by co-founder Linda DeWolf
We see it time and time again: travel as a powerful tool for learning and connecting. Differences can magically melt away and we find ourselves creating bonds in a much deeper way. And connect we did on GoPhil’s recent journey to SE Asia where we were able to balance seeing our partner programs in action with taking in some of the local culture and sightseeing. All in all a great blend…and amazing chemistry.
Our travelers who joined us from across the country were delighted to learn that they had more in common than they imagined: all were passionate about making a difference in the world, several were astonished that they had known the same people and stories during the course of their professional careers and most had been, or currently were working in the areas of health care and/or consulting. Among our group was also a family foundation team, seeking to learn more about the NGO world in SE Asia and to find programs that matched their criteria for funding. In addition, a handful of intrepid GoPhil Community Members who visit SE Asia every year on their own, decided to chum along with our group for part of the way.
And, just as amazing were the NGO partner programs we met with in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Indeed, you will never find a more dedicated, committed group of pioneers anywhere. What we found particularly inspiring was their untiring work and commitment to their programs and their hunger to learn and share. All the programs we visited had a common thread of providing education to the impoverished with an eye on “changing destinies”. Our journey took us down a path of getting to know these people, their programs and impact.
Our first stop was Vietnam, a land of great progress and real contrasts (a sense of hope from the people blended with the harshness of the country’s long embattled history). Despite an uncharacteristically rainy season, we grabbed our umbrellas and ventured out into the charming city of Hoi An. This UNESCO designated city is replete with sparkling green rice fields, a bustling, colorful market, world famous tailor shops situated on every corner, motor bikes busily zipping in and out of traffic and food that is simply divine (we took a cooking class just so we would be assured of knowing how to make a few of those Vietnamese specialties).
One of our special visits in Hoi An was with partner program Children’s Education Foundation (CEF). CEF has been a partner of GoPhil’s since 2011. The program focuses on helping girls from poor and/or marginalized communities complete school or receive further education or training. This supports not only the young women, but has an impact on the poverty cycle, helping succeeding generations and their communities have the possibility of a better life with more choice.
CEF has grown to the point that well over 260 children are helped through sponsorships/scholarships programs with GoPhil being a long-time supporter. During our visit, we had plenty of time to visit with some of the CEF children and found ourselves charmed and impressed with the girl’s conversation skills and the huge milestones they had made in their English proficiency.
CEF also provides educational programs such as life skills and anti trafficking (a collaboration with a soon to be GoPhil partner) and an art day, inspired by another GoPhil partner. The art day is always very special as it provides the children with an opportunity to explore their creativity (something not really encouraged in the local schools) in a fun and safe environment. This year we made various crafts items including origami creations, friendship bracelets and Valentine cards. Much concentration and some giggles ensued during our time together…
Next stop Cambodia best known for the sprawling temple complex of Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. In many ways, the country is still reeling from the devastating impact of the Khmer Rouge regime with about one third of the Cambodian population living below the poverty line and their educational status ranking at the bottom of the heap for SE Asian countries. Despite all of this, there is a sense that change is possible through the education of the younger generation.
DREAMS PAVE WAY TO THE FUTURE
After the once in a life time experience of seeing Angkor Wat at sunrise, we were anxious to learn more about this younger generation and their aspirations, so our group hopped into a van and traveled an hour outside of town to meet with a classroom of high school students hungry to learn and succeed. This was the DREAM program sponsored by our partner PEPY Empowering Youth.
GoPhil’s partnership with PEPY began a little over a year ago when we saw first hand the impact this local NGO was making on empowering young Cambodians to pursue careers that improve the quality of their lives and connect them to the skills, opportunities and inspirations needed to reach their potential. PEPY works to increase the number of high school graduates gaining access to skilled employment and offers scholarships to students wishing to study at university and gain additional soft skill training through their Learning Center. Overall, PEPY encourages thinking and dreaming big through their unique DREAM program.
During our visit, students in grades 10, 11 and 12, shared their own bold aspirations with us. We were blown away when one young man, just in grade 10, told us he wanted to help “rid the country of corruption”, another’s dream was to become a fashion designer and still another young woman wanted to become a doctor and help others. The visit was made even more special when one boy came up to two in our group and shyly thanked them for their visit, saying he would never forget it (never underestimate the power of what may seem to be a small act!). As we reluctantly left the high school, our group had much to talk about and digest and all agreed that some of these students really would have a shot at making their future dreams come true.
Our next stop took us back out to Angkor Wat grounds where we met with partner Opportunities of Development thru Art in Cambodia (ODA). It is impossible to meet Founder Leng and not be duly impressed with his passion and bold vision for ensuring education and hope for children in rural Cambodia. Here, children struggle every day to simply survive. ODA helps prepare these children for their future in the harsh environment that is still Cambodia today. Creativity and education are ODA’s priorities along with loving care and encouragement.
By way of background, Leng’s story is an inspiring one. He was just a young, impressionable boy in Cambodia when he witnessed the brutal killing of his father by the Khmer Rouge. Later he was taken in and cared for by his uncle. After obtaining his Fine Arts degree as a young man, Leng met and befriended a group of street boys and realized if not for his aunt and uncle this would have been his fate. As a result of this realization, Leng and his wife created ODA to aid underprivileged children. Since its inception it has evolved into an educational support NGO.
