Day 1: Tabitha Savings Program

Having assembled in Phnom Penh, this year’s team, with members ranging from high schoolers to retirees, from five countries, piled into a van and headed southwest from Cambodia’s capital into the countryside. Buildings gave way to scrub and trees, paved roads gave way to dust (and grew bumpier and bumpier) as we made our way to the rural countryside of Kampong Speu, where the Tabitha savings program has been in effect for almost five years.

It was apparent that the living standard is low—evidenced by the fact that the average rural Cambodian income is roughly 1 USD a day. It is a challenge for families to save as little as 25 cents per week, which is the requirement to join the Tabitha savings program. This commitment takes courage for the family and faith in Tabitha to make good on its promise of weekly visits to collect and safeguard their savings. After ten weeks, the first miracle occurs: The savings are returned with ten percent interest, amounting for a full week of savings at no cost to the saver. This is the fundamental attitudinal change that allows families to step out of poverty—realizing the inherent power through generating income through savings. This ten percent interest spurs self-efficacious saving and income generation, which in turn builds to meet the needs of family and create other sources of income.

As we drove through Kampong Speu, our van was flagged down several times by families recognizing the Tabitha staff and wanting to show us what their savings had brought. One family started with chicks (.50 apiece), saved for a pig, and then earned enough to buy cows—used in Cambodia for meat and plowing land for crops. Another woman saved for a well (clean drinking water is valuable and a rarity in the countryside), enabling her family to grow crops year-round and sell water to her neighbors. She eventually saved enough to build houses for her extended family.


Day 2: Nokor Tep Women’s Hospital

Today we drove to the garment district on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where construction on the Nokor Tep Women’s Hospital is underway. We heard about the vision and urgent need for such a hospital from Janne Ritskes, founder of Tabitha and co-founder of Nokor Tep.

Sanitation and birth and labor practices in Cambodia contribute to gynecological infections. The planned hospital is unique in its focus on women’s gynecological health, and will include an Education and Prevention Unit, a Research Unit, and mobile clinics to reach women from all parts of Cambodia, as well as a built-in “beauty parlor” to eliminate the shame that prevents many rural women from visiting doctors.

Funding for the hospital thus far has purchased the land, laid the foundation, and paid local Khmer contractors and construction workers, who receive training and fair pay, mixing the concrete themselves to ensure it is of proper quality and to save money.

The phrase “Nokor Tep” in Sanskrit means “city of compassion from the gods,” or “city of angels.

”The planned inscription for the entrance reads: “Welcome my sister, my daughter, my mother, my wife—do not be afraid for we ( 1 Million People) are with you. Come -we welcome you, we will comfort you and treat you. You are not alone—we are with you."

The million references the million small donors Ritskes hopes to attract in order to complete and maintain the hospital.

For more information and to donate, visit nokortep.com.


Day 3: Understanding the Khmer Rouge

Today we visited two sites in an effort to understand Cambodia’s recent history: Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields. Witnessing the brutality and the scope of the atrocities committed was an emotionally difficult part of the trip.

Beginning April 17, 1975, and lasting for a period of four years, approximately 1.7 million Cambodians died as Pol Pot and his army murdered and starved the country in a radical effort to create an agrarian utopia. This brutal and catastrophic regime was followed by years of civil war.

Tuol Sleng was a site of torture used by the Khmer Rouge that now serves as a museum, while the Killing Fields, an execution and burial site, serves as a memorial to what the country endured.


Day 4: Orientation/Travel

We met at Tabitha headquarters in downtown Phnom Penh to receive a unique orientation from founder Janne Ritskes (and do some shopping from its incredible selection of local cottage industry goods).

She provided historical and cultural context through eyewitness stories of her staff giving unfiltered history from the cambodian perspective, rather than through the foreign policy angle of Western nations. Janne also went over etiquette and how to behave in the villages: how to show respect by properly greeting villagers, wearing modest clothing, and obeying cultural norms about physical touch and pointing.

