As I drove out of the compound on my red and white Honda motorbike, I burst into tears. Those tears continued on my 30-minute drive home through potholes, flood water and sticky brown mud. As I walked through the battered, wooden door of my second story house, I sank to the floor and sobbed.
It was over. I was now redundant.
I had dedicated almost four years to the organisation. Four years of blood, sweat, dengue fever, pneumonia, constant gastro and tears. And it was worth every single hurdle. Every single setback. Every single sleepless night.
In October 2011, at 25 years of age, I arrived in Cambodia with a large backpack and an urge to help some of the locals who were living in this impoverished country. I had taken a career break from my banking job in Sydney and was about to start a 15-month role as a Volunteer Coordinator at a day centre for former street children. Despite the floods that surrounded me, I charged straight into my role, familiarising myself with the staff and 100+ students, and talking to volunteers about what they wanted. The purpose of my role was to focus on keeping volunteers happy whilst laying down some rules.
As months went by, I settled into the organisation. I often took sick children to the hospital, spending countless hours waiting in line for a doctor to see them and most likely tell us there was nothing to worry about. I replaced volunteers and teachers in classes when no one was available and tried my best to come up with new material for the students that they hadn’t been taught before by the countless volunteers who had walked the hallways. I conducted visitor tours, showing foreign tourists around the premises in the hope that they would donate a few dollars, so we would have enough funds to provide the children with breakfast the next day.
As time went by, I became disheartened at the state of the organisation I was working with.
To source more funds, the minimum volunteer period changed from one month to one week, resulting in a revolving door of mostly unskilled volunteers who were coming to ‘teach’ vulnerable children.
I noticed the staff were becoming complacent and disempowered, and
I began questioning whether my role was bringing any benefit not just to the organisation, but to the development of Cambodia.
As I have always said, things have a way of working out.
One weekend in September 2012, my workmate, Sreylin, took me for a tour of her village, and introduced me to Human and Hope Association. A nightly pagoda-based English school, Human and Hope Association was run by a group of Khmer friends, with the occasional foreigner providing teaching support.
As I walked around the building and learnt more about the school, I suddenly became energised.
This was what I had been longing for;
Cambodians who were being empowered to develop their own communities.
After meeting with the team a few weeks later and offering to build them a website, I realised that I didn’t want to just do that. I wanted to help the team realise their full potential and work with them to build an organisation that would have a positive impact on their community for generations to come. I resigned from my role at the other organisation and began working full-time as Operations Manager in December 2012.
Over the course of the next few years, I worked side-by-side with the local team. We registered as an official NGO, developed a consistent stream of income, turned our Khmer volunteer team into a paid one, abandoned the foreign volunteer program and began advocating for the empowerment of local staff. We also initiated numerous projects which ultimately aimed to help our community break the cycle of poverty. In early 2014, we reached a point that would either make us or break us. We had been experiencing several child protection issues at the pagoda, and we knew that we had to move for the safety of our students. In a matter of eight months, I had fundraised $20,000USD and we built our own community centre in a rural community. It was the busiest, most challenging period in my time at Human and Hope Association, but I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. We finally had a place we could call our own; a place where our community could come to and feel safe.
I finished up at Human and Hope Association in July 2016. I had trained up one of our original volunteers, Thai, to become the Director of the organisation, and was leaving it in his very capable hands. Six months later, after completing the final transition to local management, I left Cambodia.
As I said goodbye, my team of 14 Cambodians tried to act as though I would be seeing them soon. But I knew that when I returned next, things would be different.
Some of our seamstresses would have moved on to other jobs, other staff members would be married, and the team would be so used to not having me around that it just wouldn’t be the same.
However, as I have always said, my time in Cambodia at Human and Hope Association wasn’t about me.
It was about giving the team the knowledge and confidence so that they could move out of poverty and empower others to do so.
It was about creating lasting change that will impact a community for generations to come.
It was about showing the world that Cambodians DO have the ability to run their own NGO’s effectively, which is exactly what they are doing.
I went to Cambodia as a girl who thought she could save the world.
I came back as a woman who had developed a community to help themselves.
Which is so much more powerful.
Sally is passionate about empowerment in developing countries and speaking out against voluntourism. Her day time job involves working at a not-for-profit that empowers women to achieve economic independence. On the evenings and weekends, she is committed to raising funds and awareness for Human and Hope Association, a community centre in Cambodia she developed with a team of locals.
Why are we doing this thing? Because there’s enough noise in the world telling women what we ‘should’ be doing.
We should parent more consciously, but not be helicopter parents. We should take care of our bodies, but not be vain. We should make boys pay, but demand equal rights. We should dress appropriately, but also be confident in our skin, wear what we want, but not be provocative, oh and please feel comfortable in the world’s skimpiest school bathers but then wear your jeans to the formal because last year the boys looked up the girls’ skirts and so you’ll have to be the ones to modify your behaviour. Yeah. No.
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