A Volunteer Story: Willingness to Learn and Building Capacity

A Volunteer Story: Willingness to Learn and Building Capacity

What happens when a three-day trip to Cambodia from Australia turns into a long-term journey? Being locally run and staffed is one of the core values of  Children in Families (CIF); however, there are a few foreigners who volunteer long-term with CIF to help build staff capacity. For International Day for the Volunteer, we are highlighting Chris, our Social Work Technical Advisor.

Chris shared his path that led to CIF and his role with OSCaR.

Chris Ellinger is the Social Work Technical Advisor at CIF in Cambodia

In 2010, Chris and his wife, Stacie, did not know that a three day visit to Cambodia to see an old friend would change the course of their lives. They headed to Hong Kong for a short-term trip. Stacie knew someone in Cambodia, so they decided to take a detour on the way. Chris said, “I didn’t want to come. I knew nothing about Cambodia except for Pol Pot, landmines, sex work, and disease.”

Yet, not long after the plane touched down he had a sense of peace and homecoming about the nation. With only three days in Phnom Penh, both Chris and Stacie found it difficult to leave. Separately and together, they realized their short time here was the beginning of a newfound love for Cambodia.

They returned to Australia after the trip. Chris continued his career as a social worker in the Australian system, working in roles that related to youth and education, emergency foster care, and social work development.

Four years passed. They expanded their family and waited for their feelings about Cambodia to change. The feeling was not fleeting. So, they joined a sending organisation in order to return to Cambodia long term.

Balancing Family and Language

They were required to focus on language learning first, so they spent the first 15 months studying Khmer. Chris said, “We spent over a year each learning Khmer before we started work, which was a hard sell for a few people, who thought it was a bit of a waste of time, really. But, I can’t say enough how worthwhile it’s been. Having the ability to connect in the language of the staff at CIF is so valuable. And then along with that, there’s all the cultural stuff that’s bound up in language. There’s stuff I would not have understood about my work here without having at least a working knowledge of Khmer before I started.”

With two children to look after study became more difficult, one of whom was too young to begin school straight away. They knew language was important. So, Chris and Stacie pressed in to learn as much Khmer as possible, whilst also adjusting to a new culture and caring for small children. 

Whilst in Khmer school, Stacie met a friendly physiotherapist, Lisa, who works for CIF’s ABLE project. Through their budding friendship, Chris realized there was a great need for trained social workers. CIF was small and growing, in need of good training and up-skilling for its staff. The vision fit well with Chris’ own personal convictions and expertise. He also said another draw to CIF was the organizational feel. Chris could sense a mutual respect amongst coworkers and leaders. The work culture was healthy, understanding that staff need time to be with their families and enjoy life. After all, it’s an organization that values family.

CIF interviewed Chris and hired him. He worked to audit social work practices and policies, as well as strengthen areas that needed improvement.

Increase in Quality and Quantity

Chris with some of the OSCaR team members.

Three years in and CIF has not only grown in size and reach, but also, in quality. There has been an ongoing push to improve the quality of service we provide to children. Chris stated, “It’s been great to see CIF become more well-known in the NGO sector. Obviously being recognized is nice, just on its own. But beyond that, I think having a higher profile means that you have exposure to a broader range of approaches to practice, and you attract the notice of donors and other stakeholders who care about the work you do. So for CIF, that’s meant that there’s greater encouragement for us to be better and better.”

In his time here, Chris noted how CIF has exposure to resources and other practice models from other NGOs, which help shape and grow how we function. CIF builds emphasis of the supervision of social work. We’ve also shifted from keeping notes and records in English to Khmer. This has helped our Khmer staff be more detailed and efficient in their record keeping, since they don’t have to write and think in a second language.

Chris said in his three years with the organization he has watched CIF go from a small, barely financially stable organization to a well-known, respected, fairly sustainable, medium sized NGO. He would like to see it continue to grow in quality and sustainability above all else.

Caring For Each Other

When asked about the best part of working at CIF, Chris said, “It’s hard to narrow down the best thing about working here, but I think – apart from getting to work with some really smart, kind, passionate Khmer people – one of my favourite things has been seeing other organisations working in Cambodia. OSCaR is provided to a lot of organisations now. And, I get to consult with a lot of them. None of us is perfect; we’ve all got areas we can improve, but there are people working hard for Cambodia, and for Cambodian kids. Sometimes it can feel dark here, seeing the problems people face day-by-day, but it’s been important for me to meet a lot of people, in a range of places and jobs, who care so much, and work so hard to make things better.”

Chris pointed out how kind his team was to each other. Also, they are very dedicated to their roles. “I love being on a team that prioritizes how they care for each other.”

An unexpected role in CIF for Chris was the implementation of OSCaR and software development. OSCaR grew from a side project to being a successful program run by a Khmer team. It is now in 32 organizations at different levels of integration and has been set up in Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Uganda, and Lesotho. It has given Chris the opportunity to expand his and his team’s reach. They enjoy working alongside people who are hard-working and passionate about the future of their nations.

Joy In Chaos

A local market in Phnom Penh. Photo by Chris.

The interview wrapped up with a small glimpse into the joys and struggles of volunteering cross-culturally. Chris said he has learned to be okay with ambiguity. Cambodia has taught him patience with things not working out and trying again another day. He enjoys pork and rice street food for breakfast, along with good coffee, “I really didn’t expect, coming to Cambodia, that I would become more of a coffee snob, but it’s so surprisingly good here; that’s what’s happened!”

Finally, and perhaps most unexpectedly, he said he quite enjoys the traffic, calling it “an adventure in manageable chaos”.

CIF is grateful for volunteers like Chris who dive into the culture and language. Chris serves by bringing his expertise but also comes humbly as a learner. We appreciate and celebrate his family and the values he lives as a husband and father, working to strengthen children and families within Cambodia.

A Volunteer Story: Willingness to Learn and Building Capacity