When I was 25 I took a career break and moved to Cambodia, with the intention of working there for 15 months in the position of Volunteer Coordinator at a day centre for former street children. It was while I was in my position as Volunteer Coordinator, that I eventually realized I was not helping the future of Cambodians. I was encouraging unskilled volunteers to come and essentially play with vulnerable children for a few weeks at a time, for a fee. Because volunteers were always coming through the door, the Khmer staff started to lack confidence and become complacent, and then when there weren’t volunteers, often the Khmer staff just didn’t know what to do, because they had become so reliant on these volunteers.
It was around this time that I was introduced to Human and Hope Association through my Khmer friend who volunteered there. At the time, HHA was open two hours an evening with volunteer Khmer staff, and sometimes foreigners, teaching English and Morality to village kids and teenagers at a fee of 50 cents to $1 a month. Amongst the murky green walls of the pagoda based school, I saw hope. I saw that a handful of these Khmer volunteers had the passion and ability to make something out of this organization, so, in October 2012 I became involved with HHA, and started full time as Operations Manager in December that same year.
From day one of working at Human and Hope Association, the sustainability of the organization was always at the front of my mind. I had learnt that for organisations to be sustainable, they needed to be run by local staff. And for local staff to run organisations, they needed to be empowered. So, we stopped the foreign volunteer program, promoted some local volunteers to paid employment, and started weekly capacity building workshops.
We started several projects, all aimed at our holistic approach to development which involves whole families. These projects included Khmer language class, preschool, art class, a library, a sewing program for marginalized women, farming training, community workshops, microfinance program and university scholarships. In 2014 we moved from the pagoda and built our own community centre in a rural area in Siem Reap. This allowed us the freedom to provide a fun and comfortable learning environment for our staff and community members.
We were also serious about generating a sustainable stream of income that didn’t rely on donations. In 2015 and 2016, Human and Hope Association earnt 25% of our own income through selling handicrafts and vegetables, holding market stalls, tuition and interest from microfinance repayments.
It took a big commitment on my part to build up Human and Hope Association. However, I didn’t do it alone. I worked alongside a local team the whole time, instilling them with knowledge and confidence so that they were able to run the organisation themselves.
In July 2016, Human and Hope Association became entirely locally operated. Our team continues to develop under the guidance of our governing Khmer board, and are constantly improving our projects.
Human and Hope Association was able to grow so much in a short period of time because of our commitment to being entirely locally operated.
Because of our empowering approach to development, our former sewing students, Chomrong and Phalla, are now sewing teachers who are empowering other women with the skill of sewing. Because of our empowering approach to development, our former volunteer, Thai, who co-founded HHA when he was in high school, is now the Director of the organisation.
Although I am so proud that we were able to make my position redundant, I miss Cambodia. I miss the shining stars I have met, those who want to see change in their community and do something about it. I miss the women that Human and Hope Association has empowered to be confident, independent women who are saying no to stereotypes. And I miss the opportunities I was presented with to develop myself whilst having a positive impact on the lives of hundreds of Cambodians.
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.