Community Training Center in Full Swing!

When I was in Cambodia in April and had the honor of visiting the CTC, it was almost finished, but still missing a wall and stairs before it could be put to use.  I am thrilled to report that it is 100% complete and is now being actively used on a daily basis.  Already it has functioned as a community meeting space, workshop space, and accommodation for the Cham Resh school and BFT staff (in the upstairs accommodation space).

Here are just some of the photos we’ve received showing the CTC in use. The Westerners you see are students from GlobeMed at University of Virginia, who have also partnered with BFT to support their initiatives. You can check out their updates from their month on the ground with BFT here.

community meeting with GlobeMed at University of Virginia team

Community leaders from 3 area villages meet in the CTC

upstairs accommodation area

 

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June 27, 2012 at 9:39 pm Leave a comment

Recent Press

Click on the logo below to read an article about Austin2Angkor that appeared on Matador Network this week. Thanks to editor Hal Amen for helping spread the word!

 

May 27, 2012 at 5:37 pm Leave a comment

What YOU Made Possible

Foreword: This entry is long, but I feel that I owe it to all the Austin2Angkor volunteers and supporters to share everything I learned and experienced.  What you poured your time, energy and donations into matters. A lot. Thank you for reading. ~ Roni

While I knew that the day would come when I would get to sit down, look back and write about my trip back to Cambodia, it was impossible to foresee (can I coin forefeel?) just what an emotional and heartwarming experience it would end up being.  After nearly a year and a half of working with the Austin2Angkor volunteers to come up with new ways to raise awareness and funds–from our Austin-premiere screening of Enemies of the People all the way through to the Fun Fun Fun Fest tent–it has been eventful, to say the least.  At certain points I felt discouraged and overwhelmed, but as cliché as it sounds, I would think of the kids’ faces, push through and know that good things would come.

And when I did finally see those faces again when I walked into the Build Your Future Today (BFT) Center last week, the feeling was beyond good.  The kids living at BFT (orphans who have been taken in by BFT founder, Sedtha, and his wife) got together in the front courtyard and did a traditional welcome dance that they had been working on for months—complete with costumes, flower petals and more patience in the slow movements than I could ever imagine having in my childhood dance classes.  Even more exciting for me was having them sing the “Star Spangled Banner”—if you recall, I was charged with teaching them that song during my time there last year. Not surprisingly, they seem to have fared much better without me there to butcher it. For proof, check out the original video and compare to the new version one and a half years later.

The next morning, the much-anticipated day had finally arrived—going to see the Austin2Angkor Community Training Center (CTC) at Cham Resh village.  We hit the road at 7am—me, Sedtha, Saad (also from BFT) and 2 other volunteers from Germany and Canada.  It was a pleasant 115 degree day (my mind was blown every time I saw an ice truck with blocks of exposed ice in the truck bed) and an hours-long, bumpy journey from the town of Siem Reap to the isolated village of Cham Resh.

Not far from Cham Resh we stopped at a village with a new school that had recently been funded by some American monks. But as I have come to learn, the structure itself is not enough…there are other factors involved to actually get the kids to the school and ready to learn.  We walked into the class in session and the few students that were there were in dirty uniforms and completely lethargic.  Sedtha pointed out that even those that can make it to school (if they have the legally-required uniform, live within reasonable walking distance of a few kilometers, and aren’t required to stay at home to watch over younger siblings while parents work, just to name a few factors) come hungry.  And when you’re hungry, your energy is low and motivation to learn or retain information even lower.

So BFT is starting to implement the model they have been using in Cham Resh and is starting a few programs at this school: a breakfast program to at least give the kids some energy to learn; a water well is under construction for drinking and watering the garden to be used as part of the feeding program; and they’ve already donated a few bikes to help those living very far away get to school.  Comparing the energy of the kids there with that of those at Cham Resh was eye opening and I am eager to go back to this school in the future and see the turnaround after all the various projects started to take effect.

As we drove down the dirt road to Cham Resh—the three of us ladies rebounding off each other and the truck with each bump–Sedtha told us that BFT first became involved with Cham Resh to deal with a dengue fever outbreak there a few years ago.  While it was taken care of and they took on other prevalent problems in this village of 120 families, apparently dengue fever cycles every few years (cue the millisecond of panic about my decision not to take malaria tablets, let alone bug spray).

