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The Importance of Kindness and Choice | Layla O’Callaghan

By December 20, 2023February 7th, 2024Event, Team, Travel

A better world starts with making better choices. Perhaps the choice to be kind and the choice to explore a new part of the world.

To celebrate the completion of 13 years of schooling, a group of 36 Aussies chose to embark on a unique adventure and experience a new culture. Our family of 36 were a combination of school leavers and yLead volunteers who chose to invest in Help Out, a Schoolies Alternative to Cambodia. This group of young people all shared a goal of giving back, choosing adventure, and gaining a wider perspective on life.

The eight days in Siem Reap, Cambodia allowed the 2023 Help Out family to recognise the true value of kindness and the power of true gratitude. Two things which are often overlooked in our everyday lives in Australia. We learnt that the smallest acts such as a hug, a fist-pump, or a hi-five, are worth more than a thousand words. In Cambodia, we found that kindness, resilience, and gratitude were the building blocks of everyone’s story that we were fortunate to hear. Even those we shared just a brief interaction with taught us this too. The Cambodian culture and its sense of community allowed all participants to deepen their understanding of the world we live in and widen their perspectives of the vast places that make up our world.

Layla O’Callaghan, 2023 graduate from Goulburn Valley Grammar School celebrated her 13 years of schooling with us on Help Out.  We asked Layla to share her perspectives, reflections and thoughts of the precious time shared in Cambodia.

What led you to yLead and our Help Out Schoolies Alternative?

I attended the Australian Student Leadership Conference (ASLC) in Melbourne in January 2023 where I was introduced to the yLead community. In the three days I spent there, I knew that this was a community I wanted to be a part of. It was a space that I could grow and learn in safely. Although I really loved the conference, it was an experience that I found more challenging than I expected. At school, I was always really comfortable volunteering for things and made an effort to talk to and hangout with my friends because I was in an environment where people expected it of me. However, in this new space, most people didn’t know me. If I was going to put myself out there, make new friends, or get involved in activities, it would be because I chose to do so, and not because it was expected of me. Strangely, it was only then that I realised how much power this holds to direct my own life and impact I have on the lives of others respectively.

There is so much that I don’t know. So many environments I haven’t experienced yet and so many people I haven’t had the opportunity to hear from. In January, having almost finished 13 years of my life learning in a classroom, I was still very ignorant to the lives of anyone else but me. So, when Bel pitched Help Out, the Schoolies Alternative to us, I knew that it would be the perfect way to start the life I want to lead after school. An opportunity to keep learning as much as I possibly could about the world around us.

I knew that it would be the perfect way to start the life I want to lead after school.

How did you feel before this trip? 

Having just finished a year of study and my final exams, I was incredibly relieved, but also incredibly exhausted. I was beginning to face the question ‘without school, who am I?’ a scary question to say the least. The Help Out trip was something I had looked forward to all year, and yet, the prospect of spending eight days with 35 other people, the majority of whom were unfamiliar faces, was a daunting one. I worried that, because of my exhaustion, I wouldn’t be able to make the most of the trip. What I didn’t realise though, is that Help Out allowed me to detach myself from normal life, and the confusion that comes with it. In those eight days, I was able to learn about who I was away from school and friends I have known for years. I was able to gradually let down my guard in an unfamiliar yet safe environment, something that I haven’t been able to do for a long time. This helped me to build a foundation for myself that I can always come back to, even having returned home, when there are times, I’m not sure of myself or who I am.

Help Out allowed me to detach myself from normal life, and the confusion that sometimes comes with it.

What did your time at Feeding Dreams Cambodia mean to you?

What Feeding Dreams means is indescribable because it is more than words. It is the blind trust of small hands in mine, inviting me into their world. It is the way students hug their teacher’s goodbye. It is their infectious delight at my utter confusion, because somehow ‘paper, scissors, rock’ is different in Cambodia. It is the way they say ‘I love you’ with more ease than anyone I know. The way they smile every day is better than the one before it. They way that they sing and dance every single day. It is the way they own very little and yet, they still found things to share. Stickers, drawings, food. It is the way I will keep their presents forever. Not just the physical gifts, but the joy.

Can you recount a moment/experience in which you felt connected to Cambodia and the local culture and community?

