I called this blog ’Lessons I Learned’, but really it would be better titled ’Lessons I’m Learning’. I believe in sharing what we learn to help others avoid our same mistakes and also exposing ourselves to the criticism and questions which might help us improve. I am skeptical of the popular approaches to both voluntourism and development work, though those are both areas in which I have worked as I’d love to be part of learning how we can do them both better. I think we need to learn before we can help, so I believe “service learning” should be “learning service”. I feel like I am learning more every day about how to help create the world I want to see my future kids and their future kids living in, and sometimes what I learn contradicts what I thought I knew was true. I have learned that good intentions are not enough and that the only person you can “improve” in the world is yourself, so I had better start improving the world by starting there. I hope the dialogue generated through this site will give me more chances to do that and to share the lessons I am learning with others who could benefit from avoiding my mistakes.

04 February 2009 ~ 0 Comments

Sometimes we take ourselves too seriously?

“Sometimes we take ourselves too seriously, “ he said. My co-worker was referring to a heated debate in our office about volunteer tourism or “voluntourism”, and how to do it “right.”

Living in Cambodia where the major cities have more “orphanages” sprouting up on each corner than you can keep track of, anything involving tourism, money, and development becomes skeptical. Even more worrying is when children are added to the mix: most “orphanages” are actually more like boarding schools, the children have parents who have chosen, or the organization has chosen for them, that their kids would have a better life at the school. Here you see these orphanages which offer daily tours: “Look but don’t touch”…. at least you hope. Others which have their students perform dance shows nightly: “We took our kids off of the street so that they didn’t have to work, and now they will dance for you again, and again, and again.” A group here just moved their “orphanage” up from Phnom Penh because “it made sense for the organization.” Did it make sense for the kids or their parents who are all still back in Phnom Penh?

Is one dance performance for donors per month ok? 10? Nightly? “But it brings in support.” Aren’t there other ways to do that? I have heard groups complain “We have foreign volunteers who come teach our English classes for a few weeks or months at a time…. the kids learn ‘head, shoulders, knees, and toes’ once a month from a new volunteer….. But, they company they are placed here with does make a donation per week, so I guess that’s why we do it.” Is this a GOOD situation for them? Could you not recruit, interview, train, and monitor a longer-term volunteer? Could you take a few other volunteers to do fundraising on short contracts? Does everyone want to spend time with the kids? Shouldn’t “volunteering” involve helping others achieve goals outside of our own?

15 January 2009 ~ 0 Comments

Cold in Cambodia and OR in Salt Lake

It’s cold in Cambodia. Like, two-sweater I’m-rubbing-my-feet-to-keep-em-circulating cold. I’m sleeping with a thick blanket tonight. What happened to global warming?!

For those of you who are even luckier to be in even colder weather, with more significant mountains, please take some turns for me in the snow. Those of you heading to Salt Lake City this week for the Outdoor Retailer event, PEPY will be represented at the KEEN Footwear fundraising event for Conservation Alliance. Join them for free beer and wine, the chance to buy some great shoes in support of CA, and the chance to win a trip for two on an upcoming PEPY trip!

Say hi to Bryan Kinkade from National Geographic Adventure Magazine who will be representing PEPY for us (we wanted to all drive in the bio-diesel truck over to join, but there wasn’t enough cooking oil around to convert).

Stay tuned for photos of the new truck banners! And those of you at OR, please fill us in on all of the events. We hope YOU win the free PEPY trip!

15 January 2009 ~ 0 Comments

10 places to avoid visiting

Costas Christ wrote a piece on National Geographic Adventure’s blog about 10 places to avoid visiting.

He writes: “I am a firm believer that travel, no matter the destination, can be a powerful learning experience. In fact, some of my worst trips have been among the most interesting. They are the places I still tell stories about. But when looked through the lens of sustainable tourism principles—being environmentally friendly, helping to protect cultural and natural heritage, supporting the well-being of local people—there are some places that stand out, and its not for the better. So here is my top 10 must-avoid travel destinations list (or at least consider this warning so that you know what you are getting into before you go).”

