- In July, students from the Construction for Developing Communities subject will travel to Cambodia to build houses for locals
- Tom Jenkins explains how his experience last year changed his life and led him to set up a charity
For the last two years, Lecturer in the School of the Built Environment Michael Er has been taking students to Koh Rumdual, Cambodia, as part of the practical component for the elective subject Construction for Developing Communities. Tom Jenkins was part of last year’s group. The Bachelor of Construction Project Management graduate says the experience changed his outlook on life and inspired him to create a charity.
The first time we went we worked on a preschool and the reconstruction of a traditional Cambodian hut occupied by a widow and her eight children. One of her daughters was married, and when she came over, the mother would put up a sheet to section-off an area for her daughter and son-in-law – the huts are pretty basic. The second time we went we decided we could do a bit more, so we built four houses and did some more work on the school. This year we’re going to try to build five houses.
We struck up an on-going relationship with a not-for-profit organisation called Family Care Cambodia (FCC). They run preschools and orphanages in Koh Ramdual, a river island about one hour’s drive from the capital, Phnom Penh. The school we worked on is now finished but FCC have been granted some land by the government for a community centre, so we’re going to be working on a playground amongst other things on that land.
The students all really put themselves out there, which I find incredible. They all make a donation of $500 which pays for transport, a basic Cambodian lunch over the five days of work, all the materials we use and local supervision. Whatever’s left over is given as a donation to FCC. In July this year, several UTS staff members and ex-students who have volunteered, will also go along to supervise the current students. It’s their way of giving back. It blows me away how students, and ex-students, are willing to do this at their own expense.
I know Tom was affected by the trip to Cambodia, from the people we met and the building work we did. The first time I met Tom was in my Construction Technology 1 class. Considering there were about 100 students in that class, he did enough to stand out in my memory. He’s a genuinely nice guy and an extremely optimistic person who brought a lot of laughter to our trip last year, often at his expense. You could say he’s a bit of a larrikin.
Many of the people who get involved would love the chance to do this kind of charity work more regularly; it’s just not always possible on a financial level. A lot of the students have travelled but many haven’t visited a place where poverty is such a normal way of life. It’s good for them to see how these people live and to do some physical hands-on building work that actually makes a difference. This year we have students from construction but we’re also taking students from property, architecture, interior design, industrial design and visual communication.
I’ve travelled a bit, and been to places like Greece and America, but Cambodia is less discovered than many other touristy places. A friend suggested we do this subject so we could go overseas as part of our studies. I didn’t know much about it at first but I figured if a lot of my uni mates were doing it, then why not. I’m now so glad I did; it was amazing and made me appreciate what I have. It changed me as a person.
I’m sponsoring the guy we built the house for to study IT at a university in Phnom Penh. He’s just a really nice bloke – always happy despite the fact he has so little. Many Cambodians know they’re poor but they don’t express it. It’s what they’re born into and they deal with it and make do. It’s this attitude that made me want to do that little bit more, rather than call it quits after the experience abroad ended. Once he finishes his degree, his family will be able to break out of poverty. And for me, it’s only $300 a year.
I had Michael teach me in my first year back in 2008, and I enjoyed being in his classes from then on. He’s a fantastic teacher and builds great relationships with his students. He’s just a really good guy, a part of the crew rather than just a lecturer. He’d often come out and have a drink with us after a subject and catch up with us at the end of the semester. I know that even though I’ve graduated, we’ll stay in touch.
Because of Michael, I’ve been able to experience differences in building practices in Cambodia, which was fascinating. It was a good experience to actually see the raw materials and how they go about building the same things we build. It was also interesting to see the differences between Cambodia’s safety standards and ours. Here, everything is perfectly measured up with your laser levels and there, it’s just dig in and hope for the best. If it stands, great!
My friend, who also came with me to Cambodia last year, passed away in January this year, on Australia Day. He was a close friend to both Michael and me. I’ve been speaking with his family and we’re going to start a charity, of sorts. We want to raise money ourselves and know where the money is going to be spent. So when we want to do something back in Cambodia, with FCC for example, instead of just giving them the money, we want to go over and see it through ourselves.
I know it sounds corny but when you go and see the situation yourself, you can’t help but be touched by it. The people of Koh Rumdual have no real games to play, not even a soccer ball, so we looked at how much a volleyball court would cost. Then we decided to take the idea to the next level and build a recreation centre. We also want to inspire people to grow their own crops on the land to make them self-sufficient. The women make things to sell at markets, so it would be nice to give them somewhere covered where they can work together rather than sit in the boiling hot sun. At this stage we’re in talks with FCC about how we can achieve all of this.