On the first night, we walked down the street to the water festival. This was the first time on our trip that we really experienced the rich colour of the city. In Australia, we marvel over amber sunsets, mourning the nights the sun goes down with a dull grey backdrop, but in Siem Reap, their buildings are sunsets themselves. They create colour and beauty with what they already have rather than waiting for it to reveal itself. This is also true of their celebrations. It seemed from the otherwise empty streets but teeming riverbanks that every person in Siem Reap, regardless of demographic, had come together to share joy to celebrate the end of the wet season and subsequent influx of food sources. Rather than eyeing us suspiciously as annoying tourists or imposing foreigners, the population of Siem Reap opened their celebrations to us. They allowed us to dance in the foam, even smearing the soap all over us and asking to take our picture. It didn’t matter that we weren’t celebrating the same things they were, it only mattered that we were there, and we were smiling. I think that, in the western world, we tend to see happiness as a complex concept, but really, it’s not. Cambodia taught me that happiness can be experienced when we open our minds just a little bit and share in the delight of those around us.

I think that, in the western world, we tend to see happiness as a complex concept, but really, it's not.

Can you recount one of your favourite days from beginning to end?

My favourite day was day three, it was our first day at Feeding Dreams. When we arrived, the students were in the middle of their assembly, in which they sang Khmer and also English songs that we could join in with. Then, every student came around to every volunteer to give us two high fives and say good morning. During morning classes, we did English class and then drawing class. I met a little girl who taught me how to copy her drawings. She would occasionally reach over and make adjustments where she saw fit or look up to say ‘awww gooood’. I taught her and her friends how to play ‘apple on a stick’ and in return they gave me a sheet of stickers, and an enormous sense of gratitude and fulfilment. That afternoon, I met another little girl who was convinced that she was the next ‘Miss Cambodia’. There were dance battles, staring competitions, singing performances, and a lot of sass.

That night, the Help Out family was heading to the traditional circus. But if you know yLead, you will, there is always a twist. We would be going to the circus with a “date” as such, a chance to get to know another member of our family. One would be the proposer and the other, the giver of a handmade corsage.  I was assigned the role of ‘proposer’ meaning that I had to prepare a performance to ask my date (the name given to me on a slip of paper) out to dinner and the Khmer Circus. In return I received a handmade gift. I was very nervous when performing. Although I am comfortable with public speaking, purposefully doing something funny, exaggerated or embarrassing in front of a large group of people felt quite out of my comfort zone. However, being challenged to do this, and to have dinner and watch the circus with someone I hadn’t talked to much yet, meant that I was able to gain confidence for the remainder of the trip. The Khmer circus itself was a nail biting but awe-inspiring experience. The kind of strength and discipline needed to execute such dangerous skills only hints to the underlying strength and resilience of the Cambodian people. I went to Cambodia because yLead was a community I wanted to surround myself with, but when I was there, I fell in love with the joy, the strength and the beauty of the country and its people.

I fell in love with the joy, the strength and the beauty of the country and its people.

What has this trip taught you about yourself and secondly about the world we live in?

For the past few years, I’ve had a clear idea of what I want to do in my life. I’ve had dream jobs and dream courses, lists of places I want to visit and experiences, things I want to do and people I want to meet, but I have never before been able to articulate how I want my life to feel. Now I know. I want my life to feel how I feel at the water festival, and at Feeding Dreams holding the hands of students who trusted me without question. This trip taught me that, all those things that I think that I’m bad at, I can be good at. The person I am is not set in stone, and so I can continue to grow throughout my entire life. Cambodia taught me that what we have, we have to share. In our Western world, we have so many material things, and yet we continue to work to accumulate more. In Cambodia, they have very little, and yet what they do have, they shared with us. Us, who have so much. On the day that we visited the slums, I was given a white shirt to hand out to someone that it would fit. An elderly man came up to me and indicated that I should give him the shirt. Although it fit almost perfectly, the sleeves were a few inches too short. The man beamed and thanked me, grateful for his new shirt. I smiled back with the knowledge that, if this was an incident at home in Australia, they would have given back the shirt, or thrown it away, because it was too small. Throughout my whole life I have been taught about gratitude and the feeling of being grateful. I hear about it a lot, but that day I finally realised what it truly meant.

What would you tell someone who was unsure about choosing a yLead Schoolies Alternative to celebrate the completion of their schooling?

When you choose a yLead Schoolies Alternative, you aren’t just choosing to travel to another country, you are choosing to be a part of a community, to connect with people who think like you, and to learn more about yourself than you knew before. You don’t need to do your own research into where to go or what to do, because your trip is planned and refined by people who have done it before, who know how to cultivate a once in a lifetime experience. This is an opportunity that has the power to change your purpose in life, and because of that, it is so much more than Schoolies.

This is an opportunity that has the power to change your purpose in life, and because of that, it is so much more than Schoolies.

The beautiful thing about returning home after Help Out is sharing our stories to retell our personal experience. What we witnessed as a family was pure, it was raw, and it was a credit to the young people that now choose to see the good in every little thing, even the moments we sometimes overlook. This new concept of gratitude has been a key takeaway. We thank Layla for sharing her reflection, her vulnerability and her perspective of a week filled with connection, hope and always seeing the good.