I went to Cambodia for a holiday with my family in 2009. I had a great time exploring the country but my strongest memory from that trip was seeing children living in poverty. It made such an emotional impact on me that I returned the following year, this time as a volunteer.
When I arrived I had a preconceived idea that volunteers were the solution for these poor people. With messages from TV ads in my mind of malnourished children in Africa being unable to survive without Western help, I naively believed that Cambodians couldn’t help themselves and needed us to help them, similar to the way in which a parent cares for a child.
I became a volunteer coordinator at a local NGO and while I was there I saw many volunteers come and go. I watched as the local staff started to develop a reliance on the volunteers and I realised that all our well-intentioned efforts were actually weakening and disempowering the locals. What we were doing was not helping the Cambodians in the long term. Not helping their happiness, self-esteem, nor their future.
I realised that instead of working directly with impoverished people in the community, I should be empowering Cambodians to build their own community. So I joined Human and Hope Association (HHA) which, at the time, was only open two hours in the evenings, teaching English and life skills to kids. Amongst the murky green walls of the pagoda based school, I saw hope.
These last three years have been the most challenging of my life, struggling with constant sickness, culture shock and overwork but in that same time HHA has flourished. We teach diverse skills ranging from basic Khmer language to sewing and life skills workshops that address real issues like domestic violence and oral hygiene.
Although I am sad to be leaving the organisation in 2016 to be entirely locally run I also feel proud to have been part of a meaningful social change: taking families out of the poverty bracket and instilling a love of learning into their children. We have empowered Cambodians to take care and empower other Cambodians, which I now know, is exactly what sustainability is about.
We are currently raising funds to sponsor 12 more villagers in our one year sewing program that moves them out of poverty. To make a donation and play a meaningful part in breaking the poverty cycle, please visit https://chuffed.org/project/sew-many-opportunities/
Sally Hetherington, Australia