A quick side note while we’re on the topic of mosquitos: I also learned that malaria mosquitos are mostly a danger at night, which made more sense to me in terms of why mosquito nets around beds are so effective.  It’s dengue fever that’s the most dangerous of contracting during the day.

As we approached the village, we saw the kids in their school uniforms running to line up on either side of the “gate” to the village.  They were holding sweet handwritten signs for Austin2Angkor with messages like “Much Appreciation to All Supporters in Austin-Texas” and “Warmly Welcome to Roni Sivan from Austin2Angkor” alongside some of the older community members. Already blown away, we were then led by the head of the village, school principal and big group of other community members to the CTC.

It’s real, you guys!  It blew my mind (even more than the ice trucks) to think that we—including most of you who are reading this—made this happen.  Gathered around the base of the CTC, the chief and principal shared words of gratitude and how important the center was for them.  In that moment I really wished that the A2A volunteers could have been there with me to share it.   I went inside with Sedtha to check it out.   While it’s not yet complete (they are waiting on the final order of wood to arrive), it is a sturdy, 2-story building, about 18×18 feet in dimension with an exterior staircase in the works to finish it off once the 4th wall is complete.

How will the CTC be used? The second floor will be used for teacher and volunteer accommodation. BFT has 1 full-time staffer based in Cham Resh and at the moment he sleeps under a thatched roof by school’s outdoor cooking area.  It will also be used by the group of volunteers from Singapore who will be there for several months teaching at the school during the rainy season (when the village is isolated from the outside world).  Before the CTC, teachers couldn’t come for months at a time due to the flooding. Education can now be consistent there.  The downstairs room will be used, as the name implies, as a community training space.  It will also serve as a pre-school during school hours where older siblings can drop off their baby brothers and sisters  to be looked after while they learn.  As stated before, one of the big issues with getting children to attend school is that they are often required to stay home and babysit while parents are out working the fields.

I was amazed at the transformation of the whole village over the past year and a half.  Barebones classrooms in what was then the new schoolhouse are now brightly decorated and inviting spaces in which to learn. There are also now two toilets next door, a new classroom, water pump, and of course, our Community Training Center.

After first greeting us, the kids had run back to class so we stopped in to visit where they yet again surprised me. A few of them came up and gave each of us small stacks of really impress drawings and construction paper artwork they had made depicting the school and CTC.  The other 2 BFT volunteers, Kat and Colleen, were really gracious and gave them all to me to share with the A2A volunteers.  After a few songs (check out a snippet here), we had lunch made by the school cook and I gave the kids some of the yo-yos I brought from home (the rest went to kids living at BFT).  I think it took me months as a kid to learn how to use one, but these guys nailed it within about 30 seconds.

The few hours we spent there flew by and before we knew it we were heading back to Siem Reap.  We did make one stop on the way out though to visit a woman who had suffered for months with internal bleeding in her uterus. She didn’t know she was pregnant, let alone that the child had died inside of her.  She had resigned to dying at home when BFT heard about her.  Since there was no vehicle to take her to a hospital, BFT had taken her on several hospital visits to Siem Reap.  When we stopped by, she was smiling from ear to ear, fully recovered and mobile.

The next day, on the way to meet some tailors in a village near Siem Reap, we stopped to meet a couple of BFT’s “adopted” families.  One woman has 11 kids and her husband had abandoned them.  She became severely depressed and the family had no income so the kids went into Siem Reap and Angkor Wat to beg.  When BFT “adopted” the family ,they sponsored the mother through basket-weaving training then gave her some seed funding to buy materials to start making her own income with the new skill. She also took up catfish breeding in her yard. Now ALL11 of her kids are in school, one of whom looked no older than 4 years old that sang the ABCs and “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” to me.

The girl in the middle had already learned the English alphabet and “Head Shoulders Knees and Toes” in school

Another side note: I highly recommend for you to read Half the Sky by Pulitzer-Prize winners Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. These BFT stories of success (or at least road to a better life) are testaments to Kristof’s point that when you give women a chance, big changes will come.

I tell all these stories because I hope to give a fuller picture of what it is that BFT, A2A, and your support makes possible.  BFT looks at change as a whole, keeping sustainability in mind, not just dropping in somewhere to build something and leave.  They didn’t build our CTC just to leave it. It is an integral part of a larger project to help the village ultimately sustain itself.

