LaValla School, Cambodia
Tony McDonnell has had a long connection with the Marist Brothers having been a teacher at Marist College North Shore since graduating from university in 1985. In June of last year Tony packed his bags to spend twelve months volunteering in Cambodia at LaValla School for children with disabilities. On his return Tony reflected with MSol on his experience.
How did your involvement with the Marists start?
It wasn’t from a desire to teach in a Marist school – I needed a job when I graduated and, as a Catholic, teaching in a Catholic school was my priority. I was educated by the Christian Brothers and my only interaction with “Marist” was on the sporting field whilst at school. So when a job was advertised at Marist College North Shore I applied because it was firstly a job and secondly it was in a Catholic school. The Marist title didn’t mean as much to me as the school being Catholic.
How long have you been a teacher at Marist College North Shore?
Since that very time mentioned above. I have taught (in a variety of capacities) at Marist North Shore since 1985.
What has your experience been as a teacher at Marist College North Shore?
An overwhelmingly positive one! Obviously you have a range of experiences, but teaching here for many years indicates that something gelled with me very quickly. I think it is that the things valued by the school are things that I value in my life. There are a range of ways this manifests itself. The school is in a very privileged socio-economic setting – the lower North Shore of Sydney – this means, to me, that we need to constantly ensure we are faithful to Champagnat’s charism. The same socio-economic profile means that many of the concepts we present to the boys on a daily basis are also counter cultural. The value of “other-centredness” is probably the best example I see. The presence of very active Solidarity program and the growth of our immersion program have shaped many of our daily experiences – our emphasis on “the other”. In this school Solidarity is not something we add on – it is at the heart of our identity. It is one way that I see us as being authentically Marist. There are many other ways I feel that my personal values align with Marist values.
What has been your involvement with Cambodia prior to volunteering at LaValla?
I have been very fortunate to have been involved in our immersion program since its inception in 2004. Prior to my 12 months in Cambodia I had travelled with 10 immersion groups to Cambodia. I had also spent 3 months living in the LaValla community in 2012, whilst on long service leave. The 3 months left me wanting to be involved further with the organisation and reinforced the place LaValla and Marist Solidarity Cambodia had become in my life.
What made you want to leave everything behind to return for one year?
Since my very first visit to Cambodia I have had a great desire to spend a longer period than two weeks with the LaValla community. I do not really know where that desire came from. The 12 months stay just seemed “meant to be”. A whole range of circumstances gave me the ability to take leave from school and move to Cambodia for the year. Every time I thought something may prevent me from going, a path through seemed to present itself. In the time after my 3 month stay I was encouraged to take time to explore what the experience had really meant for me. This discernment led me to feel that I had not really experienced the totality of life in Cambodia and what it had to offer me. It had ended just as I was starting to understand what life meant for a disabled Khmer person.
What was an average day at LaValla School?
I don’t know if would call any day in Cambodia average! There certainly was a routine – one of the great joys was the rhythm of life. It was incredibly busy, but busy with “important” things – not bureaucratic things that seem to distract us so much in Australian education circles at the moment.
Most days started at 6.30am with our community prayer (with Br Terry, Br Tony and any other visitors to the community) followed by breakfast with everyone who lives on site. Some mornings I would join/lead the students 7.30 exercise class.
My teaching day commenced at 8.00am. Marist Solidarity Cambodia is bigger than just LaValla. I lived at LaValla and did most of my work there, but I also worked daily at Villa Maria – post-LaValla residential program for disabled high school students. Because of the lack of teachers and educational facilities, the school day is divided in two – in Takhmao this meant that Grade 9, 11 and 12 go to school in the morning and Grade 7, 8 and 10 attend in the afternoon. Each morning I taught English to the Grade 7, 8 and 10 students.
At midday the whole LaValla school have lunch together. After lunch my day usually involved either teaching English/Music at LaValla or working on one of the many smaller projects happening at the time. When the school day finished at 4.00pm it was time for music practice. After dinner the students have a one hour supervised homework time and the day would finish at 8pm with many “good nights” as the children headed off to bed.
What motivated you whilst at LaValla School?
Days were very busy, but your energy always seemed to be focussed on significant areas of need. The enthusiasm and eagerness of the students certainly made the task at hand both easy and rewarding. Look at the kids… How could you say “I’m too tired to teach you the drums” when a boy with one prosthetic arm is asking the question with drum sticks in hand. The kids at the school are very special and they certainly provided the motivation.
In terms of Marist life, what similarities and differences are there between Marist College North Shore and LaValla School?
I have always believed Marist North Shore has a great Marist spirit. I know it does (the overwhelming welcome back to school reminded me of that) but there is something even more authentic and real about the Marist spirit at LaValla. At both places the importance of relationship is paramount. Maybe because of the Khmer culture or maybe because all the teaching staff at LaValla are disabled but the relationship the teachers have with the students at LaValla is wonderful. They have a very personal knowledge of each student in their care and seem to be so accessible and available to their students. They know the importance of their role in the life of a disabled person in Cambodia and embrace it.
What were the biggest challenges you faced?
I think most of the challenges were related to living in a developing country and “cultural” issues rather than any specifically related to Marist Solidarity Cambodia. Across my 12 months in Cambodia there were significant political pressures and events that I struggled to understand – particularly that human life often seems to have so little value. I think once you realise you can’t change the institutions of state you can then concentrate your energy on the people you work with. It didn’t stop a sense of sadness and frustration with the “bigger picture” events.
The other challenge for me was the language – I’m not a linguistic person. Whilst my Khmer improved over the 12 months, it was frustrating to think that my limited Khmer would prevent me knowing more about the people of LaValla.
Why have you chosen this accompanying picture?
As a keen amateur photographer, I had literally thousands of photos to consider including with this article. I have decided to include a photo of Dara*. Dara has cerebral palsy. He is probably the most disabled person at LaValla. Because of his disability, Dara is in the special class, which means he has had no formal English lessons. But Dara is very bright and has learnt quite good English from his interactions with all the English speaking people who visit LaValla.
Despite his disability Dara is one of the happiest people I have ever met and his excitement at greeting me each morning gave me a great handle on life’s realities each and every day.
* For privacy reasons Dara is a pseudonym
What would you say to teachers who are considering volunteering abroad for a term?
I would encourage anyone who thinks that volunteering sounds like them to find a way to explore that call. I’m more convinced than ever that volunteering isn’t for everyone. I met a couple of people volunteering in Cambodia who were letting the frustrations of working in a developing country undermine their experience. But, if there is a nagging thought that volunteering sounds like you – don’t ignore it. I also think that perhaps the term “volunteering” doesn’t really capture the experience I had – I prefer to speak of my time in Cambodia as a personal immersion. Why? Well, I think rather than just going to do good things (which is important in itself), the personal immersion is a journey where you take the time to stop, think, reflect and listen – something that seemed so much easier in Cambodia than in the “clutter” of daily life in Sydney.