Inspiration along with passion and motivation creates a life that is rich, where each moment offers an opportunity to bring myself to higher level of feeling and activity. However, try as I might to keep these up, sometimes passion wanes, interest diminishes and motivation stalls. Therefore everyone once in a while it’s time reignite myself. Fortunately, I have recently found the perfect solution – Cambodia.
Cambodia is a country of contrasts. The sadness and tragedy of the genocide 35 years ago has left this country in a state of serious poverty and this hits you hard. Yet at the same time, there is beauty, love, light and sparks of hope also apparent, particularly when I meet so many inspirational local and foreigners working together to rebuild this country.
My close friend and I visited Phnom Penh in Cambodia for the first time about 18 months. As part of our 4 day trip, we arranged to do some charity work, to help in any way that we could. We headed off in a car brimming with soccer balls, coloring pens and craft paper.
The community we visited is an hour outside Phnom Penh and is a purpose built village created for people with the HIV virus. It was here that we learnt about the 500 local men, women and children that died of Aids before ARV drugs were made available. We saw the crematorium that was built to handle all of the deaths and had the humbling experience of meeting an incredible American man who created this community. He built a hospice to allow Cambodians who were dying from Aids do so with dignity. He nursed them through their final hours and held their hand while they passed away. He built an orphanage which is currently home to over 60 children who are either HIV positive or whose parents have died from Aids. He continues to live in the community and has started sustainable agriculture programs to make the village more self-sufficient. The first children from his orphanage have recently gone to university and he’s in the process of building a mechanical school for the local community children to learn a life changing trade.
We also met Leung, whom at age 26, escaped to Vietnam after watching her entire family be killed by the Khmer Rouge. She lived in the jungle for 5 years and spent a further 14 years at a refugee camp, enduring hardships we could never imagine. Yet at the same time, she taught herself English and today is one of the most poised, professional and intelligent woman you’ll ever have the pleasure to meet. Leung is a tour guide now, speaks perfect English and her smile and laughter lights everyone up around her.
After visiting Cambodia, I was so taken back by the passion that these young adults have for education that I couldn’t wait to help. Cambodia is home to some of the most extraordinary people I have ever met. The young are pushing themselves, and their country, out of poverty by relentlessly pursuing their own education, working incredibly hard to finish high school in the hope of attending university. I wanted to do something to help. However, I quickly learnt that the scope of the need feels endless and the task at best is daunting.
Those on the ground have taught me that a ‘hand up’ is the solution, not a ‘hand out’. With this in mind, we set about fundraising and after a few successful events, set up a foundation.
The Sakka Foundation was established with the simple aim of offering a transparent channel through which individual and corporate donors can help improve the health and education of impoverished children in Southeast Asia. We decided 100% of the money had to go to the kids; we would all volunteer our time in order to ensure our donors that they were the ones making a difference.
Our foundation’s priority is to spend a great deal of time getting to know the management of projects before we commit to offering any form of support. It’s important to us that we form a strong partnership with the local management and we have open and frequent communication.
A year later, Sakka is going from strength to strength. We have a loyal team of donors and volunteers who feel as passionate about this project as I do.
Every three months team of Sakka volunteers and donors travel to Phnom Penh to visit the projects we support and to meet the management of new projects, to see how we can help. These trips offer us the ability to keep in touch with our projects and to fully understand the individual needs and challenges of each one.
On our most recent trip, after visiting the HIV community that inspired the foundation of Sakka, we visited a more recently established children’s village, where 44 children live with their caretakers. The children here are mainly ‘economic’ orphans, whose families cannot afford to raise them. The other children have either come from a home of domestic violence or prostitution or do not have any living family to care for them.
We were greeted with hugs and welcomed with smiles. The warmth from these children was incredible and left a last impression on the whole team. We hosted the inaugural ‘Sakka Olympics’, a rousing set of games, which the children loved and played with incredible enthusiasm. We gave each child a ‘back to school’ set of supplies generously donated by the children of the Discovery College school in Hong Kong and watched in amazement as each child sat patiently, waiting for their gift. There was no grabbing, snatching or jealousy, just sheer joy in their faces as they opened their gifts and shared their excitement. I have never before, in any country or household, met such loving, well behaved and polite children.
The final visit of this trip was to a slum school, housed in a 3 story derelict building near the centre of Phnom Penh that an estimated 3,000 people call home. As we walked along the edge, we watched child prostitutes, both boys and girls, getting ready for work in the local beauty shop. We also saw rooms only 7 feet long and 4 feet wide where 3 adults and 3 children are living together.
After walking down a dark interior hallway, we were greeted by a beautiful blue mural painted on a wall, opposite which was the doorway to a classroom, overflowing with happy teenagers, all residents of these slums. The teacher had examples of the “past continuous” tense of the English language on the board and teenagers were practicing their power point skills on old, used computers. We met highly motivated young adults, who talked about becoming teachers, doctors, pilots, engineers, nurses and even human rights lawyers.
We met a 6 foot 5 inch, 40 year old American man, who is married to a Cambodian woman, who set up these slum schools. He rents the space from local owners and not only runs the schools, but also mentors the Cambodia young adults to run the programs themselves. The majority of the programs are geared around providing skills for teenagers outside of the school. English, music, computers and art are amongst the subjects taught to highly enthusiastic youngsters, who are gladly accepting a helping hand “up”. The education is open to all children living in the slum and is provided for free.
Several of the students who have passed through this program have since earned sponsorship and scholarship to go to university. They work early in the mornings to make enough for living expenses and then study or teach part-time in the evenings. Despite the intensely hard work, their smiles never wane.
Simply put, by providing the space and an opportunity, the local Cambodian youth with initiative will show up. These are the future leaders of Cambodia and beyond, and the future inspirational mentors for the next generation. The surprise to me, is that you don’t have to hunt for these people – they fill the streets of Phnom Penh and given an opportunity, they are there.
When you leave these wonderful people, they stay with you. Your mind spins with all the things you could do to help. Your life is so much more deeply enriched by this experience, and you return to your own life grateful for all that you have seen and learnt and a lot more appreciative of all that we have.
The opportunity to visit Cambodia might not be open to everyone, but this doesn’t mean you cannot do something to help. There are other ways to bring this same inspiration to your own lives and to help people in need. Why not make a donation or host your own fundraiser, donate used laptops or digital cameras to students, volunteer in your spare time or come to the next Sakka fundraising event – our annual wine tasting on 6th November 2010 at the Fringe Club.
Please visit Sakka’s website for more information (www.sakkafoundation.org)