When we reached Cambodia James needed some non-travel time to work on videos for the blog, so we decided to spend a few weeks in Siem Reap. Its is a unique place where half of the foreigners are tourists who spend an average of 3 days there to see Angkor Wat and the rest are volunteers. I suddenly found myself with time on my hands and I contacted a few local organizations to see if there were existing projects that could use my help.
Sarah from About Asia Schools responded that they didn’t have any short term volunteer openings but there was an NGO (Non-Government Organization), KILT, that she was personally acquainted with that might benefit from my background in fashion to help with their handmade accessories business and she put me in touch with the founder Muy Seu 'Bel'.
KILT (Khmer Independent Life Team) is located in a small village just behind the Angkor Wat Museum. KILT is both a non-profit business and a homestead for 5 disabled adults and 14 foster children whose families are too poor to support them. KILT’s mission has been to provide its members with access to education and vocational training in a stable and healthy living environment. They make a variety of handmade products: hand-carved stone pendant jewelry inspired by Angkor Wat, a range of stylish bags and wallets made from recycled rubber tires and repurposed fabric school bags for Khmer children. During the high tourist season (October-February) KILT makes enough money to support themselves from sales and donations but the rest of the year there is usually not enough money to pay for basic necessities (like food and rent) and they are entirely dependent on sporadic donations.
At the first meeting it was apparent how desperately the organization needed help, which far surpassed my marketing ideas and new product designs. A bit overwhelmed, I tried to narrow down the list to tasks that I could accomplish in a few weeks, with special attention to marketing. My main goal while working with KILT was to build awareness for the organization within the local community and explore ways to increase their sales. Bel also asked for my help in the time-consuming application process for GlobalGiving, an online platform to raise funds for specific NGO/Non-Profit projects.
I began contacting people who I thought might be open to working with KILT – key local organizations who could offer guidance and support, top luxury hotels, boutiques where KILT’s products could be sold, and tour agencies for philanthropic minded travelers that might include a stop at KILT on the way to/from Angkor Wat. These ideas had to be tempered with the reality that even the simple task of contacting people required the use of the internet, which Bel had been forced to cut off months before when KILT simply couldn’t afford it. How do you contemplate an online business or create a social media strategy if you have to travel to a café to use wifi? So I brought my laptop and a mobile wifi hotspot and set up my workstation at KILT.
Interested in a way to help KILT, James created the above video from footage and interviews filmed at KILT and Ankor Wat for KILT's GlobalGiving web page. But this past spring KILT wasn't ready to join GlobalGiving, which requires organizations to fundraise a minimum of $5,000 in four weeks by 40 unique donors in order to secure a permanent presence on their site.
While working with KILT we got to know Bel personally. Bel grew up in war torn Cambodia in the 1980’s. He was orphaned as a young child and at age 7 while searching for food he stepped on an unexploded landmine. It was a miracle he survived the injuries that resulted in the amputation of his right leg. In Cambodia the struggle for landmine victims begins with getting proper medical care, afterward many must learn to survive on their own because their families and communities abandon them due to a lack of resources and/or social prejudices. Despite his disability and still living on his own, young Bel was determined to get an education but spent most of the day just traveling to and from school on crutches, barely attending classes. His childhood changed when he decided to hop into the back of a livestock truck bound for Siem Reap. In the city Bel was introduced to Aki Ra, a former child soldier of the Khmer Rouge who has dedicated his life to disabling unexploded landmines throughout Cambodia and helping landmine victims. It was at the Cambodia Landmine Museum founded by Aki Ra, that Bel was able to get a proper education, which culminated in a University degree. After graduation he learned that even with his degree he was unemployable because of widespread discrimination against the disabled in Cambodia. In response Bel founded the Khmer Independent Life Team with the idea that if disabled Khmer people banded together, they could learn to support themselves. Bel's remarkable story gave me greater context to KILT's mission and why its so important for him to help others.
It was difficult to focus on work at times (especially the tedious task of financial spreadsheets) when the most beautiful little faces would appear in the window peeking in at me and soon enough playing around me, curious to know what I was doing. All of the other non-Khmer people who the children at KILT had met were English language teachers /volunteers, so they called me “teacher”. So I was basically the worst teacher ever – ignoring them for a computer! It was apparent how eager they were to learn; bringing over books for me to read them and snatching up all of my non-computer time to play or sing songs in English outside.
One day at KILT two young women from a Portuguese organization, Orienting, stopped by. Marina and Matilde were exploring new NGO volunteer opportunities for their final semester in Siem Reap. I met with them to discuss my experience with KILT and answer questions they had. I was thrilled at the prospect of new people coming to work with KILT in our absence. Orienting is a volunteer driven organization, so they don’t offer outright funding to NGOs but rather staff long-term volunteers to create and sustain projects Ultimately backed by Orienting, Matilde worked with KILT this spring, where she helped to establish an ongoing program for the children that includes daily English language and health classes. They also recently renovated KILT's schoolroom.
Volunteerism is a concept I witnessed for the first time in Siem Reap. Many westerners come to Siem Reap on vacation and look for a way to give back to the community. There are NGOs and orphanages that will take on volunteers even for just a day and tour companies that will arrange visits. As a foreigner its very difficult to know which organizations are legitimate and those that exploit the people who they claim to help. Volunteering, especially with young children, should be taken seriously - researched & planned out in advance. Keep in mind the most reputable organizations don't accept volunteers for a short time period because of how disruptive it can be to the programs and the children. If you only have a day to spare, consider making a donation or purchasing goods instead. A great place to shop or donate is the bimonthly "Made in Cambodia" market at the Shinta Mani Resort.
Working with KILT and getting to know Bel personally was a profound experience for us. I'd like to see KILT grow into a strong, self sustained organization but at this point they truly need the help of volunteers who can teach them how to build it. If you are looking for a volunteer opportunity, I can't think of a more rewarding place to share your time.
To learn more about KILT, volunteer opportunities or to make a donation that will go directly to folks who need it, visit: http://kiltjewellery.weebly.com/donations.html