His 10 places are:

Cancun, Mexico
Santorini, Greece
Orlando, Florida
Kuta, Bali
Dubai City, United Arab Emirates
China Beach, Vietnam
Costa Rica’s Over-Developed Coast
Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

Read the article to find out why: http://ngadventure.typepad.com/blog/2008/12/beyond-green-travel-with-costas-christ-dont-go-there-top-ten-worst-travel-destinations.html

I posted these comments in response:

“Thank you, Costas! I have come to agree with the fact that tourism to some places, no matter how “responsibly” it is done, has a negative impact overall. Like traveling to Myanmar, there are places here in Cambodia where I would argue that a visit is doing more harm than good. Places like the garbage dump in Phnom Penh, which I too visited and thought “as long as I do something to support groups countering the poverty, environmental degradation, and human rights violations here, my visit is justified” are areas I now, three years later, try to dissuade others from visiting at all. By making the squalor of the countries largest dump site a tourist attraction, a peripheral economy is able to grow around those visits. People can sell you water or begging can take the place of garbage picking, all of which make living on the dump more profitable than the opportunity to make up to .50 per day by collecting recyclable materials. This then creates more incentive to live on the dump, provides more reasons for families to send their kids to live and work there, and provides higher income to the adults who “buy” or “rent” kids to work on the dump for them.

Thank you for starting this list to remind us all that our own education and/or fun does not always justify our travel choices.”

09 January 2009 ~ 0 Comments

Family Visiting

My mom and brother are coming to visit! :-) Yeah!

This is exciting news! I have been based in Cambodia for three years and this is the first time anyone in my family is coming to visit. I thought perhaps one of my cousins would be the first – but it looks like my mom and brother will be the winners!

It is so strange to think that they don’t already know my life here. I feel like PEPY and our work here is such a big part of who I am and what I live and breath that the fact that they don’t know Cambodia, have never met Maryann our Managing Director or Meth our house mother, don’t yet know the bumpy road out to Chanleas Dai and how much better the road is now than it used to be, and perhaps do not fully understand what projects we do here at PEPY makes me confused on where to start next week. Don’t get me wrong, it is not that they are not involved. My mother lives PEPY every week, poor thing! She is our US accountant – the home address of PEPY’s US registration – sorting through our mail and donations (which have been steadily dwindling with the economy though our need for funds to finish the junior high school continues to grow!), and she makes weekly visits to the US banks where we keep our funds to deposit, transfer, etc. She puts an enormous amount of time into PEPY each week, but I think seeing Chanleas Dai and our programs will give her a whole new perspective on what we really “do” here and the potential impact, both good and bad, it can have.

My brother is the same age as most of the PEPY Tours participants and as many of our interns. I am looking forward to showing him where I have lived and worked for the past few years and to see what questions he has and what he thinks of our work.

I guess I am looking forward to their visit so they can “know me better”. So that when I talk about my life, they can picture it. So that when people ask what I do, they don’t have to say “she lives in Cambodia and does NGO work” and not really know what that means. So that I can see what their reaction is to what I do and where I live and maybe reflect on my own opinions of my life and choices. I have chosen to live in Asia for the last 6 years – far from my family and life-long friends. Will they better understand that choice once they have been here? Or be even more confused about their far-off daughter/sister?

I guess we’ll see next week! Either way, it will mean I get to know THEM better too by spending time with them both, more time all together than we have been able to spend in years, and I’m looking forward to that :-)

05 January 2009 ~ 0 Comments

Reaching towards Literacy

We haven’t been very good at putting quantitative metrics together to measure the success of PEPY’s programs. It’s hard to put a “number” on the impact of many of our programs, but these numbers are the first which have really shocked me.

Do you know how many books were checked out of the PEPY library last month?


Two thousand one hundred and eleven.

No, really……


Do you know what the number of books checked out per month one year ago was?


No really, seventy.

That is more than 30 times the number of books checked out from one year ago. What a change in one year!

Most kids take out a book nearly every night, or sometimes every other night. Almost every kid a recent questionnaire wrote that they wanted to be a “literacy teacher” or that their favorite hobby was “reading books to my sister” or “spending time in the library” – for the FIRST time ever. Before they always listed English Teacher as their dream job and computer classes as their favorite subject….

