About two months ago today, I was living in Cambodia. On a whim, I decided to travel to Siem Reap for three weeks to volunteer with an organization called Kids Play International. When I started to tell friends, family, and acquaintances about my decision, I was often met with “Why Cambodia?” or “Isn’t it dangerous there?” and even “Be careful the people there are unsafe.” To be honest, I was taken aback by these comments and started questioning the decision I had originally been so confident in.

The second I stepped out of the little airport in Siem Reap and was greeted by my Tuk Tuk driver, Mr. Van Nak, whom was smiling ear to ear, all that worry vanished. I immediately fell in love with the city as the wind hit my face and I was greeted with smiles by just about every local I made eye contact with. I’m writing this post not just to disprove all the negative assumptions people make about this lovely city and its people, but also to share the truly unforgettable experience I had working with Kids Play International.

Coaches announcing the Players of the Season during the End of Season Community Day Celebration

Kids Play International is an organization that aims to promote gender equity through sport in post-genocide impacted countries. Prior to arriving in Siem Reap I spoke with the founder, Tracy Evans, multiple times through Skype or phone calls. Tracy made me feel very welcomed into this organization and gave me training materials to fully understand what KPI strives to do. In short, KPI has developed an extremely structured plan to create a culture for kids where they can feel a sense of inclusion, safety, and equal opportunity. By fostering this culture and focusing on these kids longitudinally, KPI hopes to create a community where locals will eventually, independent of KPI, continue to promote these ideals for future years and generations.

KPI partners with local schools in the countryside where they introduce different sports and daily lessons to both younger and older children. The first time I was introduced to the kids was during an event that KPI calls Community Day. These special days occur every other Sunday and aims to involve family and friends of the KPI participants, or for that matter, anyone in the area that is interested in learning about KPI. The purpose of this day is to allow the kids to show people who are not involved in the organization what they have been learning, both mentally and physically, over the past few weeks. At Community Day, kids demonstrate games and sports skills they have mastered while also sharing core lessons they have learned with their peers. While I was volunteering, a lesson the coaches and program coordinator focused on was the importance of contribution; at school, at KPI and at home. This concept was instilled in the kids during every game and conversation they had.

Coach Tien in her classroom where she teaches English to the local kids in her village in her share time

For the next few weeks following Community Day, I would go to either the younger or the older program every day. Each day the kids would meet with their coach, participate in different sports activities and then end the program by answering questions tailored to that days’ lesson.

On top of practice, KPI launched their All Girls United (AGU)program while I was there. AGU is a program that is gender-specific to females; this includes both the older children and the coaches. It aims to create a safe space where women are able to talk freely about stigmatized topics regarding women’s health, sexual harassment, gender-based violence, gender stereotypes, and anything else these young girls or coaches would like to share. Attending the first AGU meeting was very eye-opening. It was clear to me that these girls felt uncomfortable and some were resisting the urge to share personal experiences and feelings. After hearing children share stories and some even shed tears, I realized just how crucial this program would be for KPI to meet its mission of promoting gender equity.

Katey supporting KPI participants at their school soccer game

Throughout these daily practices, I was able to get to know the coaches, the Program Coordinator, Katey, and all the children very well. This organization would not have had such an impact on me had the people involved not been so welcoming and passionate about KPI.

The coaches who help teach the children are all inspiring men and women. Most of them work other full-time jobs or work multiple jobs. They have families, they are studying, and have many other obligations but still continue to commit to this organization every day. Each and every one of them genuinely cares about these kids and their future.

The Program Coordinator, Katey, creates a remarkable KPI Program in Siem Reap. She is so dedicated to the kids and the coaches. It warmed my heart to see how each of the kids greeted her every morning with such endearment. On the few days Katey had off, she would do everything she could to support those involved in KPI. Whether it was going to the kids’ school sports games, the coaches sport competitions, or the coaches hobbies – she would be there. I would guess that Katey is one of the main reasons why the kids and coaches show up to program everyday. Her energy and devotion to this organization are awe-inspiring .

Last, but not least, every single kid involved in KPI is impressive in their own unique way. Some kids will travel long distances to get to school and still show up eager to begin the day with a smile on their face. They stunned me in so many ways. Their kindness, their motivation, their strength. I will always look up to them and they will always hold a special place in my heart.

After three weeks of living in Siem Reap it honestly felt like home to me. Between Katey, the coaches, and kids who all felt like family – the last thing I wanted was to leave this city. I  wanted to continue being surrounded by the people of Siem Reap who did everything they could to make me feel welcome and comfortable. People who would give an arm and a leg to make sure you were having a good day even if theirs was twice as bad. People who, even across a language barrier, were able to express their care and consideration for me. As one of the coaches, Tien, said while offering up her home as a place for me to stay: “Small bed but not small heart.” It was moments like these that will make me cherish the time and people I met in Cambodia forever.

PLEASE if anyone is interested in volunteering with KPI reach out to me – do not miss out on the trip of a lifetime. I would be more than happy to give you any additional details you would like. KPI also has a program in Rwanda that I hear has wonderful people involved if you are looking for other locations.