Joining our group of volunteers for the orientation and trip were Srey (Tabitha staff) and our Khmer friend Keo Botevy and four of her children: Mara, Ma, Nana, and Kasy. Botevy is the mother of a group home in Phnom Penh for 34 children whose parents are unable to care for them. She values the opportunity for her older children to provide service and see sites outside the capital, and their joining us for housebuilding is a highlight for the team as well.

After orientation, we loaded up into two vans and a Tabitha vehicle and headed northwest for the long ride to Preah Vihear, a rural province near the Thai border, where we would build. We were surprised to find that the road was paved all the way there, but later came to realize it was because foreign mining and lumber companies had stripped the majority of lumber and natural resources (soil for gold and precious stones) from the area.


Day 5: Housebuilding!

Houses are usually an item families save for using the Tabitha savings program, but everyone needs a home, and circumstances such as death, illness, or other difficulties can make that need especially pressing and that dream particularly difficult to achieve.

We raised money to provide six houses, and local village council deliberated over and decided who could benefit the most from such assistance. Tuesday morning we sealed the deal by offering our labor to attach floorboards and siding with hammer and nails and make the homes ready to live in.

Volunteers, Tabitha staff, our friends from the group home, and a few locals hammered away for hours, taking breaks to keep cool by guzzling water and occasionally dunking heads. As each house was completed, families took advantage of the shade the new homes provided and set up hammocks underneath. After the last nail was in place, we gave the new homeowners gifts of housewarming quilts.


Day 6: Koh Ker & Beng Mealea

After putting floorboards and aluminum siding on six new houses the day before, we faced the hot sun and buses full of tourists to explore tenth-century Khmer empire ruins.

By this time our multicultural/multigenerational group of Germans, Americans, Israelis, Koreans and Khmers had bonded. We spent the day climbing over stones, taking pictures, and talking about everything from development and environmental issues to favorite soccer teams and KFC—and the high schoolers even gave each other Khmer and English names.

We got a chance to experience the temples built by the Khmer empire, which are of tremendous cultural, historic, and artistic significance. Not only were we able to learn of the great accomplishments of the past, but the foreign volunteers were humbled by the legacy of our Khmer friends and the realization that through recognizing and honoring their heritage Cambodians are gaining the confidence to rebuild their country.


Day 7: Social Enterprise & Touring Responsibly

After Beng Mealea, the group split ways. Some returned to Phnom Penh, while others went on to Siem Reap for additional touring.

In Siem Reap, we visited Artisans d’Angkor and the Paul Debrule Hotel and Tourism School. Both facilities offer skill development, apprenticeships, and job placement in the emerging Cambodian hospitality industry with fair wages for young well-trained professionals. Artisans d’Angkor is a school of Khmer artisanship that trains and employs persons with disabilities, as well as provides a store to sell their products, while Paul Debrule School includes a first-rate restaurant for students to prepare them for all aspects of restaurant and hotel management positions.

We take great care to teach our teams how to give business to hotels and restaurants that support ambitious social vision and fair employment for Cambodians, such as Lotus Blanc (run by Pour un sourire d’enfant) and Friends. During our almost twenty year history of offering Service Learning expeditions, we have carefully cultivated a partnership with Cambodian entrepreneurs who have committed themselves to rebuilding their country through generating respectful, dignified employment with solid potential for upward social mobility. An exemplary group of young businessmen created the Frangipani Hotel group, with houses in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. The chain actively recruits employees from very underprivileged segments of society, makes great effort to facilitate further training and education for its employees and has a laudable and strong charter forbidding sex tourism at any of their establishments.

Angkor Wat has made Cambodia a growing tourist destination. Responsible tourism, in itself, can be an important contribution to the development of a country. forPEACE aims to teach the team members strategies how to support good social enterprise while traveling in any country.

