Striving for a Just World in Destitute Cambodia
Many would assume that the trip of a lifetime would involve a certain amount of opulence, but for JustWorld Ambassadors, Kevin Staut and Jan
By: Kendall Bierer |
In 1998, show jumper Jessica Newman put away her tack and ignited a fire of philanthropy in the equestrian world. Her idea was simple: raise awareness of the needs of underprivileged children around the world. By 2003 she had created JustWorld International, a non-profit organization that raises funds and actively participates in challenging the cycle of poverty in developing nations.
Last October, a delegation of 17 JustWorld Ambassadors and supporters packed their bags for a week-long trip to the People Improvement Organization Project in Phnom Penh. There were both new and returning faces, but everyone walked away with a story to share and a newfound understanding for life outside of the ordinary.
Top ranked rider, Kevin Staut, and show organizer Jane Tidball were among those taking a step outside their comfort zone. The trip to Cambodia was an eye opening experience for them both. It did not take long for them to discover that life here begins with the basics and happiness comes from the inside.
One-third of the population in Cambodia, which was estimated at 14.86 million in 2012, lives off less than $1 a day. Families search through the dumps for recyclable materials, edible food and bargaining chips in a country that continues to struggle with the political, economic and social effects of the last forty years.
Cambodia’s recent history has been brutally marked by violence and suffering. Following the invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge seized political power and subjected the country to the merciless rule of Pol Pot and his army. Over two million lives, one third of the Cambodian population, were systematically exterminated by the Khmer Rouge in one of the worst genocides in history.
Phnom Penh is an overpopulated city with thousands settled in precarious housing conditions, facing unemployment and the lack of sufficient resources to provide education and social services. Among the affected is an entire generation of children, many of whom exist without parents or family to raise them. Kevin Staut’s sister was one of those children.
See For Myself
“My sister Jade was adopted when she was four months old and she had never been back,” Staut explained. “So when Jessica suggested I join her for the trip, I thought it was a good opportunity to see for myself the reality and the work of JustWorld. Although it was a short trip, it changed me forever.”
Although many organizations are assisting in rebuilding the country, one is striving to create a “just world” through education, hygiene and medical programs that begin with the children. Aligning with the People Improvement Organization (PIO), JustWorld International funded construction and supports operational costs for two schools in Phnom Penh: Stung Mean Chey, located at a municipal garbage dump, and Borey Keila, in an urban slum. JustWorld also provides education and food for children from the local orphanage.
Health and Nutrition are on the curriculum alongside the three “Rs” for upwards of 1000 children who attend the two schools. Teachers and staff at PIO, led by director Phymean Noun, are a relentless cog in the wheel of the project, always pushing for more and making do with very little.
“It was very exciting to see the work—amazing, really,” notes Staut. “I knew that I needed to go and be a part of it, for my sister and JustWorld. It was the best decision. I could never have imagined how much I would learn from this trip.”
Jade Staut, now 14, traveled alongside her sibling to the country of her birth. “I think it was just as touching for her as it was for me,” acknowledges the former European Champion. “She’s a teenager [laughs], and sometimes reality is something you don’t quite understand at that age. She is fortunate. She is not fighting for her life.”
Living The Dream
Staut’s connection to JustWorld began nearly eight years ago, when he was introduced to Newman. Although she had grown up with the support of her family which allowed her to pursue show jumping on a full-time basis, Jessica ventured outside the equestrian world. While studying International Relations at The American University in Paris, she had her epiphany.
Although she was living what many would have deemed “the dream,” Newman came to the realization that there were a great many people in the world without even a sliver of the opportunities she enjoyed. She decided to do something about it.
It was her passion that struck Staut in 2005, and although JustWorld was an infant organization at that time, he donned the blue and purple colors and became one of JustWorld’s first Ambassadors.
“I admired what she was doing,” says Kevin. “I was a young rider in the beginning of my career, and she wanted to reach out to a younger generation through JustWorld; to find young people that are more able to understand the organization’s inspiration.”
In the first few years, Staut donated some of his earnings to JustWorld, but there was a piece of him that craved the idea of doing more.
“At the beginning of last year, I began to question my motivation within the organization,” Staut described. “I had donated a percentage of my prize money for the last seven years, but I wanted to do more. I wanted to have a more active role. The answer was this trip, and I am more motivated than ever. Now it comes from within.”
