Students in the Cambodia Global Service Program group—led by High School teacher Kerry Venchus and Learning Technologies Coordinator Tim Venchus with support from High School teacher Hope Schlicht and Middle School teacher Camilla Perani—work closely with two NGOs dedicated to improving economic and educational conditions in Cambodia. The group partners with Tabitha Foundation Cambodia to help construct homes for Cambodian families while also supporting Tabitha’s family savings program. Students also work with Caring for Cambodia, whose goal is to secure a better, brighter future for children through education.
Each June, TASIS students volunteer in Tabitha communities in the Cambodian countryside and at local educational facilities in Siem Reap, assisting with the English as a Second Language (ESL) Program. Amelia Panella ’18 wrote a thoughtful recap of this year’s trip.
By Amelia Panella ’18
“What now?” we were asked on our last night in Cambodia as we sat in our group reflecting on the past 10 days. “What are you going to do now?” Each and every one of us knew then that our journey with service was far from over. What we had learned and experienced in those 10 days made us realize that the service we had come to give to the people of Cambodia could never amount to how much they had given us. It had left us with the restless feeling of needing to do more. This trip awakened me to the true meaning of service and opened my eyes to a reality to which I was once very blind.
On arriving in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, we were instantly hit by the drastic cultural differences from our life in Europe. We were complete outsiders in a world that was so unknown to us all, but we would soon find ourselves—between the palm trees and temples under the Cambodian sun. Soon after our arrival, we were on our way to visits of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. We were left heartbroken as we learned about the horrific Khmer Rouge, a regime active in the 1970s in Cambodia under the leader Pol Pot in which the country suffered the loss of millions of its citizens. We had discussed the Cambodian genocide and history of war in our weekly classes, but stepping into Tuol Sleng on that first day I was overwhelmed with sorrow and anger—the inability to grasp the unimaginable suffering this country had experienced less than only 50 years ago. Listening to the stories of the survivors of the Khmer Rouge, it was impossible to believe a fellow human could be so cruel and heartless to other human beings. I was slowly starting to understand the real need for our service in Cambodia. Although it was hard walking through these memorial sites, it was important that this be one of our first activities. The time spent learning about Cambodia's history would serve us well in understanding the importance of respect and kindness in the Khmer culture.
|This would be our job: to provide six families with new homes.|
Phnom Penh also introduced us to one of the NGOs we would be working with during our stay in Cambodia. We sat down with the founder of Tabitha Foundation Cambodia, Janne Ritskes, who explained to us the recent history of Cambodia, recounting some of Tabitha’s own employees’ stories from the time of the Khmer Rouge and the need for organizations like Tabitha and volunteers like ourselves. The Tabitha foundation has helped thousands of families improve their lives with their savings program, in which they help families set aside a small amount of money each week that will eventually be used to buy animals such as chickens to raise and sell later on. This small start can then develop into larger purchases and the building of a stable life with stable income. With the savings program, the family is also given a new house. This would be our job: to provide six families with new homes. Tabitha also gave us the opportunity to visit a hospital they are constructing in Phnom Penh, the first hospital in Cambodia specifically for women’s health, due to open in December 2017.
After listening to the painful experiences of the Cambodian people, I was left in disbelief and sorrow for what this country had lived through. I felt overwhelmed with the want to do everything in my power to show the Cambodian people that selfless love and kindness does exist in the world and that we were here to offer every piece of ours to them.
On the road to Siem Reap, we stopped at a small village where we were able to see one of Tabitha's water projects that provides the village with clean water. This was our first real look into the lives of Cambodians outside the city. The houses were raised on wooden poles to stop flooding during the rain season, for the most part were only one room, and housed families as big as 10 people. Animals such as cows and chickens surrounded the homes, and the roads of the village were thin and bumpy. As we learned about life in the village, we were told that many of the children would travel from neighboring villages, sometimes hours away, to be able to go to school. I would later find out from my pen pal, Ponleur, that almost all homes outside the cities are built like the ones I have described. This came as a shock to me, as I never truly considered that my definition of "normal" could be so different from his. I couldn’t yet grasp this reality that was so incredibly different from my own, but I was now aware.
After arriving in Siem Reap, before beginning our service projects, we had the opportunity to experience some of Cambodia’s wonderful culture by visiting some of the beautiful temples of Angkor. Walking through the galleries of Angkor Wat and exploring the Buddha faces of the Bayon temple, we were immersed in ancient Cambodian culture, learning about Hinduism and Buddhism in Cambodia’s history. The evenings were spent visiting night markets and eating traditional Khmer food (skipping the insects!).
The time spent learning about Cambodian culture and history became essential in connecting with the villagers on our house-building day. We were greeted early in the morning by radiant, smiling faces and returned their greeting with the Khmer phrase "chum reap suor." Throughout the day we worked together with the community in fixing tin walls and wooden floorboards to the frame of the houses, and eight hours later six new homes became a part of the village. We were not working for them, we were working with them. The day ended in welcoming the families to their new homes by offering them each a new blanket. Their smiles were from ear to ear, gleaming with a newfound hope in taking the next step out of poverty. I felt real, genuine appreciation from these families. Not only for their new homes, but just for our being there. I learned that there is no greater service than a labor of love. The work had been tiring under the hot Cambodian sun, but that was no match for our determination to provide our service to these families.
