For Stage and Screen Marketing Leader Dimity Holland the chance to travel to Cambodia with the Flight Centre Foundation in March, was an opportunity to see one the company’s corporate social responsibility partners in action – while also learning about Cambodia’s orphanage crisis firsthand.
Having never been to Cambodia before, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. But the country, and the people, are surprisingly dynamic, upbeat and generous - despite the horrific legacy left behind by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge army.
I was fortunate to be one of 13 employees from across Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, selected to make the trip as part of the Flight Centre Foundation. Flight Centre is serious about promoting sustainable travel and tourism - and this initiative is designed to give employees insights into what this actually means to local communities around the world.
Throughout the seven day trip we travelled with representatives from our CSR partner the non-profit Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT), who are working to empower vulnerable families and to prevent children from ending up in orphanages.
Our first harsh dose of reality came during the initial two days at the CCT headquarters, where we learnt that some 80% of the children in Cambodian orphanages – aren’t in fact orphans. The vast majority have family who could care for them, given the right support. Due to extreme poverty, families often feel like they have no other choice than to send their children to these centres with the promise of a good education, food in their bellies and a better life.
Over the past decade ‘orphan tourism’ has emerged as a real problem across the country. Many orphanages exploit these children and use them to elicit donations from visitors, which are then syphoned off by corrupt owners with none of the money actually being used to care for the children.
Literally thousands of these orphanages have popped up all over the country and western tourists are increasingly visiting the centres thinking that they are doing the right thing. They have no idea of course, that even gifts of clothing or school equipment meant for the children are often sold at the local market by corrupt staff. We also heard tragic stories of children starving, being kept in poverty, forced to work, being exploited and even trafficked.
The aim of the CCT is to get these vulnerable children out of orphanages and back to their families, but also to put an end to orphanage tourism. As travel professionals we can all help by spreading the message and as part of Flight Centre’s sustainable travel charter the aim of our trip was to be able to come home and share our first hand experiences to help educate our colleagues, clients and industry contacts.
During our time at the CCT head office in Cambodia's Battambang province we saw some amazing work being done to prevent the exploitation of these children and to help reunite them with their families. The process of reunification is complex and not rushed – one family I met had been going through the process for two years. For CCT, it’s essential that before children are returned, the family are set up for stability and success. CCT will help families start businesses, such as composting or growing food for the markets, they also provide builders to help where needed around the home, offer financial education, healthcare and so many other important means of support.
As well as spending time with CCT, we were lucky enough to have the surreal experience of visiting one of Cambodia’s iconic floating villages – Prek Toal. Here we visited a local school and handed out 300 solar lights built by Flight Centre staff and clients. The lights are an initiative of another of our amazing CSR partners, Solar Buddy – who work to fight the impact of energy poverty which affects children all over the world.
The trip to Cambodia really brought home to me the fact that we can all make a difference – by just starting a conversation, giving to a genuine charity which supports a cause we feel passionate about or at a company level, by incorporating a CSR activity (such as building solar lights) into your next event or conference. Each month I donate to workplace giving knowing it is going ‘somewhere’ good – but wow – to actually see first hand just how that money is being used and the impact it has is just so fulfilling.
Who are Cambodian Children’s Trust?
The CCT was founded by NSW Young Australian of the Year, Tara Winkler in 2007 after she rescued 14 children from a corrupt Cambodian orphanage. At the heart of their work is a preventative child protection model that prevents children from being separated from families and placed in orphanages. Their approach is holistic, community-led and addresses the root causes of the Orphanage Crisis. It places families and communities in the driving seat, empowering them to meet the challenges in their lives and raise their children well.