Staut and his fellow JustWorld supporters were overwhelmed by the response to their visit. “The rider’s world is a little bit special,” he described. “It is a small group of people traveling all year long. We are a privileged group with expensive horses and millions of Euros in prize money. Sometimes you lose a sense of reality in this small world. Sometimes it is good to do something different and see the reality of everyone and know more about people. It is not about the publicity; it was what my time did for them, and in turn, what they did for me. It helped me to go there and see so many poor people enjoying what they have—it isn’t much, but, for them, it is enough.”
Staut said that through education the children were trying to make their lives better, “and really fighting for it, and adding value.
“I think we are losing this in other countries, like France, where we never really feel like we have enough. Sometimes we make a big deal about such small things. It’s nothing compared to the problems these Cambodian kids have. It was a real lesson for me.”
GIVE 4 GOOD
Staut was not the only person to return home with a renewed sense of motivation. President of the Thunderbird Show Park, Jane Tidball, said she had set off with a few preconceived notions of what to expect when she landed.
“Since beginning our partnership with JustWorld, we have worked to raise money for PIO in Cambodia, particularly the Rice for Families Project which provides a bag of rice each week to families who keep their children in school,” explained Jane. “It was such an honor to be a part of the GIVE 4 GOOD campaign and to see what our diligence as a team was able to provide for so many who need it.”
Jane personally handed out the rice allotments to families in the program. “To see how much it means to them and how a little amount of effort goes such a long way in a destitute country like Cambodia is something I will never forget.”
It was almost four years ago that Thunderbird Show Park in Langley, British Columbia, aligned with JustWorld International. They have consistently come out on top as the leading JustWorld supporting horse show every year, exceeding their set goals and expectations. Tidball’s team has raised well over $40,000 for JustWorld to date.
Like Staut, it was the first time Tidball was able to take the leap in her commitment to JustWorld and travel abroad to see the results of Thunderbird’s fundraising efforts.
“I think we are always one step removed,” Tidball explained. “You can see pictures, videos and listen to volunteers’ stories, but it all becomes so real and authentic when you go there and see just how destitute that nation is and the great things JustWorld is doing for those people in that country.”
If it weren’t for the schools, she continued, the children’s options would be really limited. “JustWorld’s program is revolutionary. It allows the parents and families to have a way of supporting themselves without the kids having to go to work at a young age. It’s a brilliant program, the children go to school and in exchange, the whole family gets a large bag of rice every week. It allows us to break the cycle of poverty—education is the key.”
Tidball said it was definitely a worthwhile trip to make, and she plans on returning again this year. “Once you see the difference you can make, it isn’t a difficult choice,” she concluded.
Also on the fall trip was Official Technical Ambassador Gerald Kuh who was returning to Cambodia for his second time. It was 2009 when he last visited, and he was astonished by the impact JustWorld International had made.
“The project has changed a lot. The first time I went, the school was a little shed beside a garbage dump. Now, it is really well built; similar to those that you see in North America,” Kuh explained. “It is nice to go back, and see how after four years these kids have turned out. Now, they can speak English properly, and they are not afraid to speak to foreigners. It is a huge change in this environment, especially seeing how happy the children are. They have a chance now for a brighter future.”
Kuh first met Newman in 2008 during the Beijing Olympic Games where he served as the Equestrian Manager. JustWorld International, and all it had to offer, intrigued him. He joined Newman in Florida for a brainstorming meeting where they created the Official Technical Ambassador program. Kuh was first to sign on. “On my first trip to Cambodia it was only Jessica, me, and maybe two or three others from the staff. It was a wonderful experience, a real eye opener for me,” Kuh explained. “You hear a lot about these poor places, but it was my first time really seeing how poor.”
He said to really understand it you had to “smell the smells.” Seeing it on television and in photographs, isn’t quite the same.
“You only really realize just how bad it is when you see the environment and talk to the people. You see how much an organization like JustWorld is needed.”
As 2014 begins, JustWorld ushers in the New Year with the support of Ambassadors across the globe with more than 500 Rider and Technical Official Ambassadors representing 40 different countries. Now entering their 11th year, the humanitarian organization has raised over $6 million to fund development programs for impoverished children in Cambodia, Honduras and Guatemala.
“When I went to Cambodia, I thought I was the lucky one,” Kevin Staut concluded. “But now my eyes have been opened. Everyone seemed to be really happy and enjoying such simple things, so who is in fact the lucky one? They taught me that there is so much more to life and happiness.”