‘A unique, life-changing experience’ is guaranteed when students leave the comforts of home and school for 18 weeks at Tihoi, but as 24 students and staff found on their service trip to Cambodia last year, it’s not the only defining experience one can have during their time at St Paul’s.
The entire trip took just a fortnight but was the culmination of more than three years of planning. Harington boarding housemaster, and teacher-in-charge of the excursion, Katie Lilley said they had been looking at options for an international service for some time.
“There was a lot to consider, chiefly the need to ensure the safety of our students in a foreign country,” says Katie.
Eventually, it was 2016 leaver Craig Stocker (Hall 2012–16) who approached headmaster Grant Lander with a proposal for students to visit Cambodia, at the prompting of his parents, who are trustees of Flame – a charitable organisation focused on educating slum living children, to free them from a life of begging and rubbish collection.
Among the charitable initiatives of Flame are a number of activity centres set up in the slums of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, allowing children to attend classes if they have missed out on government-provided schooling.
Flame says classes are given in maths, English, computer and Khmer as well as dancing and music. This helps the children excel at school. It is invaluable tuition for children who may have missed years due to poverty, helping them to catch up to their peers.
Flame also makes sure no child leaves the activity centre without having something to eat.
Having an established charity to work with, who could provide a guide and take care of accommodation and security needs, made Cambodia an attractive choice.
Further discussions with Flame identified a key project the students could undertake during their trip –
helping to renovate one of the activity centres – along with fundraising to establish a book tuktuk service to the slums.
Slums are not known for having vast amounts of books, or any books. When providing food and water is a struggle, books are not going to be on any slum living families shopping list.
With the foundations for a service trip now in place, Flame representatives Sue Hanna and Rebecca Stocker (David’s mum) gave a presentation to the school in term two and 19 students undertook a commitment to raise around $4000 for their own travel costs, and kickstart fundraising for the book tuktuk.
And at 4.30am on the day after prizegiving, a tour party of 24 boarded a plane for the school’s first international service mission.
Staying in dorm-style backpacker accommodation was basic, but more than adequate, Katie says.
“Our guide, Thai So, was invaluable in organising our meals and transport to the centre and beyond, so we had no worries in that respect."
“The students were also given an indepth education of Cambodia’s dark history which included a visit to the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide (formerly the infamous S-21 Prison) and the Killing Fields which was just so sobering,” says Katie.
There were lighter and more touristy moments as well, including visits to Silk Island and Angkor Wat, but by far the highlight of the trip for all concerned was the service aspect in Cambodia’s slums.
Officially, the students were there to prep and paint the children’s centre building in Sen Sok. For days the eager students went about preparing surfaces, sweeping out areas, rolling paint on walls or climbing ladders to paint the building yellow and white. This they approached with characteristic enthusiasm, adding vibrancy to the dull centre walls. They also installed a hydroponic garden.
Unofficially, they formed friendships with locals along the way through the many games of soccer, and singing and dancing with the centre’s children, joining in with English classes, along with a very special Christmas party that proved the greatest highlight for the visitors.
Prior to the trip, a combination of a boarders’ charity run, mufti day, and traditional food-based fundraisers saw enough funds raised to provide 250 backpacks filled with stationery and toys for the children at the Sen Sok activity centre.
Sophie Carr Patterson, one of the St Paul’s students on the trip was brought to tears as the astonishment grew on a young boy’s face when he opened his school bag to find the goodies inside and the delicious lunch he had yet to savour.
“The children were so grateful and makes you second guess the wants and needs we have in our daily lives, this was definitely a Christmas party I will cherish for the rest of my life,” says Sophie.
This enthusiasm for the trip has been infectious with around 50 students registering interest so far for a return trip to Cambodia this December.
For a teacher who always wanted to visit a third-world country to provide real assistance, break away from the tourist trail, and show students a slice of the world they wouldn’t normally get to experience, Katie recommends the Cambodia trip wholeheartedly.
“For me the most impactful moments of the trip were hearing the life stories and struggles from the young adults who benefited from Flame’s work and are going back to the slums to help others.
“Their stories were heartbreaking – the worst situations you can imagine. It cemented a desire in us to use our fortunate positions to help others.”
Thanks to a fundraising partnership established with St Paul’s, Flame now operates a mobile library that visits eight slums every week, reading to children, teaching basic Khmer alphabet and identifying children who are not in school but would dearly love to be.
GARRICK LAING (CLARK 1983–87)