A Rural Village Walk & Cambodian Prison
I feel so fortunate to have spent two weeks with This Life Cambodia. I’m blown away my the impact they have made in Cambodia since being established in 2007.
Before I explain some of the life-changing work I was lucky enough to observe, I need to explain the story of how Billy Gortor founded this Life Cambodia.
Billy was working with an NGO in Siem Reap when he had a chance conversation with a local boy he had known for some time. He assumed that the boy was attending school, but when Billy asked him what he wanted to be when he was older, he replied: “Next life I would like to be a doctor”. When he asked why the boy couldn’t be a doctor in this life, he said: “This life, I have no hope. I had to drop out of school two years ago in grade six.”
He went on to explain that his family was so poor they couldn’t afford to support his education and, in fact, they couldn’t even provide him with food and shelter. He had felt obliged to move away and live in a pagoda so that his family had one less mouth to feed. He also thought he would get some education from the monks. Billy couldn’t let go of the fact that this boy, who clearly had huge potential, might never get the opportunity to finish his education.
It was becoming apparent to Billy that communities and small grassroots organisations needed more than just a project proposals. There was a huge need for capacity building and training and there were no organisations in Siem Reap doing this. It was at this moment that Billy decided that he would try and help this child and others in similar situations to get an education and fulfil their dreams – and ‘This Life Cambodia’ was born. It brings tears to my eyes, each time I think about where the name ‘This Life’ comes from.
Today, TLC has grown rapidly into an award winning well-respected community development NGO which receives funding from individual donors, corporate funders, private foundations, and international development agencies.
Billy and the team a TLC believe that communities are the experts when it comes to identifying practical ways to achieve improvements in their daily lives, and many hold an abundance of ideas for a better Cambodia. Working side by side with community residents, listening to their insights and acting on their input, TLC have developed a sustainable, empowering and replicable approach to development that REALLY works.
Read their most recent annual report here: http://www.thislifecambodia.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/TLC009_AnnualReport10yrs_Online.pdf
Billy Gortor is a truly remarkable individual, he is one of the warmest, most genuine and inspiring people I’ve ever met. TLC have outstanding impact and the facts to back it up. They firmly believe that real impact should be at the forefront of their ‘brand’ and condemn fundraising initiatives which use the human emotion of ‘guilt’ to motivate giving. Throughout my time in Siem Reap with TLC, I tried to pass compliments to Billy on the success of TLC and he redirects every comment back to his team, the community leaders and campaigns – he is data driven – and most of TLC’s success is due to the research they conduct before launching any new programmes. A truly inspirational leader.
My two weeks with TLC in Siem Reap
I’ll add quickly that I have some strong opinions on Voluntourism and the locations I was able to visit throughout these two weeks are not available as part of any type of volunteering program. I was extraordinarily lucky to be able to spend this time with TLC due to a long-standing partnership we have and hold this experience very dear to my heart as a one in a lifetime opportunity to see ‘real-life’ Cambodia.
On arrival at Siem Reap airport, we were greeted by Jaime Gill, TLC’s Communications Director who kindly met us off our flight and escorted us to our accommodation. We sat down for a quick briefing and set up a plan for the next few weeks.
On Monday, we took our first tuk-tuk to the TLC office ready to greet the team and travel out to one of the first villages that TLC ran their campaigns in. Just a short drive to Siem Reap province we got out of the van and walked the long dusty road past a school, small homes on stilts, lots of animals, all the way down to a beautiful pagoda. Billy encouraged us to observe our surroundings and reflect on our own childhoods as we did this walk.
We sat out under a tree while Billy explained the story of TLC.
This Life Beyond Bars
One of TLC’s longest running programs, This Life Beyond Bars (TLBB) continues to innovate and adapt to meet the needs of those it is designed to serve. TLBB works with youth in prison to provide a comprehensive framework of support to aid them in reintegration with their families and communities upon release from prison.
We met Kim Chen and Tom at the TLC office at 8am and drove out to one of the prisons that TLC offer the TLBB programs in. After a quick security check we could sign in and enter the prison. The exterior is much nicer than I expected, but I learned that the conditions in the cells are really quite awful. Most prisons in Cambodia are also overcrowded, with as little as 0.7 square meters of space per prisoner. It is not uncommon for prisoners sharing cells to sleep in shifts in order to create enough room to lay down flat. With conditions like this it is a huge advantage to be on one of the TLBB programs. There are currently 30 boys enrolled in this prison, and there are 2x small concrete blocks that make up the classrooms that they meet in 5 days per week. They learn the theory behind the engineering and mechanicals of the motorbikes in one room, and the practical skills in the other. We were able to ask questions and Kim Chen translated for us so that we could learn how they found being on the TLBB program. The goal is that they are learning a practical skill which they can apply in the workplace once they are released from prison. What is amazing about this program is that TLC put a lot of work into supporting the whole family of the prisoner, it’s important for these boys to maintain relationships with family. I can be difficult for underprivileged families to visit their children in prison, as there is a big expense to visit to the prisons, these expenses can involve things like transport, parking fees, storage of helmets (most ride moto’s) etc. There is also often stigma attached to the crime which the social workers work with the families on and ensure that a healthy relationship is maintained.
When TLC first launched this project, the reoffending rate of youths released from prison was at 60%. Over the last 10 years, TLC report that the reoffending rate is just 2% for the boys on the TLBB program. This stat is on track to reduce even further based on the data recorded over the last 12 months. It is a phenomenal achievement.
To offer perspective on how incredible this work is, the reoffending rate of youths released from the UK juvenile prisons system in 2015/16 was 29.7%. And 49.8% percent of those new crimes were committed with the first 3 months of release. Imagine being able to implement a program that could reduce that down to less than 2%? It seems like a no-brainer for governments and that is exactly what TLC are now experiencing. They have been able to expand this program across multiple prisons and are considering other locations too.
A TLC Casestudy:
Choeun* was sentenced to prison in July 2015 for drug use and joined the TLBB program in August 2016. Showing great commitment to learning new things and a desire to change his life, he studied moto repair skills for one year during which he showed a clear attentiveness to mastering his skill of choice. In July 2017 Choeun was released and happily reunited with his family. While initially scared that he would be blamed for making his family’s living situation difficult, our case manager worked closely with him and his family to focus on planning for the future and moving on from the past. Choeun decided to take the skills he acquired with This Life Cambodia to open his own moto repair shop. TLC supported this plan by providing startup tools and materials and followed up to monitor Choeun’s progress, both personally and with the business. Choeun has been working hard and loves his business. In addition to repairing motos, he also offers car painting. With support from TLC and his family Choeun, is now an active, upstanding citizen who supports himself and his family.
Moto Doctor Project
Our next stop was the Moto Doctor. Similar to the program that is run in the prisons, This Life Cambodia’s Vocational Training & Social Enterprise (VTSE) program provides skills and opportunities to young adults from vulnerable backgrounds, or from poor families. Through VTSE’s Moto Doctor project, students are offered training in motorbike repair along with business and customer management skills obtained by working in a fully operational repair shop.
Again, it was great to speak to these boys (roughly aged 15-18 years old) and find out how they benefit from the program.