Our literacy program is coming to life. We just printed the first two in a series of PEPY early literacy books. We are helping other orgs to print theirs as well. And we have started laminating books the kids are writing in class.

A lot of this change is because of the Literacy Camp we offered last summer and the associated teacher training – more momentum has been added now because of the two PEPY Literacy Classes per hour offered (8 hours per day – so 16 classes!). Also, our librarians Srey Thou and her assistant, Khein Sak have made the library such a beautiful place to be making our library classes even more successful as well. Five teachers just went to an awesome early literacy training this past week and loved it.

Two years ago we would never have imagined this. When we painted a dingy classroom which had housed a rat-infested box of Room to Read books we hoped for a place where students would learn to read Khmer…… and now two years later, I think those wishes are working. Kids are READING books in the library. No one turns a head anymore when a foreign staff member comes to visit or when it’s time for school to end – they are too busy reading. Not just flipping through pages. Reading. It’s pretty amazing.

Thanks to many of you for helping to make this metamorphosis possible.

29 December 2008 ~ 0 Comments

Lessons Learned

This is an article I wrote for this month’s PEPY Newsletter:

Internally at PEPY, we are constantly debating and discussing our impact, our model, and ways to improve our work. The energy put into these dynamic discussions often makes our office seem more like a heated courtroom than the home of an NGO/Responsible Tourism Operator. The dynamic of our team shifts with every person who joins us, as each brings valuable, new opinions and ideas to our organization.

Our current team embodies the following quote from Marcus Buckingham, which Michael just passed around the office: “Leaders can’t help but change the present, because the present isn’t good enough.” Nothing escapes discussion and scrutiny– everything from what holidays are appropriate to print on our PEPY Calendar to how we monitor the impact of each program. Even the word “impact” in the last sentence will likely be a point of contention for our vigorous editing team, who often debate the word’s significance and overuse.

At first glance, this constant effort to improve even the minutia can perhaps seem frustrating and inefficient. Overall though, the passion for improvement and change is what makes me proud of our self-reflective group. We recognize that “good” is not always good enough—it is this mindset of continuous learning and improvement that makes our team so strong.

One of our newsletter readers pointed out that we often recognize our successes, but perhaps have not spent enough time discussing our mistakes and what lessons we have learned. This is something we discuss here in the office on a daily basis and while we try to share these lessons as often as possible on our Team Journal and NING, he is indeed right, we can do a better job of discussing those things with you here in our newsletter. Thank you, Vuthy!

The new “Lessons Learned” feature in our newsletter will highlight some of these internal debates, or at least the important ones–we will spare you the dictionary flinging discussions about word usage and the placement of commas. One of the most important lessons we have learned is in regards to the people who are holding these debates: we must hire people who believe in our model, people who believe in the synergy of our team, and people who are willing to share their thoughts and opinions in a critically constructive way. Overall, they need to believe in our mission and invest in the idea that education is indeed the key to change for both individuals and societies.

While we often must look for employees with certain skills, we have found that it is much more important to find people with a passion for improvement, education, and hard work. Our recently hired accountant Kimline said in her interview that if she could afford to continue on in school for the rest of her life, she would. Our new bio-diesel truck driver said he wants to help improve his country, especially in the rural areas of Cambodia. Both have shown so far that they are hard workers and believe in PEPY’s mission. These are the type of people we want on our team and I’m so glad that we have learned that passion and mission-alignment are often more important in our work than skills and experience. Skills can be learned. A belief in education and a willingness to continually strive for improvements are harder to teach.

In future “Lessons Learned” features, we will delve into past mistakes and how the development of our programs and policies are changing. We continue to learn from our mistakes and strive to be better at what we do and we appreciate YOU keeping us in line and reminding us what information you want to hear and be a part of. Thanks for being part of the PEPY team!

29 December 2008 ~ 2 Comments

Tell us YOUR opinion

If a businessman rakes in a hefty profit while doing good works, is that charity or greed? Do you applaud or hiss?

Share your thoughts.