Guest: Jessie Hoffman, Cambodian Volunteer

June 10th, 2008

Editor’s Note: The idea of guest authors was sparked awhile ago but Jessie is the first I’ve asked. I met her at a time when she was discouraged. She was reeling with the raw nature of Cambodia, but I think she was also facing herself.

Jessie is struggling a bit with her early 20’s and Cambodia was a something of a mandate from her family. Her sister asked me to check in with Jessie when I was in Siem Reap; I had to work, but I found some down time I to spend with her. The Jessie I met was incredibly open, honest, and a pleasure to hang out with. So, when she wanted to head home in frustration, I encouraged her to stay and put a little more effort into connecting. I hoped she would be able to see Cambodia as a place not just for adventure tourists, but a country full of people trying to succeed in life–as we are–but with fewer opportunities.

Jessie did connect, marvelously.


Guest Author Jessie Hoffman:

The first thing I noticed about Phnom Penh was the smell. I later learned that it is a combination of Khmer food, hot garbage, human waste and exhaust. The air in Cambodia is heavy and the smell almost penetrates your body. One person described it perfectly when he said “the air in Phnom Penh feels like it could corrode your skin off.” The smell was the first thing I resented, and incidentally, it was the first thing I became accustomed too.

I wasn’t supposed to be in Cambodia. I should be in the second semester of my junior year in college. But life has a funny way of NOT going accordingly to your plan. I failed out of not one, but two colleges. I have a smattering of credits almost qualifying for an Associates Degree, and have I little to no career experience. My parents were fed up, tired of spending time and money on a fruitless investment, meaning not just my schooling, but me. I was lost. I had no direction, no passion and no idea who I was or where I wanted to go in life. I was just as fed up as my parents.

Driving home, my phone rang with a strange number. I thought it was a prank, but it was my sister. She has been living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, off and on for two years working for different organizations and is in the process of starting her own company. She sounded like she was in a box, but I made out three distinct words: “Come to Cambodia.”

Thinking, I took the long way home from school. I had no idea what Cambodia was like. I didn’t know what language was spoken, how the people lived, what state the economy was in. Nothing. I pictured streets filled with men in pointed straw hats and rickshaws behind, rice paddies, bungalow houses on stilts and people eating crickets and spiders. I had no clue.

My parents gave me 24 hours to decide during which I frantically researched, called friends, and smoked way too much. But I left two weeks later and arrived jet lagged and ill-prepared for my first day as a volunteer English teacher at the school my sister worked for.

I spent most of my days helping the kids with the new computers the school had received. I had no clear instructions, only to “hang out” and adjust. Apparently I did something wrong. The owner of the school told my sister that I “wasn’t working out” and was “not what he expected.”

Re-cap: I flew 15 hours to a country where I knew only my sister, who I think saw me as a burden, to work a job I thought I had for 6 months. I felt trapped, alone, and lost in a world I knew nothing about. To top it off, my parents weren’t receptive when I called them, hoping to find an answer.

Scared and feeling helpless, I met one of my few friends for lunch. He encouraged me to stick it out and gave me the website and a contact person for an organization working with kids.

I arrived at the Cambodian Dump Children’s Committee, a part of the Center for Children’s Happiness. It resembles, for lack of a better word, a compound; there is a rec yard, a rusty swing set, a little garden and two huge buildings. One was the boy’s dorms and school rooms, the other the girl’s dorms and main building for the kitchen, theater stage and computer room. About 93 children live there, most orphans found at the city landfill, Steung Meanchey.

There were so many children there, but one little girl changed my life. Her name was Srey Ka. She wanted to be a traditional Khmer Dancer, but was too young to start training. She would watch the other girls and copy their movements. When I asked her what she was doing she took my hands in her tiny ones and moved my fingers into extremely painful positions, mimicking the movements.

I think I needed her as much as she may have needed me. We could only communicate in mime, usually with her laughing at me, but she loved being held. She wanted to know that I wouldn’t let go. Once I opened up to her and the other kids, Cambodia became different. It wasn’t a scary place, it wasn’t as dirty as it was before and the more I relaxed, the more the country offered. I met more people, explored the city and found wonderful new places. I could get on a moto taxi and know where I was going. My perpetual fear gave way to an entirely new sense of independence; I knew freedom.

Leaving Srey Ka was hard. They were simply being themselves, but she and the other children opened my eyes to the beauty of Cambodia. Those kids have never played Xbox, eaten a Twinkie, watched prime-time television, or done the many things Americans equate with happiness, yet they were happier than any other group of people I have met. They have the uncanny ability to look at each day as the gift that it truly is. They don’t tell themselves to relax, enjoy, or absorb; they do it naturally.

I left with a sense of hope, something I had lost a long time ago. I don’t fear tomorrow anymore then I dwell on yesterday. I was only there three months, but I learned the importance of loving myself and loving others, of being accepting, open, and kind. One day I hope to return to Cambodia to give back as much as I received.

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!

3 Responses to “Guest: Jessie Hoffman, Cambodian Volunteer”

  1. Katie Davis says:

    I could not be prouder of you, step-sister. I was thrilled when I heard you were traveling abroad to Greece, and then Cambodia. I was in a similar state of limbo in my early 20’s as an unintentionally spoiled American, who had the luxury to even consider a direction in life. I too found myself by changing my perspective; by traveling abroad in Ecuador. You have found the endless beauty that the world has to offer you and that can only be discovered once you learn to love yourself. Those children saw in you what we do, as your family- an incredibly bright and intuitive girl just waiting for a positive outlet. I wish you all the best with your new found inspirations, and thank you for sharing them with us- your learning’s have taught us all, not only by opening our eyes to the plight of the children in Cambodia, but reminding us how to approach each waking day.

  2. Mike Johnston says:

    I met Jessie on a bus in Thailand & was fortunate enough to travel with her back to Cambodia. It was my first time there, so Jessi got me up to speed on Phenom Pehn & the country. That made my journey there so much more enjoyable. I was amazed to find out that she is only 20 years old beause of the perspective, wisdom & maturity she posseses. My experience travelling with her was great. I don’t think a person like her has anything to worry about in the future, because she has a good head on her shoulders and precious time on her hands.

  3. Sokha says:

    Hi I am a president of a small institute in Kampot Province, Cambodia(3rd natural tourist site). Due to financial problem and English teacher shortage, I would like some available English teacher volunteer to help improve the institute condition. I would really appreciate all of your kind help. I am confident that the institute will get better when there are enough available English teacher like all of you.

    Some benefit will be provide to you . Should you interested, please contact me as below:

    Mobile phone: +85517456600
    E-mail :


US mobile: 1.206.409.3069
skype: timmatsui
e: tim(at)

PO Box 17941
Seattle, WA 98127 USA