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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Group of locals builds houses for the poorest of Cambodia

Homes are very basic but offer security and refuge from rains and flooding

By Penny Coles

Yolanda Henry is hooked on helping.

She has just returned from her seventh trip to Cambodia, where she and a group of friends helped build 18 houses for the poorest of people living in the underdeveloped country, and although it's hard work under blistering sun, it's also very rewarding, she says.

And while she's not committing now to returning, she says at some point in the future she will likely need her fix and go back to build more houses.

In the meantime, says Henry, now a board member of Tabitha Foundation in Canada, the non-profit agency that organizes the volunteer builds in Cambodia, she would be happy to help organize trips for groups of 10 people or more who might want to experience the .

Volunteers pay their own way, and must fundraise about $1,000 to pay for the cost of the materials and the contractors who erect the frames.

The houses are very basic—four metres by five metres, they are build of wood and tin, on stilts that lift them six feet off the ground. During the dry season, families live, cook and sleep underneath them, and when the rainy season begins, they move their meager belongings—a few cooking pots, some clothing, mats to sleep on—into their shelter to keep dry.

"They really don't have much," says Henry. "It doesn't take long for them to move in—maybe a few minutes."

The NOTL woman first visited Cambodia 2000. She was living in Singapore, and while volunteering at her children's school—they were selling handicrafts made by the women of Cambodia—she became interested in doing more. She and her daughters visited the country during their spring break, and since then, she has been back several times, volunteering through Tabitha to build secure and weatherproof homes for families of six to eight—a step up from the tarps or a hut of straw that is all that protects them when the rain comes—and is more than they ever expected to have.

Henry has just returned from a trip with a group of 14 people. The missions, she says, typically begin with someone saying they are interested in volunteering, and she begins planning dates and rounding up friends until she has enough of a group to go.

Most volunteers will plan a trip to neighbouring countries while they're there—and although there is incredible poverty, they are beautiful countries.

Dennis Kam, who just returned from an extended five-week stay with his wife Kathy Heit, once their work with Tabitha and Henry's group was complete, said a holiday can be anything from a $3 a day stay at a hostel to five-star hotel accommodation, which is still inexpensive by our standards.

They travelled with their daughter and granddaughter, and this trip, the group stayed in an eco-lodge in the jungle while they worked on the houses.

Although they say they might go back—it was their second trip—they would opt for different accommodations after sharing their cabin with a family of rats, a bat, a frog and other assorted wildlife. It's not for the squeamish, they agree, but it was an experience.

On most of the house-building missions, accommodations are in hotels in the nearest town or city, and are quite comfortable.

"You have to be tolerant and adaptable," says Dennis.

You also have to be relatively fit and able to stand the heat—the work, while not difficult, is undertaken in 34 degree heat with a humidex in the 40s.

"You have to take a lot of water breaks, and you have to pace yourself. If you don't you get heat stroke," says Henry.

While there, volunteers are given a lesson in the history and the culture of the country.

They visit a genocide museum and the Killing Fields, sites in Cambodia where large numbers of people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge during its rule of the country from 1975 to 1979.

In addition to hearing about the genocide, they learn that education was stripped, the middle class destroyed, that agricultural socialization resulted in famine, and that the country is still in the beginning stages of rebuilding.

And they learned that the people of Cambodia have a distrust for North Americans, who did nothing to help during that horrendous era in their past.

"Westerners don't have a lot of credibility," says Henry, "because we didn't do a lot to help them. We ignored their plight.".

House-building presents opportunities to restore trust, and those who have volunteered say the reward comes from the smiles and expressions of gratitude from those who so badly need a hand up.

"What they end up with is still subsistence living, but it's significantly improved living," says Dennis.

And volunteers who return often see the difference they have made as families are able to increase their income and add onto the houses—they are still very basic, but larger, with the original building becoming one room on a larger structure.

Families have endured poverty and hardship since the beginning of the Pol Pot era, but with the help of Tabitha Foundation, are slowly improving their quality of life, said Henry.

The reward, she says, is knowing that all the work is done by volunteers, and that every cent is spent on helping the people of Cambodia rebuild, not only their homes but their trust and their self-esteem.

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