GoAbroad Interview

Todd Cikraji - Founder & International Director

Friends for Asia offers international volunteer projects in Indonesia, Nepal, Thailand, and Vietnam, which assist local communities in overcoming challenges while providing volunteers with a vastly fulfilling and satisfying experience. To date, the organization, founded by Todd Cikraji, has placed more than 1,000 volunteers and interns in a wide range of projects across Asia.

What inspired you to establish Friends for Asia?

Childcare projects in Thailand

Volunteer in our childcare projects in Thailand. Photo credit: Friends for Asia

After serving as a US Peace Corps volunteer in two countries (Kyrgyzstan and Thailand), I decided to stay on in Thailand. While working as an ESL teacher at a school for wealthy Thai students, I saw the opportunities that these students had, and I felt it was unfair that students in schools without as much money did not have the same opportunities. That led to Friends for Asia’s first projects, which focused on teaching English to those who needed it most.

How did you end up with Friends for Asia as the name of the organization?

Haha, this is a good question. This was a mutual decision between myself and a few other important individuals who helped with the creation of FFA. I suppose it's all semantics, but we wanted individuals coming to participate in our projects to feel that they were not only helping, but also learning and growing. In a friendship, individuals benefit from a platonic relationship – sharing their experiences and ways of life. This is basically where the name originated.

What is a typical day at work like for Todd Cikraji, Founder and International Director of Friends for Asia?

Unfortunately, I've been a bit too busy with administrative work, paperwork, and related issues. I do not get out in the field to visit our volunteer project sites as much as I used to. But, I still get out there some, and considering my office is in the same building that many of our volunteers stay in, I do get to touch base with these participants regarding their day-to-day experiences. This is particularly important to me, as none of the projects we work on would exist without our volunteers.

Teach English to monk kids

Teach English to monk kids in Thailand. Photo credit: Friends for Asia

How did your professional experience as a volunteer in Kyrgyzstan and Thailand help you establish the organization and how does it help you continue to manage Friends for Asia?

After graduating from university, I spent the next three years of my life working as a volunteer in two very different societies. This certainly shaped who I am today. I learned what is most important to volunteers in the field, as well as what matters most to local communities. I also learned firsthand how unique situations can greatly affect and contribute to a volunteer’s experience. I emphasize taking advantage of the special moments, and the special abilities our volunteers bring to our projects, as these are critical ways to enhance the volunteer's experience and overall contribution.

How does Friends for Asia distinguish itself from other organizations that offer volunteering and internship opportunities?

Unlike many organizations that provide projects in multiple areas, we are not stuck away in an office deep in the center of a Western country. We are headquartered right here in Thailand, alongside our volunteer projects and volunteers. For this reason, we are able to keep project fees low for our participants. Staying close to their experience also keeps us from losing site of the most important elements of what international volunteering is all about.

Stunning sunset

Stunning sunset. Photo credit: Friends for Asia

How do you ensure the safety of students in your programs at all locations?

Safety is of our utmost concern. We go to great lengths to provide the safest environment possible for our participants. This all begins before the volunteer even arrives, comprehensive pre-departure information describing the destination, its culture, and unique challenges. Once volunteers are on the ground in the host country, the first thing they do is complete orientation. Some of our project sites provide an orientation session with a well-seasoned doctor or nurse, to provide a professional overview of what health-related issues are most important to look out for while visiting the country.

Insurance is another very important consideration for volunteers. I’m proud of the fact that we provide international accident and injury insurance to all of our participants. However, over the course of many years, we've never actually had to use it – not a single claim has ever been filed. I suppose much of the credit for this goes to our coordinating staff, who work hard to provide a safe and secure environment for our volunteers and interns.

Friends for Asia provides volunteering projects in four Asian countries. Which country is your most popular destination?

Although all of the destinations where we offer placements are amazing places to visit, learn, and contribute, the most popular destination to date has been Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Do you have plans of launching programs in other countries? Any countries you are eyeing?

Haha, this is a great question, as it's still up for discussion amongst our own administration. We've recently started our new Bangkok office and are currently focusing on making this project site as successful as our others before moving into any new areas.