Later that evening, as we reflected on the day’s work, our trip leader asked us a question that would make me rethink my whole perspective on service. He asked us, “Do you think we provided service today?” My first thought was, “Of course we did, we built all those houses for the families—who wouldn’t consider that service?” But as people in our group started to come up with answers, I began to think to myself what the most important part of this day had been. And as I did so, I realized it had not been building the houses, but creating bonds with the villagers. Working together with the Cambodian community had proved to be so much more rewarding for all of us. All of our smiles had beamed together with gratitude for the kindness and love we had shared throughout the day. We may not have been able to communicate with each other through language, but that had not stopped us from creating bonds with the community.
|We’ve never understood the real value of education because we have never been without it.|
Creating bonds with the people around us became an essential part of our trip. As we began working with our second NGO, Caring for Cambodia (CFC), we were met every day with glowing faces, bouncing with excitement at our arrival. We were split into groups to teach different English classes to primary school children. Some of us taught at the Amelio school and others at the Aranh school, two of CFC’s schools in Siem Reap. Immediately as we began teaching classes, I could see the excitement in the students’ faces as they stepped into the classroom. Our lack of appreciation for our education began to reveal itself while we taught these classes. These kids were full of excitement to learn, to discover, to know. The appreciation they had for learning was incredible because going to school is a privilege for them. We’ve never understood the real value of education because we have never been without it. It wasn't until these moments that I truly understood the meaning of education for these kids, and also for myself. Over the course of the week we formed close relationships with the children, and there wasn't a moment without smiles or hugs. Their incandescent love for education burned in their laughter and rippled through their voices. Just by being in the same room as them you could feel that energy radiate from their beaming smiles.
Our time with CFC also allowed us to experience their Food for Thought program, which serves two meals a day to the students. In an area where families can’t always afford to feed all their children, Food for Thought helps to keep children in school by giving them energy to learn. One morning as we served breakfast to the kids, I saw that mothers of the kids would come with containers to bring food home to their family. It occurred to me that a lot of the families rely on Food for Thought to feed their whole families.
Alongside the Amelio and Aranh schools, we also worked at the Bakong High School. At Bakong we painted desks and chairs that will be used in their classrooms. The paint helps the desks and chairs last longer, making the most out of the materials the school is able to obtain. We painted alongside the high school students under the afternoon sun. We laughed and sang together and soon forgot about the heat as we worked together, painting the desks and chasing each other with blue paint brushes. Each moment, we painted a new special memory together to share and keep forever.
|We came to Cambodia to offer our love and service, but we left with a whole new understanding of what that meant.|
Bakong also introduced us to our pen pals. We spent a day together as they took us around their village. My pen pals Ponleur and Dina told me about their daily lives in Cambodia. Although their English was limited, we found our way by stumbling through broken sentences and some interesting hand gestures. They told me about their day-to-day life in Cambodia, and I told them about my life at home in Switzerland. We bonded over typical teenage things, and I found that although we lived very different lives, thousands of miles away from each other, we ourselves were not so different from each other as we had thought when we first met. After a long day of bonding and laughter, we decided we would keep in touch and exchanged emails.
Forming all these new relationships gave me a sense of belonging in a community I was an outsider to. The families in the Tabitha program, the kids at CFC, my pen pals: they all gave me a piece of Cambodia that I keep with me in my heart and that is so much more than I could have ever given them. We came to Cambodia to offer our love and service, but we left with a whole new understanding of what that meant.
I won't speak for the group, but for myself. There are no words to truly describe my experience on this trip, but the feeling of being at one with the Cambodian people, seeing the passion and energy of the children, surrounding myself in Khmer culture, will stay with me forever. It’s an indescribable feeling you can only experience for yourself.
So, “What now?” It’s not a question I can fully answer yet, but what I can say is that this experience has left me with eyes open, aware of the world around me, and with memories of an unforgettable experience. But most importantly I know that there’s always more. More to say, more to do, more to see, and more to learn. And now I need to say more, do more, see more, and learn more.
TASIS Opsahl Global Service Program
The Opsahl Global Service Program was envisioned by Jan Opsahl ’68, who became the first international student at TASIS when he came from Norway in 1965. The pioneering program was launched in 2013 with major support from a most generous donation from Mr. Opsahl and his family to set up the Global Service Trust. This Trust, along with support from the TASIS Foundation, make this incredible, life-changing experience for our students possible.
The Opsahl Global Service Program, which has been directed by Zach Mulert since its inception, transforms lives by providing every High School student a unique opportunity to connect across borders through comprehensive experiences that build empathy and encourage personal responsibility. Participation in the program—which is designed to awaken students to humanitarian needs, inspire them to build enduring, mutually beneficial relationships, and lead them toward a life of active citizenship and committed service—is a graduation requirement.
See a gallery of photos from this year's June trips to Cambodia, Mongolia, and Romania.