On my third and final evening in Siem Reap, I went to say bye to the staff and kids at BFT before heading back to Phnom Penh.    When I got there, some of the staff was gathered around a table stuffing woven “tubes” with things.  I was touched to find out that they were putting together gifts for the A2A volunteers back in Austin, rolling up certificates of appreciation and scarves imprinted with the A2A and BFT logos in each one. Even more touching was that those “tubes” were specially made for us by the women with 11 kids mentioned earlier.

Before heading out to a farewell dinner of beef and tree ants (!) with the staff, I helped out with the evening pre-school class, who surprised me with a sweet rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” at the end.  I don’t think there is any imaginable way to top that send-off.

***

So, what does the future hold for Austin2Angkor?  I will save that for another upcoming post. But there is some very exciting news for us, even more so for BFT in terms of their fundraising possibilities in the US at large.

I hope that you connected on some level to my experiences, and if nothing else feel that you don’t need to be an expert in development or fundraising to start something and have an impact.  I am really looking forward to seeing the other A2A volunteers’ entries after they go and see firsthand what they made possible.

Much Love,

Roni

P.S.- To see more photos from my visit, check them out here: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10101087394818869.2965059.806733&type=3&l=dc605d21ef 

May 11, 2012 at 3:18 pm 2 comments

The Community Training Center is Coming to Life!

Happy Monday!

Day 1

It’s been a while but we’re back with an exciting update for you all.  Below is a first look at the the Community Training Center

coming to life in the village of Cham Resh.  Construction began on January 15 and is about 40% complete at this time.  It should be done and ready for the community to use by the end of March!

Roni will be traveling back to Cambodia this April to visit Cham Resh and cannot wait to bring back stories and images to share with everyone who’s played a part in Austin2Angkor.  Here’s a note from Sedtha, the director of Build Your Future Today (BFT) Center, that came with the photos:

 

Again on behalf of the community and staff I would like to extend my sincere appreciation and gratitude for your enthusiasm and work hard to raise awareness and fund to support the project. The CTC is very important for the community and project staff using for multiple purposes in the future. Also kindly convey my best regards and appreciation to all your friends and other supporters for this project.

Check out our Facebook page for a few more photos at http://www.facebook.com/austin2angkor

Day 20

2 Days Ago

February 27, 2012 at 11:11 pm Leave a comment

We Did It!

Austin2Angkor has spent the past couple of months working with BFT Center to reevaluated the Community Training Center (CTC) plans.  The main concern was that we would not reach our original fundraising goal in time before the rainy season hit and the village would have to go yet another season without this much needed space.  After a few meetings with the builder and architect, BFT came up with a new plan for the CTC. We are so thrilled to announce that as a result of this reevaluation and our latest fundraising efforts  we have raised the amount needed to construct the community center in Cham Resh village!

Construction will begin in the next couple of weeks and thanks to the support of all our donors, the center will be finished before the next rainy season hits.  This means that the village, while basically isolated from the outside world for months at a time, will have the CTC to use as a learning and meeting space this year and in the years to come.

BFT will be sending us photos of the progress of construction as we enter this new, exciting phase of Austin2Angkor and we will of course share them with you here and on our Facebook page.  Once the building is complete, some of our volunteers will travel to Cambodia to see firsthand what they made possible.  We will continue to raise some money in the meantime to furnish the building with bookshelves, books and more once we are on the ground.

Not to ruin the surprise for them, but here are just some of the incredible faces our volunteers will meet in Cham Resh and who will directly benefit from everything everyone has done this past year in Austin and beyond.

Thank you.

January 16, 2012 at 5:10 pm Leave a comment

Starting things off…

Austin2Angkor has big, HUGE news coming your way soon, but in the meantime…

Meet Patrick. He is my co-worker and cube-mate and has to suffer through overhearing many a Skype calls and butchered romance languages from my cube. So to kick off the “one for one” moment contest, I brought us back a couple of hot chocolates for an afternoon pick me up.  Now he’s thinking of ways to pay it forward so he can not only do good but also enter for his chance to win Start Something That Matters. Win-Win! Not to mention that winning reaction to the hot chocolate…

Alright, consider the ball rolling. Don’t make me win my own contest, y’all 😉

January 5, 2012 at 12:57 pm Leave a comment

Jump Start Your Vision: A Review of Start Something That Matters (and contest!)

