As you’d expect, in the hours and days after touching down in Toronto following three incredible months with Kids Play International, I was bombarded with all sorts of questions from family and friends about my experience in Cambodia. At the top of the list were questions like: How was it? How was the job? How was the city? How were the people? How was the food? What was your favourite part? etc…  And when confronted with these seemingly straightforward questions, I found that I had such difficulty in trying to translate three months of a very diverse, yet, positive and enriching experiences into a two or three sentence reply. Often, the best I could do was answer by simply saying it was “unbelievable,” “amazing” or “wonderful.” While all these answers are indeed accurate in describing my time in Cambodia, they do not do justice to and could not possibly tell the full story of what my time was like.

Now, with a computer in front of me and exactly one month removed from my last day in Siem Reap, I find it much easier to reflect and really share what my life was like as a KPI intern. To tell this story and to address all the questions listed above (plus many more), I will start at the beginning.

Although most days I have difficulty remembering what I ate for breakfast, I can very vividly recall my first day in Cambodia four months ago due to one particular reason. Khmer New Year. After a very long flight and finally sorting out my visa and collecting my baggage, I left the airport with some nervousness and anxiety but, above all, excitement for my first day in Siem Reap. However, shortly after stepping out on to the street and meeting the amazing Mr. Rean, KPI’s Tuk Tuk Driver/Coach/Jack of all trades, I quickly realized that it was not just a normal day and I could not have possibly prepared for what was to come. Within the first few seconds of our ride home from the airport, I noticed that there were tons of people on the streets and music and parties all over town. But what really caught my eye was that almost every man, women and child was carrying a water gun and engaging in impromptu water wars on streets and from the backs of cars and motos.  When I inquired with Mr. Rean, he was quick to tell me that it was Khmer New Year and that I was going to get wet whether I wanted to or not. For the rest of that ride and for the rest of my first day exploring the city, I got sprayed by the countless smiling Khmer people who were out enjoying festivities. Looking back on this very wild first day, I realize that, ironically, it was emblematic of what my time in Siem Reap would come to be like – new, fun, exciting, authentic, enriching and a little bit crazy.

With a brief pause in the Let’s Play Fair program thanks to Khmer New Year, I was able to use my first few days getting settled in and accustomed to my new surroundings.  However, this time was anything but quiet and relaxing. Rather, Katey, the incredible and contagiously enthusiastic Program Coordinator, took me around the city with her Dad and friends to check out all the popular sites and attractions.  Within my first three days, I had seen a sunrise and eaten ants at Angkor Wat, toured Pub Street and the night market, tasted many delicious Khmer specialities (Khmer Curry is my fav), visited an eco resort in Phnom Krom and even managed to find time to relax at a popular local beach club.

By the end of this busy weekend, I was very eager to begin work and meet the KPI coaches and players. In my first day on the job, I participated in a coaches training session which was an excellent way to meet the team and get an understanding of what program looks like in practice. After a beautiful drive through the countryside to Kurata Primary (which never gets old), I stepped out of the Tuk Tuk and was instantly greeted and embraced by the coaches. At that moment, I remember being blown away with how kind and welcoming everyone was to me despite being an outsider. That feeling has stuck with me ever since.  Although there was a language barrier with some of the coaches, through translation or smiles and body language, from that day on every coach showed an enthusiastic and genuine interest to get to know me and welcome me into their team while also wanting to share their unique stories. After that first fun-filled day, I knew that this was going to be a very positive team to work with and that these coaches were the perfect individuals to act as role models for the players and as advocates for gender equity and social change in their communities.

If meeting the coaches was fun and exciting, I don’t know how to describe what it was like when first meeting the players. On my first day of program, I can recall our tuk tuk being chased by several of our younger players as we pulled up to school. Moreover, I remember being swarmed and greeted with gigantic smiles and high-fives the second I stepped out of the car. Above all, despite not having any inkling of who I was, all the players were interested in talking to me, getting to know me and sharing about themselves.

