When Lauren thinks of her time with VSO ICS in Cambodia, she remembers how much she overcame to get there. Living in supported accommodation and struggling with anxiety and depression, she often felt lost and overwhelmed. Once she summoned the courage to go overseas for the first time, she focused on creating a new, positive life for herself. Now a teaching assistant for people with special needs, she can’t believe how far she’s come.
"If someone had told me a year ago that I would live in Cambodia for three months and return to become a teaching assistant for people with special needs, I wouldn’t have believed them.
"I was 19, living on my own in supported housing. All my friends were going to university, but I felt like I was lost. I already had anxiety and depression and the worry of life was making things really hard to deal with.
"I wanted to break that cycle. I looked at volunteer projects abroad but when I found ICS it felt like the right one because it didn’t cost anything, making it more accessible for people like me. I had signed off work and was struggling to get by as it was.
"I suggested it to my key worker and she was really supportive. I was still really nervous but I really pushed myself to apply. I didn’t think I would get through. Then I did get through, and then to the assessment day and all of sudden it was really happening. I was going to go abroad for the first time!
"I could see myself doing it. I needed to get out of my comfort zone and have a life-changing experience. I was still anxious right up until I got on the plane but I’m so glad I did it.
"The fundraising aspect actually kept me positive. It gave me a goal to work towards. I raised over £800 thanks to the generosity of people around me. I did the Live Below the Line challenge. I wrote an article for my local newspaper which got attention from a kind and generous church member who paid the rest of what I couldn’t raise - but I was so focused he actually didn’t need to support me that much.
"It was a huge boost to my confidence.
"When we actually got to Cambodia, I felt a mix of emotions. However, it was really exciting and I loved the group I was with. We became really good friends. I knew that I was going to make the most of the experience.
"We were the first cycle of ICS to tackle this education project in the Mondulkiri province, which involved going to meet different schools, teachers and students and conduct baseline research into four key areas around life skills and careers. Some of it was tedious and some of it was great - what was brilliant was that we were all learning together. As a group, we were responsible for the beginning of something.
"My favourite moment was going to a village that had never had foreign people visit before. We were conducting a community action day around water, sanitation, health and environmental issues. I didn’t expect many people to turn up, but the whole village crammed into a room to see the play I had written about litter.
"My host family were a lovely elderly couple. In the evenings, I would give the man English lessons and answer questions about slang or our culture. I became close to my local counterpart Heng, who is 22 and an economics student. We would walk home together every day so we couldn’t help but form a bond.
"Coming back to England was hard. It was nice to see my family and friends again, but the worry of bills and life came back. But I didn’t want to be that person again. I wanted to continue being positive.
"I decided to really push myself and go for something different. I applied to become a teaching assistant and now I have a job that I love that is really helping people.
"ICS helped me manage the challenge of taking myself out of my comfort zone. It made me realise that I can do anything. It gave me communication and team leading skills. I feel like I can contribute to the world now.
"It’s such an amazing scheme. It’s not just about the ‘big picture’ of getting rid of poverty; it’s also about the individuals you meet. I would tell anyone like me to believe in themselves, and that they can do it. It won’t be easy - you might even cry! But the feeling of achievement you get is worth all the difficult times."