What if you decided that 2012 would be the year that you made your deferred “someday” dream come true?  In Start Something That Matters, Blake Mycoskie, Founder and Chief Shoe Giver of TOMS Shoes, gives you that inspirational push you may need to take action.

It’s hard to pinpoint any one of the six principles outlined as standing out, as they all seem equally critical to the giving-based business model. Blake makes the lofty seem accessible, mainly by his emphasis on starting small and keeping things simple.  My mind starts going in all sorts of directions when I think of the possibilities my little ideas can become, but that always quickly leads to panic that I will never be able to manage them and so I toss my complex web of ideas aside for a later date.  It had never crossed my mind that it would be OK, and completely logical, to start small and let things organically progress.

I was actually crying–in public–by page 45 of this book.  Not because of any sentimental content, but by how obtainable the possibilities began to feel the more I read. Something inside of me was churning and the poignancy of the Mark Twain quote set it off: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.  So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor…Explore. Dream. Discover.”

You may not have a semi-dramatic emotional reaction to the book, but for those with an entrepreneurial spirit but little business background, this book will be an invaluable pep talk/therapy session where with each chapter Blake taps into your hesitant head and topples those doubts one by one until you are left with no excuses to look back on your life with regret.  Pointing out that there is never a good time (you know, the scary moments when you step out of your comfort zone to start a new, unknown phase of your life), he attempts to rationalize the fear and highlights why facing it completely outweighs the reasons to succumb to it.

The story is an integral part of my first venture, Austin2Angkor, and I am always thrilled to tell it at events or when an opportune moment arises in a conversation among acquaintances.  Start Something That Matters, however, reinforced the need to commit to telling the story at any opportunity. You really never know when you will meet someone who will change the course of your path and take your vision to another level–whether they become an evangelist for your cause/brand or a partner that can help bring your mission to a larger audience. In fact, within the past couple of weeks since reading this book, I have stepped up my storytelling and in doing so have already 1) met a fellow dreamer on a flight who has agreed to be my pusher, and 2) been introduced to someone who could make for a phenomenal mentor in my journey.  There are endless serendipitous connections waiting to be made out there, but they are passing you by the longer you keep quiet.

The marketing of this book in itself is a testament to the company’s genius and genuine commitment to the story and giving. In addition to staying true to its core by giving a book to a child in need with every copy sold, One for One is taken to other levels: the Books for Bloggers program not only got me a copy of the book, but it has given me the opportunity to keep the momentum going by giving away another copy. One-One becomes a Win-Win for both TOMS (several bloggers like myself helping the book reach new audiences in our networks) and for the blogger (I’m pumped to be able to be a part of this movement!).

Reading this book, I was continually reminded of what Sopporn, a soft-spoken woman who volunteers at the Build Your Future Today Center in Cambodia, said to me.  “Everyone wants a way to give back, and when you find it, you know, and you just do it.”  Her words were the final push I needed to come home and start Austin2Angkor.  For those out there who also found it and just know, I urge you to learn from Blake’s experiences, and the many other “normal people” success stories he includes in the book to back it up.  Let Start Something That Matters plant that seed of motivation, then dare to ride that wave of positivity you will undoubtedly feel after putting it down, and take even just ONE step toward making that vision of change, well, visible.

So in this spirit of One for One and the forthcoming MLK Day of Service, I bring you the contest.  Here’s how you can win yourself a copy of this book that has given my heart a swift kick in the gut.  

Go out there and find 2 of something, keep one for yourself and give the other to someone who needs it.  Maybe buy a pair of socks to a homeless person, pick a flower for a co-worker who’s having a stressful day–thoughtfulness is key. Then perhaps ask them to do the same.  See how far it goes.  If it feels so good that you want to do it again, do it! There is no one-limit-per-person in this here contest.  We want to see as many mini One for One moments as possible created. Send your story–photos or videos are a plus–to austin2angkor [at] gmail [dot] com and we will post it on our blog and get you entered to win a copy of Start Something That Matters.  The contest will end at the end on January 31 and the winner will be chosen shortly after.


January 3, 2012 at 10:23 pm Leave a comment

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