A couple weeks ago, a large group of people in the hostel and tourism industry gathered in Sydney. Naturally, it was in a bar, but this time it wasn't just to have some laughs or talk of taking down HostelWorld or steal housekeeping secrets. It was indeed still good fun- a bingo night with drinks and prizes- but this time it was a fundraiser to help a good cause, from one of their own.
Presenting one of the raffle prizes (from L to R): Mark (Bounce Sydney), Vin (Bounce Sydney), Kayla (HostelWorld), Alanna (Down Under Adventures), Lisa- Marie (Down Under Adventures)
How many of us have gone on holiday to beautiful but impoverished countries or regions, and have seen situations that tug on our hearts? In those moments we may even resolve to become more involved and do something about it, but so often return back home and do nothing. We quickly become engrossed again with our normal lives, daily routines and habits, and suddenly that village we swore we'd help somehow seems a lot further away.
This is exactly what Vin Kebblewhite, the hostel manager of Bounce Sydney, wanted to change. Last year he was fortunate to be granted 3 months extended leave from Bounce in order to do volunteer work. He set off for Cambodia, and spent his time volunteering teaching English. As so many travelers and volunteers say, the experience changed his life, but Vin isn't like most travelers.
He didn't want to return home after those 3 months, but not because of the usual reasons travelers give, like home being boring or not wanting a 'real' job again. Vin didn't want to leave because, above the deep connections he forged with the people and country, he saw need. Not just a need to help, but a need to empower.
He reluctantly did go home, due to necessities like a job and lease, but immediately began working on a plan to return and help, while managing full time again at Bounce. I thought it was great Vin was able to get the time off to begin with, and was told the owners of Bounce always had a big interest in charity. It's one thing for a business to cut a check here and there to a charity organization. But to see value in your employees seeking other opportunities that can help them to learn, grow and give back takes a certain kind of person.
I hope more businesses, including other hostels, are also facilitating this type of short term leave for their employees. Yes, there is always the chance that person will change life plans and not come back. However, the ability to return to a stable life would remove a major roadblock for many people wanting to temporarily try something new. I find businesses who offer this both unique and admirable.
Over the last 12 months Vin has turned his ideas into Life Project Cambodia, and will be moving in just a few weeks to see it through. Life Project Cambodia (LPC) is an environmentally sustainable non-govermental organization (NGO) designed to empower communities so they can create their own self-reliant solutions. Their main goal is to create a community campus in the village which will provide a variety of long-term support and services. These include child care, education, health, sanitation and sustainability, rural development and community services.
The Bounce crew at bingo night: Naida, Vin, and Angela. Naida will actually be heading to Cambodia as well, to assist with Life Project Cambodia.
However, the specific departments and services at each campus will be developed according to the community's needs, as defined by them. When I originally asked what LPC's biggest priority would be, the simple answer was "whatever that village decides the biggest priority should be." Vin did intense research of the region, but in the end has a firm belief that the locals know best. It reminded me of the book Three Cups of Tea, where a Westerner pledges to return to a village in Pakistan to build a school. He shows up all set to do so, when the village elder explains they need a bridge built first, not a school. What's the point of building a school if you can't get the supplies or people there?
**A side note: To be fair, lot of controversy came out later about Three Cups of Tea, spawning the book Three Cups of Deceit. It disputes the original author's accounts of his charity work as well as the mishandling of funds. Not surprisingly, Vin and I also talked a lot about the corruption in many NGOs and volunteer organizations, including throughout Cambodia. Sadly a lot of resources are used simply to prevent and control this corruption.
Life Project Cambodia is an organization focused on empowering self-reliance, rather than dependency on aid. Part of Vin's desire to create this type of long term solution grew from simply seeing so many examples of the exact opposite. To be honest, this is the same reason I had reservations when I first heard the words "project in Cambodia". I do believe in helping people and communities less fortunate than me (which, sadly, is a vast majority of the world). It's just that over the past few years of traveling abroad and living in places like Thailand and Swaziland, I have seen some very poor and misguided examples of 'help'. "Voluntourism" (volunteer tourism) is a massive million-dollar industry, mostly dominated by gap year students. Intentions are usually good- though we've all met a version of this guy somewhere along the way- but still leaves many people, including myself, wondering if it is really helping at all.
Vin gave me a perfect example from his time in Cambodia. Roughly 80% of the country is extremely impoverished or without basic needs. In addition to the numerous legitimate orphanages that have risen from this poverty, fake orphanages have sprung up all around them. These are filled with children whose parents have been convinced the child will be taken to get an education. In addition to the children doing traditional dancing to earn donations from tourists (when they should be in school), these fake orphanages are also used as site locations for volunteer tourist organizations. The money from these volunteers rarely reaches the children, and they are left still living in squalor, without an education, and now without family.
