August 19, 2015 Ottawa South News
By Erin McCracken
Though they helped build 22 new homes for Cambodia’s poor, Alta Vista’s L’Heureux family insist they got much more out of the experience than the people they helped.
“Yves summed it up when he said, ‘You know how they say, when you give, you receive even more?’ We felt that we got more out of it then we gave,” Cindy Desouza L’Heureux said of her husband, Yves L’Heureux.
“We felt so privileged and honoured to be giving these people their houses that it was like a gift to us.”
Desouza L’Heureux and her husband took their children, Julia, 11, Alexandra, 14, and Éric, 17, to Southeast Asia this summer for a vacation – with a twist.
The family of five has travelled the world, but had never before been to Asia together. When they decided upon their next destination, Desouza L’Heureux recalled hearing about house-building efforts spearheaded by the Tabitha Foundation, an organization that provides aid to Cambodians.
The family worked with about 35 other volunteers from the U.S., the U.K., Japan and Singapore to build 22 houses for villagers more than an hour’s drive outside Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh.
Each family paid for their own travelling expenses and fundraised to pay for the construction of as many new houses as possible.
The L’Heureuxs originally hoped to raise $5,000 to pay for three homes, but ended up generating $12,565.91, which paid for eight houses, or one-third of the houses built by the group. The houses are constructed on stilts and feature corrugated iron walls, a bamboo floor and a roof.
“Out of all the volunteers, we were the ones who raised the most money,” Desouza L’Heureux said.
“The support we received was amazing. It was such a mix – colleagues, friends, acquaintances, neighbours, teammates and parents from my kids’ hockey and soccer teams,” she said, adding that one 11-year-old Ottawa boy donated $65.91 – a month’s worth of his earnings from his newspaper route – to the family’s fundraising efforts.
Though the family had no prior house-building experience, Desouza L’Heureux said they quickly caught on with guidance from local contractors, who taught them how to install the iron walls and nail down bamboo strips for flooring.
“There’s a complete language barrier so you can’t talk to these men,” she said. “It’s gestures and smiles and pointing and helping. It was just amazing.”
Éric, Alexandra and Julia were fortunate to get to know kids their own age who also took part in the volunteer effort, as well as interact with the village children.
“Our kids felt so good because one of the things I said is, ‘You see how happy everybody is? They’re so poor but they’re having such a great time and they’re happy.’ It was beautiful,” said Desouza L’Heureux.
At one point, Julia was tugged away by one local woman who wanted to proudly show off her rabbits.
“That’s another thing that Tabitha does, they help the families learn how to save money,” Desouza L’Heureux said, adding that families are shown strategies to save the $40 needed to buy the land for their new home – which can can take up to four years – as well as save additional funds to purchase livestock.
“It helps them learn to be self-sufficient,” Desouza L’Heureux said.
“The villagers are all around you for all the days you’re actually building,” Desouza L’Heureux said. “They’re curiously awaiting their new house.
“You can see by the expressions on their faces how grateful they are to see their finished house.”
A jetway! The last time I came to Phnom Penh I disembarked using stairs, then walked across the runway to the terminal. Walking in an enclosed ramp from the plane was the first of many signs of progress I would see over the next two weeks.
While primarily a vacation, a group of us came to spend three days participating in a house building exercise on behalf of Tabitha Cambodia, an NGO that targets and works with the poorest of the poor.
Cambodia, located in the heart of South East Asia, is not high on the radar of many people. Neighbors Thailand and Vietnam garner much more global attention due to their populations, beaches and tourist destinations. It is a country of 15 million people, occupying an area roughly 500 by 500 kilometers. The Khmer civilization has been in place for well over a millennium and continues today. The ancient Khmer Kingdom centered near modern day Siem Reap, based in the area surrounding the temples of Angkor. The country itself sits on a massive flood plain which, combined with the annual monsoon season, makes for a very fertile countryside, supporting abundant agriculture and very thick and lush jungles.
There is an expression; each of us is where we are at today because of the decisions we have made. It’s not too different with Cambodia, however as an outsider looking in, most of their “decisions” have in recent history been made by others. The French heavily influenced many countries in SE Asia beginning in the late 19th century through the early 1960s. Then the growing threat of communism in the region brought about numerous influences; China, Korea, the U.S., Vietnam and others; with everything from policy and aide right through to bombings and invasion. This all culminated in the period of 1975 to 1979 with the takeover by the Khmer Rouge who imposed a dystopian agrarian economy eliminating over 2.3 million people, candidly a generation. Cambodia is still recovering from this today.
Phnom Penh, the capital, is today booming. Construction cranes, hi-rises, detached homes are everywhere you look. The streets are congested with traffic (if my observations are accurate Toyota and Lexus must be doing very well!) and the restaurants and food hawkers are busy day and night.
So why a house build? Like any economy there are haves and have nots. The site of our build was a village in Preah Vihear Province, roughly 250km, or a 5 hour drive, north of Phnom Penh. The twelve families we built homes for were all chosen by their fellow villagers. This village has no access to electricity or running water. There are some properties with wells, which signify a marked improvement for both individual health and economic prospects. These specific families have been part of the Tabitha Cambodia savings program for anywhere from two to three years; working their way up from subsistence survival to the point where today they have managed to purchase the property being built on, growing rice or some other cash crop and/or having a stable of either chickens, pigs or cows. They have been taught how to acquire and raise the livestock and crops, the means to market the matured animals or harvested crops, the importance of retaining seed and breeding stock and the management skills to repeat the cycles. In addition, the families are taught the value of educating their children and the flexibility and choices an income stream gives them as they attempt to provide a better life. The house build recognizes those families that have not only committed to the Tabitha program but have shown persistence and leadership in following it through.
As 22 tightly knit Canadians, all of us with our own unique and strong links to Cambodia, we chose in our small way to give something back to a group of families that have never traveled beyond a five mile radius of where they live today. A few blisters and cuts (sheet metal is very sharp), and of course some time, was all we were asked to invest. What we received in return was excited assistance during the build and a genuine gratitude that was evident even before the English translation was provided! I suppose the single biggest return to me however is knowing that as a westerner I was able to participate in a small life event that these families will continue to build upon.
Delayne Weeks, VP of Corporate Social Responsibility, Angkor Gold Corp.
Building a series of houses in any developing country brings a variety of new experiences to the best of travelers. For me personally, it was being part of a team where everyone experienced success, regardless of their experience, expertise, gender, or background. It was an opportunity to work, laugh, eat, and sleep with 8 other team members, each of whom had a sole purpose for two days to complete basic housing in rural Cambodia.
It reminded me of all that we take for granted….our material goods, our lifestyles, housing, water & sanitation, transportation, our ‘bigger, better, faster,, newer attitudes’ and on and on. And with that reminder is the realization of how differently we see the world, if we step outside our comfort zone and take the risk to undertake something like a team build.
Read more of Delayne’s experience and that of the other team members at https://rockin4tabitha.wordpress.com/2015/04/15/part-1-delayne-weeks/