In February this year, I travelled with my husband, Frank, and 14 fellow Australians on a cycling trip through Cambodia to raise funds for projects supported by Caritas, the Catholic Church’s overseas aid and development agency.
Unfortunately, I was injured while training before our departure and could not take part in the ride. The other cyclists covered more than 350km from Siem Reap in the north, up to the Thai border and down the Battambong in the west, then on to Phnom Penh.
We visited many temples, the royal palace, the genocide museum and ate beautiful Khmer food. The highlight for me was meeting families in villages that were part of Caritas projects.
While in Siem Reap we went to the Caritas headquarters where we were given information about how more than 1000 communities were chosen for Caritas support and the expectations on them to commit to a plan for development.
Field officers worked closely with families to generate an income, have a savings plan and to enable them to access medical services when required.
This introduction was followed by a trip to one of the remote communities more than 25kms from town along dry, dusty roads. We met a group of 15 women who had just finished a meeting discussing their personal plans and holding on to their savings book.
Through a translator we heard about how some families who had been in the program for three years had obtained a pond, a cow, a reliable well, a water filter, a vegetable garden and chickens. This ensured that the families had a more secure food source and clean water supplies.
Children were assisted with school supplies and generally attended primary school from age six for a half day, Monday to Saturday. Students in secondary classes still had to walk some distance to another town. (Some families dreamed to own a family bicycle for easy transport.)
No rain since November last year meant only one rice crop could be grown. Some parents walked great distances to forests to collect rattan for weaving baskets to supplement their income.
They climbed tall palm trees to collect palm oil and cook it into palm sugar for sale. A few extra dollars helped them save for their goals.
Several women showed us their homes, most of which had metal roofs thanks to Caritas. We also went into a primary classroom where resources were sparse but I will never forget the smiles on the children’s faces and it was a joy to sing songs together.
Several days later we arrived in the capital city, Phnom Penh, where we learnt of a group of very poor Cambodians who were shifted from the city to an outlying area with very little infrastructure.
Their houses were sitting on top of a sewer and it was only a plank of wood that enabled us to walk through the compound to meet the families.
This Caritas project focused on assisting the youth to gain skills such as screen printing, sewing and gardening as well as being encouraged to advocate for their human rights.
It was a joy to see how proud the parents were and their hope for the future.
While this trip was confronting at times it was a privilege to meet the people trying to make a difference. Seeing this great work that Caritas is doing in partnership with local agencies made the visiting Australians very proud to have raised more than $73,000 in fundraising activities prior to the trip.
Personally, I am grateful to Baiada Poultry, Vellex Transport and the many family, friends and colleagues who donated to Caritas as we fundraised $6500.
Be assured that every dollar is needed and well spent in Cambodia in these Caritas projects. This is a nation that has a tormented history; people have suffered much and deserve our help.
Contributing money to Caritas is one way we can do something to show mercy to people struggling to stay alive. Donations can be made online at: http://www.caritas.org.au/donate