From this humble beginning of helping just a handful of children, Leng’s dreams have become a reality as ODA now provides education to over 1100 children and shelter for over 30. It also provides a safe place and education for young girls from the remote mountainous areas around Siem Reap to receive a secondary education and learn a vocational skill. This is called the Mountains Girls Program and we were thrilled to get to know the girls through a major donor who accompanied us on this visit and has provided the generous ongoing support to get this program off the ground.
Before we headed out for the day, we had the chance to marvel over the ODA children’s magnificent original watercolor paintings and to be treated to watching a traditional Khmer dance performed by the younger children.
EDUCATION AND ENVIRONMENT GO HAND IN HAND
Our last NGO partner visit in Siem Reap was to HUSK, a non-profit who works directly with communities to improve the lives of families by generating sustainable solutions to very real everyday issues. By working daily alongside community members within two Cambodian villages, and by understanding the villages and their needs, HUSK is able to create long-term solutions to combat extreme poverty. They provide a broad range of programs that focus on the basic needs of villagers including food & nutrition, clean water, shelter, sanitation, and education. A new Educational Center has just been constructed and slated to open soon.
And, in an area where litter is prevalent, HUSK has been especially innovative and sensitive to the environment, using eco bricks and plastic biodegradable bottles for much of their building.
Travelers also had the unique opportunity to plunge right into the daily life of Cambodians by spending a ½ day learning first hand about village life as they worked along side the villagers, helping to cook a typical Cambodian meal (rice, fish, vegetables), weaving mats and jostling along in a locally made oxen cart. All very interesting and great fun.
On our last evening in Cambodia we all gathered along bustling Pub Street to watch the Giant Puppet Parade, an event now in its 10th year. This parade encourages children’s creativity and exudes a carnival like atmosphere, with floats, riotous color and music everywhere. Over 600 underprivileged children in Siem Reap participate in the parade through exploring this fun artistic medium of float making. We were especially captured by one giant green crocodile puppet, which had been funded by two of our Community members.
Our final destination, Luang Prabang in northern central Laos is a UNESCO heritage city with a strong French Colonial influence. The name of the city means “Royal Buddha Image” and it is charmingly nestled on a peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers with magnificent mountain views in nearly every direction. It is home to fabulous weaving villages, elephant camps and magnificent waterfalls.
Our group was deeply moved when we were welcomed to Laos with a traditional Baci blessing ceremony arranged by our host NGO and performed by local community members. This ceremony involves the tying of white cotton strings around our wrists while prayers of well wishes are chanted. No doubt Luang Prabang has an almost mystical feel made especially so because it is home to hundreds of monks who, on a daily basis, collect alms at sunrise along the city’s streets. It was a great privilege to participate in this sacred ceremony as mats were spread along the sidewalks, shoulder scarves were donned and sticky rice was silently passed out to the monks as they made their way single file to their temples in a sea of orange and saffron robes. This was followed by a private tour of a local temple, given by a very studious young monk who spoke excellent Chinese and English.
EXTENDING ITS REACH
Laos Educational Trust (LEOT) continues to connect the dots for young people by providing hope and the possibility of change through education. The LEOT School, opened in 2012, teaches vital skills of English and computer technology to over 300 students, many of who are monks, including our temple tour guide. LEOT also sponsors a University Scholarship Program with some 26 students enrolled and they recently replicated PEPY’s DREAM program as a way of helping students prepare for their future.
The time was made very special when three of our travelers had the chance to meet in depth with the young woman they sponsor. After posing many questions to her, they turned the tables and asked her what she might like to ask them. Taking a cue from her own passions, her thoughtful response was “What is one thing YOU would do to help the environment?” Talk about surprising and rocking one’s world…
LEOT spreads it reach in the community by sponsoring regular clean up days around town and encouraging creativity by featuring student’s art, for the first time ever, in an exhibit at the French Institute. In addition, they work with remote villages along the Mekong where they address vital “root cause” issues such as ensuring clean water, electricity and health care. One village that LEOT recently partnered with had clean water only 5 months out of the year. Thanks to a generous GoPhil donor, the village now has a new water system and villagers are healthier and happier year round.
Along the way, our group was also invited to be part of an “insiders” view of LEOT’s vetting process for villages requesting services. We all decided that piling in the back of a pick up truck and bumping a long, remote, dusty road in order to reach the village was a unique adventure that we would never have had anywhere else.
As the travelers said their goodbyes, while enjoying a spectacular sunset on the Mekong, everyone agreed they were grateful for the time we had spent together, the knowledge gained from visiting other cultures, people and programs and that the world, and we, were just a little closer as a result of our journey.
POST SCRIPT: COMING FULL CIRCLE
Bringing our SE Asia partners together at GoPhil’s third annual Network Gathering, held in Laos and hosted by LEOT, literally brought me back to where we had started …with our wonderful group of partners who are always anxious to give, learn and create synergy by sharing their great practices with one another. Stay tuned for more about GoPhil’s networking efforts…
And to learn more about the GoPhil partner programs profiled here and to provide support, click here.