Hope For A Better Life

From running orphanages to providing skills training, Operation Hope Foundation is offering underprivileged villagers in Thailand, Cambodia and Nepal a chance to turn their lives around.

BY KAREN TEE
PHOTOS OPERATION HOPE FOUNDATION

W

hen her father left her mother, Chan Srey Neang was only 6. Her mother was left to take care of her and her three older siblings. Things looked bleak for the young Cambodian family until the year Srey Neang turned 10.

That year, her mother found work at Hope Village Prey Veng, an orphanage run by Singapore charity Operation Hope Foundation (OHF) in southern Cambodia. She moved to the orphanage with her mother, and Srey Neang was given the opportunity to enrol in the home’s educational programmes.

After building a house in a rural village in Prey Veng, Cambodia, OHF volunteers from the Hilton Group distribute nutritional beverages to children.

Now an assistant director at an egg farm in Siem Reap, Srey Neang, 23, says: “Without a doubt, Operation Hope Foundation changed my life. I had the chance to learn English and computer skills. OHF provided me and other children with opportunities that we would otherwise not have had access to.”

OHF was founded in 2001 by Singaporean Robert Kee, who owns a business in the manufacturing and distribution industry. He was moved to make a difference after watching a documentary in 1995 on child prostitution in Cambodia.

He gained some experience in 2000 establishing and running a children’s home with a church in Singapore, and started OHF a year later. He says it is the success stories of individual beneficiaries, like Srey Neang’s, that make the years of work so rewarding for him.

Hope Village Prey Veng in Cambodia, an 80,000 sq ft orphanage converted from a disused villa, was the first project by OHF, which has since expanded its operations to other countries. The charity now runs orphanages in Thailand and Nepal as well as community projects, such as building houses, toilets and wells in Cambodia. It also teaches rural school-leavers English, business skills and computer skills to improve their chances of securing white collar jobs.

One of OHF’s latest projects is building earthquake-proof “rice bag houses” in Nepal. Says Kee: “In the mountainous regions, it is impossible or expensive to transport construction materials, like bricks, up to the villages. So we use empty rice bags filled with soil and rocks at the construction site. Barbed wire is used to hold the rice bags together for walls and zinc sheets are used to form the roof, making it the ideal solution for Nepal.”

Children playing a ball game in Hope Village Prey Veng, a childrenʼs home in Cambodia.

BRIDGING CULTURAL DIFFERENCES

While logistical problems could be solved with creative thinking, cultural differences could be bridged only after first learning about a culture unfamiliar to Singaporeans.

In the early days of setting up OHF in Cambodia, Kee found that the local staff did not understand the concept of employment. “We had a staff member who went to her room to sleep whenever she felt tired,” he recalls. “Others went on leave without telling us, or extended their leave without asking for permission.”

The OHF team discovered there was a cultural reason behind such behaviour. Kee says: “In an agricultural society, people work according to the seasons, with the hard work taking place during the planting and harvesting seasons. Hence, many Khmers from rural areas are not used to working every week of the year.”

“Itʼs not an easy job. It requires lots of patience, teamwork and some chemistry. But everyone got together and helped one another out. Although there was a language barrier between the local carpenters and us (Singaporeans), it did not stop us from building the house.”


Singaporean volunteer Lee Kian Hong who helped to build a house in Prey Veng

To close the gap between rural and urban working cultures, OHF added modules on work attitudes as well as decision-making, problem-solving and life skills, to its seven-month Training Job Skills for the Service Sector (TJSSS) programme. The results of this programme, which offers classes on saving money as well as planning for the future, have been stunning, he says.

One student’s salary jumped sixfold from about US$80 to US$500 in the three years after he graduated from the course. The programme is now in its fourth year in Cambodia and there are plans to launch it in Nepal next year.

Being involved in OHF has been rewarding for its Singaporean volunteers too. Business analyst Lee Kian Hong, who volunteered with the OHF team in March to help build a house in Prey Veng, likes the camaraderie and the community spirit.

He says: “It’s not an easy job. It requires lots of patience, teamwork and some chemistry. But everyone got together and helped one another out. Although there was a language barrier between the local carpenters and us (Singaporeans), it did not stop us from building the house.”

The experience also gave him a different perspective on his life. He says: “I learnt that good things don’t come easily. We should treasure what we have and contribute to society so that the next generation can continue to enjoy what we have now.”

(FROM LEFT): Beneficiaries from Dhading District, Nepal, with the rice bag house that was being built for them; Children from Hope Village learning computer skills using donated desktop computers.


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