If you ever thought you were too small to make a difference then this story might just make you question that mentality, and provide an alternative perspective to our possibilities in this world.
I met Tony through a mutual friend. We were introduced at the recognition of our shared passion for philanthropy and humanity, and the fact I was eager to hear about an organisation he had recently founded, Expert Exchange. Like myself, Tony came here to Cambodia and was struck by the beauty of the country, but contrarily by the poverty issues still facing a large proportion of the people who live here. He founded Expert Exchange as a way to involve people of the developed world in the assistance and empowerment of the people of Cambodia. Remember, Cambodia had been recovering from a horrible genocide that only ceased in 1979, meaning that many people living here today have been affected by this tragedy that paused the social and economic development of the country.
Although Cambodia is somewhat developed and millions of tourists flock here all throughout the year, there are still areas where people live on or below the poverty line. What’s more confronting though, is that these areas are not always in rural Cambodia. Some reside on the outskirts of Siem Reap, just minutes away from hotels like the Sofitel, where you would pay in excess of $200 USD per night.
Situated about 3 streets behind the Sofitel Hotel there is a small village where roughly 30 families call home. The homes in the village are made from wooden planks with tin roofs and the town water supply comes from a few wells, which are also used as communal showers. It’s a far cry from the developed hotels, guesthouses, bars and restaurants that line the main streets of Siem Reap. Tony found out about the village through one of the tuk-tuk drivers who had been helping him with translation. His approach – Ask the local people to direct him to an area where he could provide some assistance. Ask them what they need, find the problem and find the solution.
I had been invited to join one of the village visits and was eager to see how the small donations Tony had received since starting the organisation were making a difference. We are often faced with sights of the developing world all around us in the media, both online and on our televisions. There is an obvious disconnection with the fight to end poverty and in many circumstances it comes down to the idea that our money is too small to combat such a large issue. We are so blinded by this idea that we fail to seen that our money can go a long way.
Torro the tuk-tuk driver, and our translator for the day, drove us to some local stores to pick up goods for the village. For the price of a western meal we were able to purchase new shoes for all the children in the village. For the price of a Starbucks breakfast we were able to purchase exercise books and pencils, and for the price of a pair of Levi’s jeans we were able to purchase drinking bottles and bags.
The tuk-tuk drove down the dirt track, past the small wooden shacks and into the centre of the town. I could already hear laughter from the children as we pulled up and they ran over, eager to see who the visitors were. The mothers in the village also gathered together as Torro explained to them that Tony would like to develop a relationship with the town, and work together towards community development and empowerment. We walked through the village from door to door asking what the people needed most. Many said rice, some cooking oil, others needed medicines or new clothes for the children. We learned that one boy hadn’t been attending school because the family could not afford it. It costs $20 to enroll this boy into school, a mere $20 to change this boy’s life and potentially break the cycle of poverty in his family.
My perspectives on our world were receiving some instant awakenings. Here I was in a place where the people had so much less than I had ever had, a place where people were stuck in the cycle of poverty. We can talk about community empowerment but if you are constantly struggling to put food on the table how will you start to think about ways that you can move forward. What Tony is trying to achieve at Expert Exchange is truly admirable. You can only first help people if you find out what they need and work with them to develop a solution. This is what I witnessed today.
The aim for Tony over the next few months is to assist this community and work towards a better future for them. He is also working on a few side projects, such as using his knowledge to provide First Aid workshops to tuk tuk drivers, an important step towards reducing the number of roadside fatalities. With the help of donors from around the world he hopes to be able to provide ongoing assistance and also to bridge the disconnection between those in the developed world and their ability to truly make a difference. It is not hard to change a life, and we all have the possibility to do so.
You can donate to Expert Exchange on their website or get in contact with Tony if you are in Siem Reap and want to provide some assistance to any of the projects.