What YOU Made Possible

May 11, 2012 at 3:18 pm 2 comments

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,


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 


Entry filed under: General.

The Community Training Center is Coming to Life! Recent Press

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Amy  |  May 11, 2012 at 10:35 pm

    Awesome!! Thanks for sharing…. Sound like a mind- opening and reaffirming journey!!

  • 2. Max  |  May 12, 2012 at 12:44 am

    Unbelievable, inspiring.


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