I thought I’d write about something a little different today. Something that is really important to me and one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Project Hammer – Cambodia: a community minded group that do volunteer trips to Cambodia each year and who support approximately six different charitable organisations in and around the capital city of Phnom Penh. This particular post will be about the trip I did with them in late 2012, accompanied by two good friends of mine from back home. I first visited Cambodia in 2005, purely for the sake of travel, and I instantly fell head over heels for the place. It is a stunningly beautiful country, rich in history and culture but it’s the people that make it so special. Given the tragedy and horror they were subjected to under the Khmer Rouge, I’m always amazed by the open-hearted and welcoming nature of the people. They are probably the most hospitable, friendly and warm people I have ever met. Following my return home to Australia, I set about finding a way I could help the people rebuild and develop … and I stumbled upon Project Hammer’s website (you can find them on Facebook, if you’d like to have a look). Below is a run down on the charities we worked with and a hand full of photos to give the words some life!
Our first day saw us in the field working for the Tabitha Foundation. Tabitha was founded in 1994 and one of its objectives, the one we were to help with, is to build housing for the homeless. Prior to our departure to Cambodia each of the volunteers had to fund-raise a sum of money that would pay for the building materials we would use. We were up early that day and loaded onto buses to take us to the building site, which was located among the lush, green fields of the countryside on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
The framework for the houses was already up and our job would be to fit the timber flooring and metal walls. There were 30 volunteers in our group and we were split into groups of 10 and assigned a house each to start on. Now, there’s no power tools here … it was just simple hammer and nail. A lot of nails! True to form I probably hit my thumb more times than I care to count and had split it clean open by days end. But it was worth the pain and hard work. By the time we had finished for the day we had built 10 new homes! We presented a quilt as a house warming gift to each of the families who would be moving in. Our gift in return was the sheer joy and excitement of the local children – and what could be better than that? 🙂
The next day we split our time between two deserving organsations. First stop was Friends International. Friends works with street kids but also help victims of abuse and the sex trade, the unemployed or poverty stricken. Our task for the morning was to learn how to make paper jewellery. I can tell you right now, it was not easy. You tear the coloured pages out of magazines, apply some glue and try to wind the paper around this little needle type thing to create a bauble. Then thread the baubles together on string to make bracelets and necklaces – that sort of thing. They also make coasters and placemats, bags and wallets – all of which will be sold by the street kids to provide them with an income and keep them away from a life of crime and drugs.
That afternoon we headed out to PIO (People Improvement Organisation) for some building of a different kind. PIO was established in 2002, it provides education and vocational training with a focus predominantly on girls, orphans and street kids. The site we were working at is located just outside of Phnom Penh near the former city dump site. As we arrived, the heavens decided to open. Torrential rain turned the roads into a quagmire and we had to hoof it in on foot.
PIO and the volunteers of Project Hammer had already constructed a school for the children of the area. We paid a quick visit to them in their classrooms, allowing them an opportunity to ask us questions and try out their English. In an effort to ensure kids attend school instead of foraging through the dump sites for food, each family is provided with bags of rice. Our project for the day was the clearing out of debris and rubbish from the new vocational training building site. We were also to paint the rooms that would soon become centres of learning to give these kids a trade or skill ready for future employment.
Next on the list, there was something completely different in store for us. We awoke early and made the 33km drive outside the city to visit NHCC (New Hope for Cambodian Children). Founded in 2006 this organisation provides residential, medical and educational support for approximately 250 orphaned or abandoned children – all of whom are HIV/AIDS positive. NHCC promotes sustainable living and has farms to grow their own food, an egg production facility (the eggs are sold to gain income), they also harvest methane from pigs, and other such endeavours. After a quick tour of the facilities, we were introduced to the children and then quickly got to work in our makeshift kitchen. A huge BBQ lunch with all the trimmings to feed the kids, many of whom came back for seconds. After lunch it was play time. We had come prepared with a DJ and face paints, balloons, games, sporting equipment and all we had to do was give our time. Enjoy the smiles and laughter and spend time dancing and playing with these wonderful little people. As someone who is extremely shy, I confess I initially found the large crowd a bit daunting but once you get into it, it’s hard not to become swept up in the enthusiasm of the children.
The final organisation we visited was Sok Sabay. And it would be another day of play. We brought along supplies and just spent time with the children. Sok Sabay was founded in 1995 and provides residential care for children who are victims of domestic violence, abuse, neglect or slavery. It is smaller than NHCC, I believe there were probably about 40 children living there at the time.
All in all, despite the short duration, this was such a worthwhile and rewarding experience. To give to others who are in need, whether it be by providing housing and educational opportunities, or just taking the time to be kind and pay some attention to the more marginalised in society – you can’t underestimate the benefits of bringing a little fun and laughter to the lives of others. Project Hammer run trips every year and they limit themselves to serving the same organisations each time. I think this is great as many volunteers have returned year after year and bonds of friendship form between them and the communities they assist. The number of volunteers is always limited to a maximum of about 30, so if you would like to sign up it’s a case of first in best dressed.
I want to finish by mentioning one of the volunteers that I met through Project Hammer. Her name was Annie. And she was one the most remarkable, giving, caring people I’ve met. Her love of life, adventure and the people of Cambodia was second to none and she spent many years volunteering with the organisations I’ve mentioned. All of the photos I’ve used in this post were taken by Annie. Annie sadly passed away in January 2015 whilst trekking in Patagonia. She was only 38. In her short life she gave so much of herself to others, she was a truly wonderful person and an example to others of how to live a selfless life. She is sadly missed but I’m so thankful that she was my friend.