published in Speaking of Speech Blog.