Walking into Cambodia (yes, literally walking) proved to be one of the most unique experiences of our trip. In the span of five short days, we waited for buses we weren’t sure would come, climbed through ancient temple ruins worthy of Indiana Jones, and took in the terrible relics of the Khmer Rouge. Cambodia retains not only the impressive structures of its ancient history, but also the deep scars of its recent past. But a visit with sister organizations PEPY and PEPY Tours doesn’t lead one to dwell on the challenges the people face, but rather it impresses upon you a revolutionary approach to service any organization or volunteer should learn from- that you should learn before you help, not help to learn.
PEPY stands for “Promoting Education, emPowering Youth,” but you could just as well claim it’s a title earned by the enthusiasm and spirit of the volunteers and staff. Based in Siem Reap, PEPY is technically two distinct operations with a strong relationship and shared vision. PEPY the non-profit runs a wide variety of educational programs for 1700 families in 12 villages. PEPY Tours, the social enterprise, runs educational tours and fundraising programs that help fund the work of the NGO. The two began as one in 2005, when PEPY’s founders came to Cambodia hoping to help build schools and directly impact communities. But as they learned, the work of the organization began to adapt – PEPY’s focus shifted from building schools to building up people. Within the community, they help provide opportunities for local leaders to meet their own needs. And now for people with a heart to help, PEPY Tours provides opportunities to learn about service and what sustainable development truly looks like.
PEPY NGO’s educational programs focus on working with existing (but committed) school leadership, like in the Sahakoom Apeewaht Sala program. But they also support Child-to-Child clubs for local children to lead the effort to educate their peers on issues like health, sanitation, and sustainable farming. PEPY also runs a Khmer Literacy Program and Creative Learning Classes. An impressive feature of the PEPY design is that they are almost entirely staffed by locals. Through their experiences, they have learned that local professional development leads to much more sustainable community development. But within both the NGO and PEPY Tours, there are still internships available for westerners, mostly in the communications department. On the communications team, native English speakers can help out a lot.
And in place of short-term volunteer placements, PEPY Tours offers an opportunity for long-term learning to schools and other groups who are willing to commit at least one week to learn about responsible travel. In addition to seeing the sites of Cambodia, they also visit with different NGOs and learn about the work they are doing. PEPY Tours also facilitates discussions and provides trip manuals full of critical and thought provoking articles. While learning about the work NGOs do, PEPY Tours participants learn about the impact every part of their trip (and their money) makes, from where they stay to where they eat. They do not visit the schools themselves, but instead weigh the impact of short-term volunteers on local communities. They also learn about the specific challenges Cambodia faces, such as the effects of the Khmer Rouge’s deadly campaigns against educated people has had on current education. Occasionally, if there is a project that the Cambodia Rural Development Team needs assistance with that it cannot get in the local community, PEPY Tours travelers may be able to help out. Recently, a team helped contribute to a land-leveling project that needed to be done quickly, but lacked workers to do the grunt work. But these opportunities are not the most common. The most exciting way to take part in PEPY Tours is through PEPY Ride, and annual 1000km bike ride through the countryside. This fundraiser brings in people from all over the world, from ages 11 to 71, to explore Cambodia and raise awareness about PEPY programs.
Even in our short visit with PEPY and PEPY Tours, we felt challenged to weigh some of the larger dilemmas of international volunteering. Coming into our trip, GiveYourGap hoped to find out what it takes for a volunteer to make a significant difference in the world. But with operations like PEPY out there shaking things up, we wish them the best as they continue to grow. Look out for their upcoming expansion into Nepal!
Check out our interview with PEPY volunteer Grace!