Not only are these fake orphanages perpetuated by the financial gain from voluntourism, skilled volunteers are sent to simply play with children when they could legitimately be used to help elsewhere. As Vin pointed out, it takes a lot for a volunteer to save up money, get the time off work, organize a trip, etc. He said to see volunteers finally arrive, yet not utilized to the best of their ability for the needs of that community, was really disheartening to him. It also underscored his desire to do something that would truly help and fulfill a need.
Just like with the Three Cups of Tea example, many of these volunteer organizations and NGOs also come in ready to 'fix Cambodia'. Consciously or not, they often have a 'West Knows Best' mentality, without having listened to the local people or thought long term about their solutions. Cambodian tour company founder Daniele Papi gives a great example of this in her article "Is gap year volunteering a bad thing?" She said: "When someone goes for a work experience or internship placement in a law firm or an accounting company, they don't expect to be leading a case in a courtroom, or managing their own clients- they understand their number one job is to learn (and bring the coffee). Yet when we go abroad, we sometimes forget that we have to learn before we can serve." Understanding this, Vin is devoted to a program that will work with the local communities to first find out what they need, and then a way for them to sustainably achieve that.
LPC will first focus on a village in Siem Reap, where Vin volunteered and already has local contacts, and then on the surrounding villages as well. The goal is that after success with the first village, the project can be replicated elsewhere depending on the wants of the local people. A similar project called Empower already exists in Malawi, which has grown from one original village of 40 households to 38 villages comprising 5,000 people. Though the initial focus of LPC is helping specific problems in Cambodia, Vin is developing the project on an open source platform. He wants to keep it completely transparent and shareable, so those who find it useful can use it as a framework in other countries. Knowing this, I saw it extra fitting to write about Life Project Cambodia on hostelmanagement.com, a site dedicated to sharing ideas and information.
Once the project was properly outlined, small fundraising began to get those on the ground communicating about possibilities. Vin felt it was important for local, open discussions to first take place about this type of center (how, where, when, etc) before pressing forward. Once they start looking at land and more concrete plans, they will start looking for larger project-based donations.
To help with the start up costs, an industry fundraiser was recently held in Sydney, as mentioned in the opening of this post. It was extremely successful, raising over $3,500 (AUD) for Life Project Cambodia. Hostels from all over Sydney, including both the big chains and smaller independents, came out in support. Vin said Mark Baldwin, the GM of Bounce, has drummed up lots of exposure for the charity after originally presenting it to the owners of Bounce.
Vin felt the strong industry support followed because so many related after traveling extensively and wanting to give back. The project also benefited from the tight-knit industry community in Sydney specifically. It's always easier to support someone you know, and from what I've seen and heard, the Sydney industry folks work together quite well. Nor was this the first time they'd met for a beverage or two! Vin said other tourism operators and those involved in the industry outside of hostels came as well. Even some who were formerly in Sydney tourism but are no longer came along to support.
Some hostel managers also brought staff, while others who couldn't attend made a donation anyway. Some popped by for a quick drink and paid entry even though they couldn't stay. The most inspiring part to me was when Vin told me that some industry people at the event started talking at their own initiative about how they could continue to do events throughout the year to raise money. Seeing anybody come together for a good cause always feels nice, but in a world that can seem cutthroat, it's especially refreshing to see 'competition' come together as well. I might be overly optimistic and idealistic at times, but I really do believe in the sharing and collaboration mission of this site. It may not have been about hostels, but to me that was a perfect example of how this industry can come together to create positive change.
The Nomads Hostel crew at the bingo fundraiser night
One of my favorite quotes reads "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." -Margaret Mead. It takes a lot of courage and selflessness to pack up your entire life, move to a new country, and run an organization (newly founded by yourself, no less) dedicated to helping others. I'm proud of Vin for stepping up, wish him the best of luck, and hope for strong, continued support from the tourism industry long after he's left Sydney for Siem Reap.
For those interested in helping, (yes, loyal reader, I'm talking to you!) Life Project Cambodia is currently seeking donations via their website. These will assist them with their start-up costs and paying their local team in Cambodia.
Do any of you have experience with your city's hostel industry pulling together for a good cause? For any of you who already get together with others in your city: Are any of you interested in holding an industry fundraiser for Life Project Cambodia? There is so much the tourism industry can give back, why not start with us!
Sign in, comment below, and most importantly please SHARE this post to support Vin and spread the word about Project Life Cambodia!
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