This is the second article in a series by Give2Asia's Garrison Spencer, who traveled to Vietnam and Cambodia last November. Here he writes about his visit to the Build Your Future Today Center, a Give2Asia fiscal sponsorship partner in Cambodia supporting village-wide holistic development.
Just down the street from my hostel in Siem Reap was the office of Build Your Future Today, a Cambodian NGO dedicated to helping those living in poverty to develop the intellectual and economic tools to gain self-sufficiency. And by office I mean the home of Mr. Sedtha Long, which includes classrooms, a computer lab, and boarding space for the approximately 15 or so children and young adults whom he has taken under his wing. I will admit to not knowing too much about Build Your Future Today and its history when I arrived at the small campus. Mr. Long explained the story of how Build Your Future Today came into being, which required going back to 1975 when he was 16 years old and the Khmer Rouge rose to power. The Khmer Rouge regime dramatically and tragically affected every Cambodian who today is over the age of 40, and essentially all Cambodians of any age have been affected by its aftermath.
The son of a military officer living in Phnom Penh, Sedtha Long, his family, and every other city-dweller were forced to evacuate the day the Khmer Rouge took power, fleeing on foot. It was not long until the family of 14 was separated and Sedtha was sent to a youth labor camp. There they were woken up at 5 a.m. and sent to work in the rice fields. At noon they were given a break and their meal of rice soup. They then worked until 5 p.m. when they were given a break to bathe, then back to work until 11 p.m. or midnight. These 18-hour days soon took a toll on the overworked youth, who became malnourished and ill, were executed for perceived laziness, or died in their sleep. The last of which was the case of Sedtha’s bunkmate, a trauma that stays with him to this day.
After four years in power the Khmer Rouge fell to invading Vietnamese forces, but this did not bring peace. Fleeing the labor camps, Sedtha began a 300-kilometer trek to the Thai border where refugee camps were being established. This journey took over two weeks and along the way he encountered children who had been orphaned or separated from their families. Seeing a part of himself in these lost children, Sedtha felt compelled to help them and took them into his care. Gathering children as they walked along, the crew grew to approximately 20 children that would stick together even at the refugee camps along the border. At the camps some children were able to locate family members and went to live with them, but most did not. Sedtha eventually located four of his family members; the other nine had either been executed or died from starvation.
Sedtha and his surviving family members would end up staying in the refugee camps until 1992. During this time Sedtha worked for the UN and other international organizations, all the while continuing to care for the orphaned children under his care. Upon returning to Siem Reap, his care of the orphans, and his desire to help rebuild a society destroyed by the Khmer Rouge regime, led him to found the Build Your Future Today Center. The center was formally registered in 2006 with the aim of giving disadvantaged Cambodians the necessary knowledge and skills to gain a self-sustaining and fulfilled life. Build Your Future is based on two principles: (1) knowledge is hope and (2) peace is development.
Cambodia today has a population of 15 million, of which 86 percent live in rural areas and 40 percent are under the age of 15. The top three causes of death are traffic accidents, HIV/AIDS, and landmines. With widespread poverty and a high rate of hunger, there is certainly a lot of work to be done. Build Your Future has developed a holistic step program for communities to become self-sufficient consisting of four programs or stages: Community Education Development and Child Support Center; Community Health Care and Nutrition Development; Community Peace Building; and Community Capacity Building and Livelihood Improvement. It usually takes about four years for a community to go through the Build Your Future Today program, and eight villages have graduated to date.
Sedtha took me to the first village to graduate from the program, and though it was only a ten-minute drive outside of Siem Reap, there was no running water or electricity. As we pulled up, three little girls scrambled out of the first thatch roofed hut, eager to recite their ABCs to me. They had been orphaned by AIDS and adopted by one of the beneficiaries of the BFT program. After being widowed during the Khmer Rouge, the woman of the house had fallen into a severe depression and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. She could hardly take care of herself, let alone her many children. After BFT began their program in the village, they worked with her to establish a fishpond. Now she is able to support her family by selling the fish she raises and take in the three orphan girls as well.
Next we went to a second village where we collected some watercolor paintings created by women of the village who received artistic training from the BFT program. BFT operates a small store in Siem Reap to sell these paintings and a variety of other handicrafts to the many tourists that come through Siem Reap to see the temples of Angkor Wat. The proceeds are then given back to the individuals who created the goods. In this village, there is also a small sewing school, constructed with funding from Give2Asia and Give2Asia supporters, where girls learn to sew and make uniforms that are sold to schools throughout Cambodia. Driving through these villages and meeting these micro-entrepreneurs and their families illuminated how empowering having a set of skills can be; how reaffirming it is to be able to provide for your family; how knowledge is hope; and how peace is development.
To support BFT, go to www.give2asia.org/bft.