At the age of 14, Yarraville student Ella travelled to Cambodia with a suitcase of school books and a dream of working with girls her age. Could she make a difference? Two years later she still has a connection with this wonderful country as she reflects on her time as a volunteer.
In 2013 I spent one month with my parents, working at an NGO (Non-Government Organisation) in Cambodia called Life and Hope Association (LHA). We had always wanted to volunteer and try to help people who needed it, and we thought this would be the perfect opportunity to do so.
We understood that Cambodia was a developing country with a need for resources and skills, so we looked online for NGO’s. LHA was perfect for us because it is a local organisation in Siem Reap, run by the Buddhist monks of Wat Damnak. Their goal is to provide education and better living facilities to those most disadvantaged in their communities, but they also had a vision of sustainability, so that when people like us came and went, the knowledge would stay behind. They also focus on young women and teenage girls, who don’t always have the same opportunities as boys in Cambodia, and provide them with education and skills they can use to create a better life for themselves – for example sewing.
The founder of LHA was the second head monk of the Wat (temple), Somnieng. He was awarded a summer scholarship to attend a conference on Social Perspectives in Non-profit Management at Harvard Business School, and later returned to the US to complete a BA in Management. He gave us a warm welcome to LHA and was happy for or help.
Arriving in Cambodia, needless to say I wasn’t really sure what to expect. The quality of life was much lower than ours and I never understood how lucky I was until I saw the poverty on display. But there is hope – I saw the monks, who didn’t have much either, trying to help those who had even less.
The culture of Cambodia is also very different to ours, just like their clothes and beliefs. For instance, it is very hot and humid in Cambodia but out of respect, we didn’t wear ‘above the knee’ or shoulder-exposing clothes. Sometimes it was hard and I’d get annoyed and whine about how I just wanted to wear shorts, but then I’d realise how much of a first world problem that was.
We spent most of our time teaching English each afternoon to the Sewing School girls, who’s abilities ranged from reasonable, to quite poor. Teaching them English gives them another skill for working in hospitality or tourism, and helps if they end up running their own sewing business in Siem Reap or back in their own village.
Thinking back, what a lot of people don’t know is how easy it is to help. For only US$2000, LHA can build a ‘peace house’, which can house one family – and their families can be up to 10 people! That amount of money can easily be raised in schools or communities, and just like that, you have changed someone’s life. When we were there, a family from Melbourne had raised the money through their local primary school and were assisting in the actual building of the house for a family who had previously been living under what my Dad called an open “lean to”. The local families are extremely grateful for the houses, and it gives them a new chance at an improved life.
LHA also have a program called PAGE, which stands for Program Advancing Girls Education. This provides disadvantaged girls with the chance to go to school and possibly university, and includes accommodation in a boarding house, with two large bedrooms to be shared between 24 girls. We visited the house (originally funded by none other than actor Robert Pattinson) and all of the girls were super lovely as we delivered the textbooks I had collected from my school. We then got a chance to interview a couple of them and one girl said that LHA had given her the opportunity to receive good advice, love (which she no longer got from her family), and importantly, safety. She came from an environment where drunkenness and drug use were common, and was very appreciative to LHA for allowing her to get away from that life. Many of the other girls in PAGE have come from similar disadvantaged backgrounds.
Seeing the work of LHA unfold is a huge wake up call for lots of people around the world, and it made me immensely thankful for all of the amazing opportunities I gain from living in Australia. I hope to do more work for them in some capacity, and possibly return if it could benefit them further.
Life and Hope Association are a not-for-profit, sustainability focussed, ethical organisation. To find out more about their work, visit www.lifeandhopeangkor.org