Published on 15 November 2019
“In our very first week at university someone came in and talked about study abroad,” says Grace Harrison (30) from Birtley. “Natalie and me looked at each and said ‘Well, that’s never going to happen, we’ve got kids’.”
Another year passed while Grace and Natalie studied for their Primary Education degrees at the University of Sunderland. Throughout this time the idea of teaching abroad was at the back of their minds, but it seemed impossible, as leaving their children behind was never an option. Then, through Projects Abroad, they discovered Khemara, a Non-Government Organisation (NGO) that works to improve the lives of women and children in Cambodia – and found out that they offered an apartment that could accommodate both them and their children.
Natalie Longford (36) from Gateshead says: “The more we thought about it, the more we wondered if we could do it with the kids. Cambodia is somewhere I’ve always wanted to go, and the offer of an apartment is what really swung it.”
Grace and Natalie set about fundraising for their trip, raising money through sponsored walks, and receiving donations of football strips from children in the school where their children were taught.
The final piece in the jigsaw puzzle came when they applied for a University of Sunderland DOSH award (Development Office Scholarship). These unique scholarships are only available to Sunderland students, are non-means tested and never have to be paid back.
With their funding sorted Grace and her children Elliot (four) and Evie (seven) and Natalie and her son Finley (eight) set off for Koh Dach, also known as Silk Island, which was just a short ferry ride from the capital, Phnom Penh.
Projects Abroad are working with Cambodian NGO Khemara to help women and children in Cambodia following decades of war, genocide and poverty in the country. The Khmer Rouge executed educated Cambodians, so that children in kindergartens are not taught by qualified teachers, but by young women just out of school who volunteer to help.
Natalie says: “We arrived as the wet season was ending and we discovered that the school was underneath someone’s house. The kitchen was two pits where they lit a fire and boiled pots, and there was a wooden platform where they would serve the food – usually with chickens jumping up on it.”
Grace added: “It was a very different world. The people who owned the house had a dog, and it would often wander in half way through a class.
“Every morning we got a ferry across to the island, and the word ‘ferry’ is a very loose term – we noticed on the first day that it was floating on empty gallon milk cartons. The first few times we just stood in the middle holding on to each other and we didn’t dare move.”
Grace continued: “But our kids loved it. My son Elliot got really involved in school. We were teaching kids aged between three and six years, so they were all a similar age to Elliot. He was going around helping them with their numbers, and really got involved with the whole thing.”
Natalie agrees: “Our three children got really involved in teaching the school children about routine. A big part of what we had to do was hygiene, so my son Finley would show them how to wash their hands, Evie would stand with a towel and dry them off. Then Elliot would be helping set the tables out for lunch, and then bring around water for them while our older children would serve them their lunches.”
They took 50 tooth brushes, as children in Cambodia drink sugar cane juice, eat food dipped in sugar and sticky rice.
“Their parents also give them sweets to persuade them to go into kindergarten,” said Grace. “Some of the kids were walking around the class eating sticky buns that were bigger than them! We did a full lesson on teeth and hygiene and then gave them their tooth brushes.”
They soon discovered that the children’s grasp of English and numbers was very basic, and introduced some of the techniques they had learnt at the University of Sunderland, including using jigsaws, flash cards, books, and worksheets used by English primary schools.
“We brought some toys with us, and when they came in and saw them they were just overwhelmed,” says Grace. “They had never seen toys before.
“We just let them be kids for a little while. I don’t think they’d really had that before.
“A lot of the local volunteers who teach have literally just left school themselves, so we sat down with the local schools coordinator and explained about early years teaching. Two weeks isn’t really long enough to make a massive impact on the lives of the kids on Silk Island, but going forward I hope we taught them a lot of stuff about teaching in England that they could use and take forward in the future to kindergartens all around Phnom Penh.”
Both Grace and Natalie say their two weeks in Cambodia has had a huge impact on them and their families, and on Grace and Natalie’s future plans.
“I’m looking to teach abroad once I’m qualified,” says Natalie. “I’ve always loved seeing new cultures, and it was always in the back of my mind that I’d like to work in Asia as a teacher, but this has really cemented that ambition for me. My husband is a Newcastle lad through and through, so he took some persuading, but he’s come around and once I graduate we’re going to Singapore and then Hong Kong as potential places to live and work.”
Grace added: “Before we left we were standing in Central Station in Newcastle surrounded by kids and bags and looking at each other as if we’d gone mad. We really thought “What are we doing? Can we really do this?” I had so much stuff in my first aid kit I could have performed surgery!
“But the impact on our kids is what has meant the most to me. I want my children to grow up knowing that helping other people is the right thing to do, whether it’s in this country or abroad, and we all felt privileged to be involved in proving education for these children.”