For more photos from our 2015 expedition, please visit hbp2015.iankyddmiller.com

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2015 Service Learning Expedition in Support of Tabitha Cambodia

An international team of volunteers ranging from high school students to retirees, representing the United States, Germany, Israel, Korea and Great Britain, fondly look back on seven extraordinary days of learning, serving and exploring Phnom Penh, Kompong Speu, Preah Vihear and Siem Reap.

Together with local Cambodian friends and supporters, the team immersed into the family and community development program of Tabitha Cambodia. The program is extraordinary because families move from desperate poverty and living on the streets to owning their own home and small business, producing crops and raising livestock as well as providing their children secondary education—all within a five to seven year time period. At that point, the families "graduate," thereby making room for new families to enter the program. Tabitha begins the process again.

Tabitha has grown holistically from serving a handful of destitute street women to providing, during the current fiscal year of September 2014 through August 2015, its life changing program to 55,960 families who have a combined 447,680 dependents. The overall impact of applying the Tabitha principles of permanent poverty elimination for twenty years in Cambodia has resulted in 529,886 families with 4,207,088 dependents to move into a stable, sustainable rural middle class life with multiple sources of steady income. These statistics are eyebrow raising giving reason to consider and study the principles whereupon they are based.

forPEACE annual service learning expeditions provide opportunity to get involved and observe Tabitha in action. The experience includes an overnight stay in the countryside. This year the team worked in the village of Putrea, located in a remote area of Preah Vihear, close to the Thai border. There, the volunteers helped build simple houses side-by-side with families enrolled in the Tabitha program. It was a glimpse into authentic, rural Cambodia. Tabitha Director, Janne Ritskes, recently summarized the spirit of housebuilding in the following letter:

Janne Ritskes Tabitha Director

Janne Ritskes
Tabitha Director

House building involves young people, middle aged people and the older, young at heart folks coming from all parts of the world to help build houses for families who may not get a house without their help. The impact of the houses on our families is immense. In Cambodia people believe that to die in their home will ensure a safe passage to the next life.

A few years ago, a team came and built for some of our families. At the end of house building we have a simple ceremony handing the houses over to the families move in. It is a time when we are reminded what a gift these families have given to us - the volunteers. It is the gift of a privilege – the privilege of sharing but a small part of our lives with our families here. We need to be reminded of this, as often we come with the belief that we somehow have a right to do this – that we are entitled to not only build but to be treated as special people simply because we came. It is our time in this small ceremony to thank the families for allowing us to come and to help finish a small home.

It is also the time for the families to thank us – to try and express in some small way, the gift they have received from our volunteers. These expressions are all very similar in content but expressed in various ways. At this particular handing over ceremony – one of the women spoke. She was in her mid-forties, raising her own 6 children as well as helping to raise 6 orphans from the village. She had developed cataracts and it was difficult to see the world clearly. She said to the team: “you will forget us in 6 months or a year and that is right – you have busy and full lives. But -on the day that I die – it is your face that I will see. Thank you for that gift”. For her and all our families, the gift of a permanent home – a house that will allow them to be safe – to live with dignity - to die in peace, is truly a gift beyond measure.

For us at Tabitha Cambodia – house building is about friendships between very different peoples and backgrounds – it is an opportunity to learn about dignity and about respect for each other – it is about change – a change of attitude from those who have so little - to realize that those of us who have so much are capable of doing hard physical labor – of us, who have so much, beginning to understand the strength and skills of those who have so little. It is a time of realizing our own inner strength as volunteers work in a hot climate doing unfamiliar and physical labor – realizing at the end of the build that we can do so much more than we thought we were capable of. It is a time of realization for our families -how different life is when the entire family can sleep under one roof - what it’s like to sleep through rain - what’s it’s like to not have to worry about flooding and losing life – a new sense of freedom and dignity.

I thank my God for my own home and safety, I thank my God for all you volunteers who come and share your life with so many here. I want to thank all of you who are unable to build but support financially the teams that come. It is all so very good.