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Volunteer spotlight: Hannah in Phnom Penh

Katya Lavine by Katya Lavine  •  posted 10 months ago in story

One of the awesome parts of leading the volunteer program at Watsi is connecting volunteers with our clinics and hospitals abroad.

Hannah Callas, a Watsi volunteer since 2014, set off for Cambodia last year where she works full-time at our medical partner, Children’s Surgical Centre (CSC).


We asked Hannah a few questions about her experience working at CSC and living in Phnom Penh.

What does your role at CSC consist of?

My TL;DR for that is: I handle the English language external relations for the hospital, which includes a whole host of tasks. My official title here is 'Stakeholder Relations Officer,' some fancy role CSC inherited from AusAid in the early aughts. Essentially, I manage the donor relations, coordinate the schedules and logistics of visiting surgeons and medical students, seek out and maintain funding to support our annual budget of $1.5 million, and organize the applications and itineraries of our local staff when they train abroad. This includes the daily management of our Watsi patient flow. The interviews are conducted and the photos are taken by a 9 member team of nurses and patient information officers, and then I type and submit around a dozen patients on Watsi each day. I also work directly below the CEO and CFO, so anything they don't have time for falls onto my plate. So when our CEO Dr. Jim is called away from his desk to help in a complicated surgery, that could leave me proofing a project budget or fixing a Minecraft glitch for his kids. Whenever someone visits the hospital for any reason, it’s my job to take them on a tour and do my best to make a donor out of them.

Challenges and joys of working for an NGO overseas?

I think it's all joys. Most people have jobs where they sit at computers all day tapping away writing emails and updating excel spreadsheets all to make their bosses' boss more money. I'm incredibly lucky in that I get to write emails and update spreadsheets all day so kids can regain the ability to walk and grandparents can see their grandchildren for the first time. So it is with great honor that I get to wake up every day and email your bosses' boss asking for money.

Also, the attention that comes with being the foreigner on staff never gets old. Everyone enjoys teaching me about Khmer culture and learning about American culture. And I take the responsibility of being a good American ambassador very seriously. We spent the majority of the Halloween party I planned watching informational YouTube videos about the history of the holiday; during the Christmas party we listened to The Beach Boys' Christmas album and decorated cookies; for Pchum Ben, a dozen co-workers invited me to the pagoda and they taught me how to properly celebrate.

What are some of the barriers to accessing care that you see patients facing?

Money and distance, which tie into each other. Farmers that live in faraway provinces are unable to travel all the way to Phnom Penh to CSC because they lack not only the funds to do so but the ability to take days off work.

What is one of your favorite memories so far?

Attending my first wedding last month was definitely a highlight. Two of our staff members, Diman and Sokngin, got married and it was my first Khmer wedding. Everyone on staff takes great pleasure in educating me on the nuances of Khmer life, such as how to "walk like a lady," which apparently I do not do. At the wedding they taught me all the traditions and made me seriously improve my Khmer dancing skills, which up until the wedding were sub par.

Best part of living in Phnom Penh?

I was grandfathered into a reduced-cost gym and pool membership by my predecessor at CSC (who himself was grandfathered in by a long line of former expat employees). And while I'd love to say that I use the membership simply to stay fit and improve my quality of health, it's worth mentioning that the gym and pool are inside Cambodia's oldest and most luxurious hotel. They provide complimentary miniature bananas when you go inside. I am there seven days a week.

Thanks to Watsi volunteer alumni coordinator Bo for conducting this interview.

Interested in working abroad with Watsi? Read about our new fellows program and apply before Monday, May 16th, 2016.


Katya Lavine

I manage medical partnerships @ Watsi