Home with a heart for Cambodian orphans
WHEN you least expect it, along comes a life-altering moment. For retired IT executive Tony James, in Cambodia’s Siem Reap to see the temples of Angkor Wat, it came in a two-storeyed house beside a dirt road, its dusty yard scattered with bikes and echoing with the sound of children at play.
Having been willingly hijacked by his tuk-tuk driver to the home of Long Sedtha, Tony had spent two hours meeting the energetic Cambodian, his family and the 20 orphans who lived with them.
The lively, organic nature of the place impressed him, as did the integrity of the founder of the Build your Future Today Centre. Long was 16 when the murderous Pol Pot took power. Soon after, as with all urban- ised Cambodians, his family was evicted and trucked to separate rural work camps. When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia four years later, Long escaped, setting out for a refugee camp near the Thai border, taking with him 24 young orphans on an arduous 15-day trek.
Over the next two decades, he be- came a kickboxer to support the orphans, then variously a teacher, UN co-ordinator and director of a children’s hospital, along the way establishing BFT as a way of helping the poorest villages in the country .
The organisation, with a staff of six paid and 21 volunteer Cambodians, plus up to 20 Western volunteers at any one time, follows the fishing line rather than the fish philosophy — the aim is to move villages from total poverty to self- sufficiency via four-year programs, and the success rate is gratifying.
The holistic focus is on community building, sanitation, micro-financing farmer groups, erecting schools, educating children, adult literacy and reducing infant and maternal mortality. While Western nations donate about $6 billion annually to Cambodia, relatively little gets to the source; as an NGO, BFT is not part of those programs but 95 per cent of all monies it receives from donations and supporters goes to the 25 villages in which it is active. Beyond that, BFT affects 50,000 people directly or indirectly.
Tony and his wife Stephanie, a former executive for an international orthopaedic company, were seasoned travellers over many decades, for both work and pleasure, and not easily awed, yet both decided they had to be involved. ‘‘I could see he needed help, and he was someone who was making a real difference,’’ Tony says of Long. The couple did due diligence on BFT, returned to Sydney for a course at TESOL in teaching English as a foreign language and then did a sixmonth stint at the centre in Siem Reap as teaching volunteers.
Tony also set up a travel agency relating to BFT and became chairman of the organisation’s board. Now back in Cambodia for another teaching stint, the Jameses are humbled and energised by their experience.
‘‘You get to see the real Cambodia that most tourists don’t, and there’s a strong sense of achievement,’’ Tony says. ‘‘The main rewards, though, are not quantifiable — it’s in what the Cambodian people teach you.’’
Youngsters learn English at a village supported by the Build your Future Today Centre