Cambodia Tour: Eyes Wide Open

I was lucky enough to get a place on the 10th annual Humanitarian Tour to Cambodia and Vietnam in September alongside 28 students and 6 teachers. If you’ve been in the school for a while you’ve likely heard about ‘Tabitha’ and have contributed in one way or another.  I’d heard of it too over the years, but had no idea of the scope and achievements of this remarkable project until I got involved.


Students on the Cambodia Humanitarian Tour with the Cambodian families they are helping.

The actual ‘tour’ was for two weeks during the school holidays but it’s so much more than a tour!  Our personal growth journey started 12 months before departure, when our group began working together to serve others. 

Our fundraising journey

The main focus is to build houses with the Tabitha Foundation to alleviate poverty in rural Cambodia.  Every fortnight we made cupcakes and BBQ’d to raise money for the houses and every week in between we met as a group for coaching and planning to keep us on track.  The time commitment from students and staff is significant. Each house, which comes with a water well, costs $2500 and we built 16 with your support.

We also had working bees after school and in the holidays to make decorations for our Hoedown fundraising dinner in March. Students asked their families, employers and friends for donations and prizes and we cannot thank our sponsors enough for their generosity, making the Hoedown such a fun evening and a brilliant fundraiser.  Yee ha!

Over the years the project has also built relationships with Sunrise Children’s Villages and Allkids and students organised the collection of craft supplies and toothbrushes from our school and wider community to deliver to these children.  

Cambodia Humanitarian Tour students get into the spirit of the Hoedown fundraiser

The project continues to grow and evolve. This year a student instigated a new relationship with Days For Girls, who make and deliver re-usable feminine hygiene packs to girls who would otherwise stay at home from school without access to these products.  Girls and boys on the tour team, alongside parents and students from the school community, cut and sewed these packs which our girls delivered during the tour.

The fundraising and community service is so much bigger than the tour group. It’s a whole school tradition. Junior School students got together with family and friends to run farmer’s markets with their home grown produce and organised a colouring competition. The gold coin collection at Grammar’s Got Talent helped AllKids fund a new mini-bus.

Incoming Study Tour

On top of the tangible, physical results of building houses and delivering supplies, the project also builds capacity through an incoming study tour.  A month before our departure, four teenage students and two teachers from Sunrise Children’s Villages were hosted by our warm-hearted school families.  The four girls attended Middle School lessons alongside their buddies and joined as many excursions and incursions as possible during their stay. The teachers worked in our classrooms to broaden and enrich their practise. So many in the school got to know our visitors and through them were connected to the wider project.

Sunrise works hard to build and sustain local education and communities and this reciprocal aspect of the project is amplified when these visitors, who are the future of Cambodian society, return home with aspirations for new ways of living and learning.  I had the honour and privilege of hosting the female teacher, Chanthoeun, and we had lots of fun cooking, laughing and learning about each other’s lives.

When we visited the two Sunrise Children’s Villages during the tour we met up with our visitors and they were so proud to show us around their schools. A personal highlight for me was having dinner with Chanthoeun and her family at her home. They had created a feast fit for a palace, and invited family and neighbours to meet me.

Travelling in Cambodia and Vietnam

You can imagine that by the time we assembled at the RLC at 5.45 on the morning of our departure we were already a very tight team.  But we would become so much closer over the coming weeks. Our leaders had created a fantastic schedule that packed in as much as humanly possible. 

The house building itself was undoubtedly the most rewarding part of the tour where the team really bonded during two hot days of gruelling work.  The frames, floor and roof are in place and our job was to nail down countless narrow bamboo floorboards and build the walls. Breakfast at 6.30 and a two and a half hour bumpy mini-van ride from Pnomh Penh each way made for very long days but the work was carried out with humility and never a complaint. 

Our minds were on the privilege of being able to enact our fundraising and make such a significant contribution to the people around us, who had saved up money for their new houses too. We were repaid with a warm welcome, a helping hand and happy smiles when the finished houses were handed over. Kim reflected on her feelings of fulfilment seeing the looks on their faces: “I knew that I’d worked arm in arm with my team mates to change their lives.”  

