2015 Recap: Cambodia Service Learning Expedition

Below is the recap as recorded through the lens of several volunteers. Many thanks to an outstanding team! Their camaraderie, willingness to learn, reaching out, giving of themselves, was exemplary. We hope the narrative of team 2015 will inspire readers to volunteer with team 2016.


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 per 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