Empowerment in Cambodia

In June, 10 alumni and students from Hong Kong International School (HKIS) and nine high school students from Child Rescue Organization (CRO) in Kranglover, Cambodia joined together to teach English and organize a day camp for children studying at Stronghold Cambodia in Sihanoukville. Throughout the week, students from many different walks of life came together,  to serve and empower one another.

This week of service learning is the most recent product of an evolving project that Michael  (Mike) Kersten, a high school humanities teacher at HKIS, has seen through its many stages. What now equips students at the Child Rescue Organization with team building and leadership skills found its start at an unlikely source: mango trees.

During Mike’s first year teaching at HKIS, he was assigned to lead a trip planting mango trees in Cambodia. On the trip, his students stayed at posh hotels, spent plenty of time in the pool, and got their hands just dirty enough planting a few mango trees to bank some volunteer hours for their college applications.

The experience didn’t sit well with Mike.

“The cognitive dissonance was too much for me to take,” he said.

Looking to challenge his students world view with an authentic experience and provide helpful work to needy communities along the way, Mike began taking service trips to CRO.

“Working at CRO gives my privileged students the opportunity to get out of their comfort zones long enough to have some pretty honest reflections about the material world they’ve surrounded themselves with, and what the pros and cons of that world are,” Mike said.

Initially, Mike and his students carried out manual labor tasks, installing water tanks and building swing sets. As life improved at the center, the need for these types of tasks reduced, and Mike’s project moved in a different direction.

Recently, teams of HKIS students have focused on empowering their friends at CRO with leadership skills and team building exercises, encouraging them to think of themselves as capable leaders who can change Cambodia for the better.

“As [CRO] has improved to a standard of living that doesn’t require material elements to improve anymore, our trips have transferred more towards doing team building exercises,” said Mike. “That started when CRO organized groups of students for doing chores. We took those same teams and organized Olympic events to help strengthen their chore team within CRO itself. As that has continued to develop, it has become more and more team building and more and more intentional to the point that we now have older students at the center that we want to encourage not only as leaders of those teams but also as leaders of Cambodia.”

For these older CRO students, leading HKIS students in teaching younger Cambodian children conversational English was the perfect opportunity for empowerment. Each of the nine CRO students proved to be great teachers, and the joy they derived in leading the classroom and organizing activities for Vacation Bible School day camp on a nearby beach the next day was evident in their excited smiles and thorough exhaustion.

CWEF has greatly enjoyed working with Mike and his HKIS students over the last six years. We hope to continue to aid in the logistics of the HKIS service trips, and we look forward to our continued relationship with HKIS as a whole.

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