In September 2011 at age 25, I packed up my most of my belongings and drove them to my parents’ house. The remaining items; some clothing, toiletries and my beloved laptop, stayed with me. I was off to Siem Reap, Cambodia. A land far from my comfort zone, where I was sure I was going to change the world by undertaking the role of Volunteer Coordinator at a day centre for former street children. However, that wasn’t going to be the case.
I had been falsely sold the message that voluntourism was the way to help Cambodians break the cycle of poverty. As it turned out, it wasn’t. What I saw was a revolving door of short-term volunteers, creating detachment issues with the students, disempowerment issues with the local staff, and an unsustainable source of income for the organisation. I wasn’t the solution; I was merely exasperating the problem.
Fast forward to October 2012, when my friend, Sreylin, invited me to her home. She lived a couple of kilometres from town with her parents, siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews. We ate a traditional Khmer lunch, then went for a trip to the surrounding villages. After escaping from a dog that was chasing our motorbike, our first stop was at Wat Chork. As we drove into the pagoda compound, I was awestruck by the beauty of the enormous pagoda on my right. As Sreylin led me on tour around the vicinity, I learnt that the pagoda was new, and had cost USD$2million to build. And they weren’t even finished it.
I couldn’t fathom spending that much on a pagoda when poverty existed all around. The money to build the pagoda had been donated by the community, who despite living in poverty, believed that contributing to the construction of the pagoda would help progress them to a higher status in their next life. As we walked around the pagoda, we came to a two-story, cream building. Sreylin told me that it was a nightly English school that her friends had set up the year before. Another organisation, who Sreylin had received a university scholarship from, had taught English in this building. However, due to their rental contract being up and issues with the Monks, they had departed the building, leaving an absence of English education in the commune. In came a group of friends who decided to do something about this. They spoke a range of beginner to upper intermediate English, so decided to start nightly English classes, charging the students between 50 cents and $1 a month to cover their costs of electricity, markers and paper. The organisation was called‘Human Hopes Association’, and Sreylin told me that in addition to being run by Khmer volunteers, they also accepted foreign volunteers to come and teach.
As we walked around the building, Sreylin told me that Human Hopes Association needed support to become stronger. They were just scraping by with funding and didn’t have the money to register as an NGO with the government, which would cost anywhere up to USD$1,000. I told Sreylin I would think about helping, but first I needed to meet with the team to learn more about the organisation.
I had a meeting with the Director of Human Hopes Association a couple of weeks after Sreylin initially took me there. He was a Monk who lived at the pagoda, so he was often on hand to watch over the building. Our initial discussion was that I would help the association by building a website for them. However, over the next month as I got to know the Khmer volunteers, I realised that this was the way that communities in Cambodia were going to develop; by Cambodians running Cambodian organisations. After collaborating with Sreylin and the Director, and their apologies that they couldn’t pay me for my work at that time, we decided that I would become Operations Manager, and help build up the organisation into a reputable NGO.
Seeing how other Cambodian communities had entrenched dependency on foreigners, I promised myself and the community that we would use social enterprise and sustainability principles to ensure the longevity of HHA. I earnt only $100 a month as their Operations Manager as I built the organisation up from scratch. Despite struggling financially, I did not wish to earn more money than my hard-working local counterparts, in order to push the message that we were all equals in the field.
After successfully registering the organisation as an NGO, I spent the next four years building up HHA with a team of local staff. My proudest achievement was developing the now-Director, who was just a high school student when I first became involved. I returned to Australia in 2017, and HHA is now entirely run by Cambodian staff who are committed to empowering their community to break the cycle of poverty and raise 50% of their own yearly income.
Back in Australia, I continue to serve as the President of Human and Hope Association Incorporated, a registered Australian charity that fundraises for HHA, which I have been juggling in addition to full-time work. But now, it is time to make some big changes, which is why I am applying for a Toptal Scholarship.
My vision is for a world where locals are the ones running their own organisations and alleviating poverty and social issues. Foreigners do have an important role to play, but that is through funding and being responsible travellers; the on-the-ground work should always be undertaken by local staff who know the culture and the community well. This is the most effective sustainable development strategy, and communities will thrive as a result.
How I Believe I Can Accomplish My Goals
I have already accomplished my goal of making myself redundant, with Human and Hope Association being entirely Khmer operated for over two years already.
But now I have a new goal to tackle. I can’t juggle full-time work and Human and Hope Association Inc. anymore. Something has to give, which is why I have made the brave (and terrifying) move to take on HHA Inc. as my full-time job. I have been struggling internally with this notion for so long; I know it is what we need to be sustainable in the long-term and ensure I don’t burn out, yet I have always hated the thought of getting paid for a cause I am used to sacrificing myself for so long. But now I can see, it is the only way Human and Hope Association can thrive.
By dedicating daytime hours to the cause, I will be able to make so many more connections, attend meetings and conferences, attend public speaking opportunities about the importance of local empowerment as opposed to voluntourism, form relationships with foundations, businesses and volunteers, and work on a strategy to ensure Human and Hope Association can grow in line with their goals.
“As a former colleague of Sally Hetherington and HHA marketing volunteer, it is my opinion that it would be in HHA’s best interest to employ Sally at a minimum on a part-time basis to better support the growth of HHA in Australia.
Having worked alongside Sally while she worked full time at Dress for Success Sydney and squeezed hours for HHA into her lunch break, evenings and almost all of her free time on the weekends, it is not a sustainable method of working. This type of work could cause burnout for anyone, or push anyone doing role this to quit.
In order for HHA to grow its impact in Cambodia, it needs to grow its presence in Australia on the ground, and the only way it can do that is through a concerted effort by an Australian to grow donations, revenue and partnerships with Australian businesses and people who can support HHA in the long term. HHA needs a person like Sally to diligently work in her capacity in a paid faculty to that she can continue doing the work on the long term, not short term.
For maximum impact, the role needs to be paid so that regular hours can be committed and help build momentum, accountability and consistency of quality work.” – Meg Gibson, HHA Inc. Marketing Coordinator
Support and Mentorship I Need to Accomplish My Goals
Firstly, I need financial support, sourcing a part-time income to sustain my day-to-day living costs. Although I am working (more) than full-time hours, the goal is to source funds for a 10-hour a week salary and as I deliver results, increase the number of paid hours in a sustainable way. The $10,000 scholarship from Toptal would be an incredible investment, allowing me to generate three times that for Human and Hope Association as a result of my paid hours.
Then, there is the mentorship. By being paired with a Toptal mentor, I will be able to develop on my weaknesses, take advantages of my strengths, and have someone to challenge me to be a great leader. Words cannot describe how passionate I am about Human and Hope Association and the incredible work we have achieved and are yet to achieve. I am 100% committed, and by having access to financial support and mentorship, I will be able to impact on the lives of many more Cambodians who are desperate to break the cycle of poverty.