Visiting two Sunrise Children’s Villages and AllKids added to our personal understanding of the real meaning and impact of all the fundraising and collecting.  There was high-spirited singing and dancing with tumultuous applause when our students performed their Grammar’s Got Talent routine, in answer to exuberant entertainment from our hosts.  Our soccer and volleyball skills were tested by agile and enthusiastic opponents.

There were fun and games of all sorts and also quiet conversations as we got to know each other.  We only work with the most progressive and ethical NGOs and as Isabella said, “I understood and experienced for myself how much of a significant impact these organisations have in establishing a better life for kids and families.  It opened my eyes and created a personal connection to those suffering as a result of poverty.”

Cambodia Humanitarian Tour students enjoy a game of football at Sunrise Cambodia

Our teachers trained the AllKids teachers for a day, sharing resources and equipment for learning activities in Art, Science, CPR, Food Handling Hygiene and Geography, that they could in turn use with their students.  Meanwhile our students relaxed across the road at the beach. The idea of some beach cricket had come up the night before and one of their teachers whittled a home-made cricket bat for us overnight.  Many joined us for a game the next day and the bat has come back home with us as a momento.

The scale and magnificence of the 12th Century temples at Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world, bore witness to the majesty of the ancient Khmer Empire and added a spiritual dimension to our experience.

I’ve learned that a small insignificant human being like me has the power to change a single life, in the long run the world. I’ve learned to trust myself rather than rely on others -  Georgia W

Visiting the Tuol Sleng (S21) Genocide Museum and the killing fields of Choeung Ek gave us profound insights into the history and circumstances that have shaped so many of the issues facing Cambodians today. This was an emotionally confronting day and we absorbed and processed this disturbing information in different ways with teachers on hand for de-briefs. Our guide’s personal family story, together with those of other survivors, made these relatively recent and devastating events very real.

Moving on to Vietnam, we absorbed the idyllic beauty of the villages around Sapa staying in the homes of the ethnic people of this mountain region and enjoying their simple hospitality. Adventure lovers got their fix boating, cycling and water buffalo riding.  We split up into small groups for a chef’s tour of the Hanoi food markets, followed by a boat ride to the Red River Cooking School where we re-grouped to prepare and consume our own feast.

Talking with a Viet Cong veteran soldier and visiting the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Min City gave us an alternative perspective on the ‘The American War’ and brought home the terrible impact of the war on Vietnamese civilians.

There were lots of intriguing foods to try, including tarantulas, crickets and cocoon worms. We spent much of our food budget in restaurants that support and train marginalised youth for the hospitality industry and enjoyed delicious meals in Sunrise, Friends and KOTO (Know One Train One) restaurants in Cambodia and Vietnam.

A tour student works the field in Vietnam
Deep Learning

By now you’re realising, why ‘tour’ doesn’t start to cover this all- encompassing journey and you must also be starting to comprehend the incredible work done year in year out by our leaders Michele Hockey and Sandra Peebles. To build and sustain these relationships, facilitate raising so much money over so many years, and to inspire successive tour groups and our whole school community to engage with this humanitarian project is a monumental achievement.

Working alongside them for twelve months I’ve seen just how much passion, time, sweat and tears they put in.  They are fantastic leadership role models and have made a difference to countless lives as a result of this project.

Projects like this are a key strand of the balanced education and wellbeing at the heart of the CCGS student experience. It’s been a challenging opportunity for every single one of us at times and our hands on, deep learning will play out over the years to come. 

Student evaluations show how much their involvement has empowered them and developed key skills for life post-CCGS including: gratitude, leadership, self-belief, service, empathy, teamwork, perseverance, self-confidence, resilience and independence - to name just a few.

Above all this journey has inspired us all to serve others.  As Tasmin put it, “helping people gives me true joy and this trip has really uplifted me.”

Read more about Central Coast Grammar School's International Program