Over the next few days and weeks at program, I played a more observatory role to continue get to know the players and become more accustomed to the content and routine.  During this time, I watched as coaches confidently led sports activities and navigated deep and thoughtful Team Time discussions about the importance of contribution. Furthermore, I watched as boys and girls played and worked together to form strong relationships and develop both sporting and life skills on a day-to-day basis. I also took part in my first Community Day, a bi-weekly celebration where KPI players, friends, families and other community members gather to observe and participate in the program.  Overall, it was during this time that I truly got a sense for exactly what KPI was doing, how they were doing it and why they were doing it. I first remember feeling a true appreciation for the power of sport and being amazed at how a well designed initiative, like the LPF program, can use the appeal of sport to engage a wide variety of community members with vital social issues that often do not receive enough attention. I also remember being amazed by how players, under the guidance of caring coaches, were able to engage with important topics, like gender equity, at such a young age. I would go on to use these understandings and key takeaways throughout my three months and as I took on more and more responsibility.

By the end of my first three weeks, I began to take on a bigger role in the program and carry out various responsibilities necessary to both day-to-day operations and the long-term vision. Part of the reason I was so interested in joining KPI was because of, as Katey had described it, the opportunity to wear multiple hats, work across departments and have your hands in many different areas. In this regard, I was able to take on responsibilities that interested me, particularly in curriculum design, M&E and coaches training, while also getting the opportunity to work in new areas such as partnership outreach and community relations.

While I enjoyed learning and working in multiple areas for the rest of my internship, my primary responsibility in the final two months was to manage the design and implementation of a sports-based curriculum for the upcoming season. Because I have a background in rugby and because KPI intentionally uses lesser known sports to promote a more equal footing amongst participants, we were excited to embark upon seven weeks of fun rugby activities while discussing the importance of moral courage in team time. 

The task of creating and delivering a rugby curriculum to coaches and players who have never played the game before while trying to teach individuals about an abstract concept like moral courage was certainly daunting at times; however, it proved to be an invaluable learning experience for me and very fruitful and impactful for the players.  From day one of rugby season, the players were open-minded and eager to try out a new sport and, despite rugby being complicated and challenging for beginners, they were never dissuaded from taking risks and making mistakes. The coaches were instrumental in making the season so successful as they quickly picked up rugby skills and rules and showed an amazing confidence to lead activities with only one day of rugby training under their belts.  They also excelled in leading discussions on moral courage and helped players to identify relevant and real-life situations where they can be brave and stand up for their passions and for gender equity in their communities.

The rugby season and my time with KPI was capped off with synthesis week – a week in which players present songs and skits summarizing what they have learned and receive awards for outstanding work throughout the season.  During this week, any anxiety or uncertainties that I might have had about whether or not the season was effective or if the material was too complex were totally washed away. It was incredible to see that, in a few short weeks, players had developed strong relationships on their newly formed teams and that they happily worked together to perform something that they created to their peers. It was also incredible to see young and upcoming leaders create and present skits about things like standing up for gender inclusivity.  But most importantly, it was amazing to see the joy and appreciation that players had when receiving their awards and hearing their coaches and role models discuss how much they’ve accomplished.

Altogether, my time working with Kids Play International in Cambodia can be best defined as an unforgettable life and learning experience. From the program to the people to the city, everything exceeded my expectations. Every day was different and presented me with the opportunity to engage in something new, fun and exciting. Plus, I forgot to mention the frequent countryside meals, birthday parties, Khmer weddings, karaoke nights and travel throughout Cambodia and to Thailand and Vietnam. I also worked in a role that was tailored to my interests while having the opportunity to gain first-hand experience working in all areas of an NGO. Katey was an extremely passionate program coordinator and very knowledgeable of the organization, the program and, significantly, the people and the community. I was able to learn a lot under her mentorship and while collaborating on projects with the coaches.  They were some of the best months of my life and I wouldn’t change a thing.

-Michael (AKA: Michelle in Cambodia)