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Volunteer in Cambodia
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Building in Cambodia

Community Helps Self

On a sweltering February day, balancing unsteadily on a thin strip of wood five meters above ground, I twisted my body enough to accomplish a simple feat: hammering a nail. My small triumph was part of a much larger undertaking-building homes for the poorest of the poor in a threadbare country.

After three decades of war and instability, Cambodia, which has experienced horror rivaling anything in history, is on the mend, and the people are cautiously optimistic about the future.

One reason for the optimism is Tabitha-Cambodia, a nonprofit organization, www.tabitha.ca, whose purpose is to reach out to the country's most impoverished citizens. Founded by veteran aid worker Janne Ritskes, Tabitha is built on small business and self-reliance, and most recipients ultimately buy a plot of land on which they build homes in stages-from plastic tarpaulin to thatch to wooden structures. Sometimes, foreign workers volunteer their time and labor to speed the process.

"I realized that one of the main reasons I was there at all was to gain perspective," said Richard Jones, a veteran of two house-building tours. "There is nothing quite like it for cutting your own personal problems down to size."

Our troupe's task was to build two simple wooden structures over the course of two days. Guided by a local carpenter and some Tabitha staff members, we broke into five units, creating a floor here, a wall there.

Cambodia during the dry season is hot and the sun is relentless. As we toiled, dirt and sawdust caked our faces, and dunking our heads in a cold bucket of water once every hour was not only pleasant but necessary. After a lunch of banana sandwiches, we met the children who were about to spend their first night in a proper home.

United World College's Global Concerns program, spearheaded by teacher Andy Payne, fosters worldwide awareness and community involvement. This year's group was the fourth from UWC to build homes in Cambodia.

UWC teacher Lisa Brennan recalls her 1999 experience this way: "I remember my eyes filling with tears, and I honestly couldn't tell you whether they were tears of exhaustion, of pain from the contortions I had put my body through, or of joy for what we had been able to do for this family."

Tabitha-Cambodia targets Cambodians whose daily income averages less than $1 a day. Each recipient is required to submit to peers a "dream cycle," a description of something they would like to see improved in their lives. Once they have a stated goal, they then work toward achieving this goal through work and savings.

"These people have been through so much, many of them believe they are unworthy of any improvement," says Janne Ritskes, a Canadian who in 1994 started Tabitha with her life savings. "Psychologically, it's a difficult transition."

By identifying and nurturing inherent skills, the program seeks to promote cottage industry, micro-enterprise, and savings plans that will insure long-term employment and self-assurance. "This is not charity," emphasizes Ritskes, a veteran of several non-government organizations aiding the poor.

In its first five years Tabitha worked with nearly 5,700 families, impacting the lives of an estimated 45,000 people. The program is currently adding 80-100 families per month. Most recipients have been so successful they are now eating three meals a day, buying clothing, sending children to school, and meeting basic health care costs.

RANALD TOTTEN is a freelance writer who has lived and worked in Germany and Turkey. He currently lives in Singapore.