Reflections on W+K’s Cambodian house building project

Pro Bono Coordinator Heidi Nash-Smith looks back on her experiences as part of the Wotton + Kearney Cambodian Footprint house building team.

It’s been 2 weeks since the W+K team embarked on the house building project in Cambodia in partnership with the Tabitha Foundation and it’s time to reflect on my experience.

I have been to Cambodia once before, 7 years ago.  I was deeply touched by the people I met then and what I learned about Cambodia’s recent troubled past.  As a result, I was very keen to return to Cambodia and to find a way to give something back.

Returning to Cambodia allowed me to rediscover how much I love it, and to experience first hand the efforts of people trying to make a difference.  One of those people is Janne Ritskes, who founded Tabitha Cambodia in 1994.

Tabitha is a non-profit organisation that seeks to help suffering families in Cambodia.  Tabitha’s aim is to reach out to the despairing in their communities and help them to address their own needs in a holistic and sustainable way. Community development is achieved by encouraging personal savings, providing employment and income by teaching and selling Cambodian handcrafted items, and house building by volunteers for families who cannot afford a home.

We were able to visit Tabitha’s operations in Phnom Penh and meet with Janne and her staff.  Tabitha runs a number of programs in Cambodia, all focussed on improving the lives of impoverished communities.  The W+K team participated in the house building project whereby we worked alongside Cambodian builders and local villagers to build 12 houses for a community.

House building

The village we were building for was located in the Kompong Chhnang region about a 2 hour bus trip out of Phnom Penh.  As we drove along a dirt track on our way to the village we were able to spot several of the distinctive green Tabitha houses along the way “ evidence that Tabitha had already contributed a great deal to the communities in this region.

When we arrived we were greeted by the entire village “ men, women and children “ eagerly awaiting our arrival.  One of the things that really struck me about the Cambodian people is the amazing sense of community and family.  All the men in the village pitched in to help build each house “ it didn’t matter who the house would ultimately belong to.  The children in the community all played together, the mothers helping to keep an eye on each other’s children.  Everywhere I looked, both in the regional districts and in the city, Phnom Penh, there was evidence of a strong family unit.  Family seems to be the highest priority for the Cambodians.

The house building itself was hard work, particularly in the heat and high humidity.  The Cambodian builders had already built the structure of the house and so our role was to nail on the floor boards and put up the walls. Whilst we were able to work quite independently when we were nailing the floor boards, putting up the walls was a real team effort.  The walls are constructed using long sheets of metal which are nailed to wooden beams.  We often had 3 or 4 people comprised of W+K team members, Cambodian builders and villagers working on securing each sheet to the frame.  The photos in the Intranet’s gallery show quite clearly that the locals could be pretty adventurous in this part of the task, balancing on narrow beams and hanging off ladders.  For my own part, I kept to the lower levels!

Once we had completed the 12 houses there was a formal handover ceremony.  All the families receiving a house stood in front of us with their children and thanked us.  We provided each family with a blanket, a house warming gift provided by Tabitha.  It was a very emotional experience and very moving to think that each person standing before us would soon be moving into their new home.

The journey

Our journey to Cambodia did not start and end during that week of house building.  Our journey started in January 2012, when a few of us from W+K started talking about the possibility of undertaking this project and whether it was achievable.  To be honest, 11 months ago it seemed like a pretty tall order.  How on earth were we to raise a minimum of $20,000 (the amount needed to build 12 houses)?  Would the project receive the support of colleagues, family and friends?  And if so, where do we start?

Our collective enthusiasm for Cambodia, the work of Tabitha and the house building project drove the initiative.  It wasn’t long till 3 of our team members, Andrew Price, Angela Winkler and I signed up with a couple of other W+K runners to complete the Sydney Half Marathon and kick start our fundraising.  We were able to raise over $9,000 towards the house building project from this – a great beginning!

Following on from the success of our Half Marathon, the Sydney contingent of the house building team organised a fundraising dinner, auction and raffle which was held at Manta Restaurant.  More than 50 people attended the dinner and we were again able to raise over $9,000.  I continue to be amazed at the generosity and support we received in organising and hosting that dinner.  When we first came up with the concept we thought we would struggle for prizes for the auction and raffle.  At one point I thought I was going to have to offer to host a Murder Mystery Dinner for some unfortunate raffle winner.  Instead, we were able to secure prizes including a painting by renowned Sydney artist Jo Bertini and a private dinner for 10, cooked in the winning bidder’s home by La Grillade’s Head Chef.

With the support of colleagues, clients, family and friends we were ultimately able to beat our $20,000 fundraising target and raise a total of $21,789 for the Tabitha Foundation.  It was these funds that purchased the materials to build the 12 houses.  And it was this contribution that made the difference to the lives of the Cambodian community we visited.

Benefits of the house building project

The house building project was amazing.  It enabled us to witness firsthand the great work that Tabitha does in Cambodia.  We met and worked alongside the villagers who will and are already benefitting from your donations.  We saw the absolute joy in each person’s face when we completed their house and it was formally handed over to them.  The people we met in the village were so happy, and so grateful for our assistance.

It was clear that the biggest contribution we made was raising over $21,500 for Tabitha, but by being given the opportunity to visit the charity, see firsthand the work they do, and then meet the people who are directly benefitting from our fundraising efforts, we were all personally touched by the charity.  As a result, we are each likely to become advocates for the charity and continue to support its efforts.

To everyone who supported this project and on behalf of the W+K team and all the families who have benefitted from your generosity – thank you.


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