Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

September 18, 2013

Volunteers help build brighter futures for Cambodian students

Special to Philanthropy Journal

Jamie Amelio

From the very beginning, Caring for Cambodia (CFC), which in 10 years has built and nurtured 21 schools in Siem Reap, Cambodia, was a bottoms-up organization.

Before the schools, before the teacher training program, before starting to provide all our students two meals a day, a small group of women sat in my living room filling backpacks with school supplies. Within weeks of my first visit to Siem Reap, piles of toothbrushes, T-shirts, pencils and notebooks were spilling out of my spare room into the hall and living room. Soon another group of volunteers was creating homemade picture books in English and Khmer and laminating them so they wouldn’t wilt in the Cambodian heat.

CFC could not exist but for the hundreds of volunteers who have donated so much of their energy – and, in many cases, their hearts and souls – to our cause. They likely would never have appeared at all if my family and I had not moved to Singapore. 

Singapore is a city like no other, a unique blend of East and West. On the one hand, its infrastructure out-Wests the West in its modern design, six-star hotels, cosmopolitan restaurants and mega casinos; on the other hand, its Eastern culture imposes strict laws against jaywalking, littering and chewing gum. About three-quarters of Singapore’s 4.8 million people are ethnic Chinese, but the island also has a large foreign population, including about 100,000 U.S. expatriates.

Because wages are so low, expats tend to have a lot of help in the form of drivers, nannies and cooks. That frees up spouses who are there because their husbands or wives (mostly husbands, even in the 21st century) are working for a multinational in the region. For me, it meant I had a coterie of dedicated volunteers available.

The situation has since changed, but at the time Singapore, like the rest of Asia, lacked a strong culture of giving. But I have watched that change before my very eyes, though, now see people from all cultures caring. Nonprofit organizations were not a part of the zeitgeist, yet within the expatriate community, there was a hunger to give back some of what we had received.

We were living in paradise and we knew it, while just a few hours away hungry children were going without schooling. Although we have some wonderful men on our board of directors and my husband Bill has always been a powerful, inspiring presence, CFC’s nucleus of volunteers remains women. Maybe that’s why I’ve always considered CFC an organization of such emotion and passion.

While our first school was being built in 2004, we expanded our base in Singapore by asking women we knew to lunch and showing them photographs of the Cambodian children. As our organization matured, we encouraged our volunteers to visit Siem Reap to see for themselves what we were doing and to help out.

We started organizing “Make a Difference” trips, which soon evolved into much more ambitious projects than bringing donations of school supplies and clothing to the schools. Groups of families began to build houses in the surrounding villages and help with construction projects on one of our campuses. Going deep into a village that most tourists never see and working side by side with Cambodians to build a home, turn a mud field into a playground or help serve our free school meals inspired our volunteers.

We were particularly fortunate to have a number of women with extensive experience in early childhood education. In a country where, in the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge deliberately singled out and murdered 75 percent of its teachers, these women created a formal program to “teach the teachers.”

Extraordinary volunteers form the backbone of CFC and keep us motivated. I have repeatedly witnessed peoples’ inner light magically glow when they walk into our schoolyards or classrooms, help serve breakfast to young Cambodian students or congratulate a middle school graduate. People feel it, and they become committed, not because of anything I could ever say to them, but because they get what we are trying to accomplish and feel compelled to do something!

Jamie C. Amelio’s book, Graced with Orange, tells her story of travelling to Cambodia, adopting two Cambodian girls, founding Caring for Cambodia (CFC), a nonprofit, non-governmental charitable organization, and changing her own life and the lives of those around her.

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