For my first Blog interview I am thrilled to be able to talk (albeit via email) to Sue Wiggans, founder of Honour Village Cambodia, a charity whose mission of ‘striving to help some of Cambodia’s poorest and most vulnerable children by giving them a safe home, good nutrition and an education’ is underpinned by the core values of Truth, Transparency and Integrity. This interview will also find a permanent home on my 'Sharing the Sparkle' Page.
One of the things that most inspires me about Sue’s journey is the fact that she embraced this new life at the age of 68 when many people are thinking about winding down rather than having new adventures - she truly is a role model for us all as we enter the third age.
NB all Honour Village photographs were supplied by Sue
How did your journey to becoming a founder of a charity in Cambodia begin?
I came to Vietnam and Cambodia on holiday in Jan/Feb 2009. I visited an orphanage in Siem Reap, and offered to return the following winter to volunteer as an English teacher. During the summer, I sent part of my inheritance money for land for permanent buildings. My volunteering was great fun and I loved the children. However, right at the end of my return stay, I discovered that the director was using donations for personal and family spending, and that my money had not been used to buy land. The land I had been shown had in fact been fully protected by law since 1994 because of its proximity to the ancient temples.
By a chain of linked coincidences, I was granted a meeting with His Excellency Seang Nam, MP. He generously offered to give land for a project, and said that if I started a children's project in person, he would be the Patron.
How did you go about setting up Honour Village?
I returned to Cambodia in May of the same year for a month's fact finding and during that time saw the land that had been given for Honour Village. It was a third of a hectare of prime building land, still a rice paddy, which needed filling to over half a metre and fencing before any building could begin. During this stay, we formed a Board of Directors, began registration proceedings with The Ministry for the Interior, interviewed applicants for a Manager, who then worked in his free time as a volunteer for us for 6 months, and bought our first two traditional wood houses on stilts. I funded the development of the land with the remainder of my inheritance money. Since then, donors have sponsored two houses, which have now been named for them, releasing my earlier funding into the general running costs.
I came home for five months to pack up my home, sell my possessions and register Honour Village Cambodia as a charity with the Charity Commissioners for England and Wales, and also with HMRC. I returned in September and moved into Honour Village in late November with a core Khmer staff. We had no electricity (we still only have it from 6pm to 11pm) and our water comes from a well, so I felt very intrepid as I settled in! Our official Opening Ceremony was on December 12, 2010.
When did you realise you wanted to make it your life's work?
Soon after I decided to listen to my inner voice and take up the offer to found a children's project (and this happened within a couple of days of the offer). I had initially thought I would come and go perhaps three times a year, but soon realized that a) flights are very expensive; and b) it is not possible to live two lives fully.
How did you make the courageous decision to sell your home in England
and move to Cambodia?
It didn't seem courageous in any way, but rather a natural and inevitable consequence of the decision I had made. It would be difficult to juggle with concerns about property and possessions on the other side of the world when I am living an entirely different life, and only return for eight weeks each year. In any case, my sister wanted me to promise to stay with her, so my bungalow, Dilkhush, would barely have seen me!
How did you come to choose the name Honour Village?
This came into my mind as I began to ponder on possible names, and I knew at once that it was the one. It symbolizes what we stand for, and that Honour Village came into being as a direct result of dishonour at the orphanage where I was volunteering.
Tell me about the work of Honour Village
We are always busy and no two minutes, let alone days, are ever the same. Every moment is precious. every contact with any child is important. Our "little interruptions" are, in fact, our work, and so the office is rarely child-free. A cuddle may be required in the middle of an email; a difference of opinion may need to be sorted over whose turn it is to play with a toy. Of course, housemothers are about, but when we are nearest the mishap, it takes precedence.
Our children rise at 5.30am, and those who attend morning school (7 to 11am) leave at 6.15am. Khmer classes, for HVC and village children, taught by our housemothers, begin at 7 and end at 9am, when the volunteers arrive and English classes begin, for both our children and village students. Currently, we have four grades of English, plus pre-school and special needs groups. At 11am we meet for meditation (our children are Buddhist). We are silent for 5 minutes, then there is open forum, singing, a story or some mental arithmetic before lunch at 11.45. Afternoon school is from 1 until 5pm; those who are still on site have a nap, volunteers do chores after their lunch break and English and Khmer classes begin again at 2pm and currently end at 4pm. Every child therefore has one hour of Khmer tuition and one of English, and during the school holidays, on site classes continue as our children have missed so much schooling. Home work has recently been instituted and times tables are gradually being learned.
We seek to nurture with love, good food, education and health care (an Australian school is currently "Sponsoring a Tooth" so that every child can visit the dentist and catch up on dental care). We go in batches of six, and everyone is eager to be next! Nobody minds a return visit!
How have you integrated Honour Village with the local community?
We do all we can to be part of our local community. Our children go to the local government school and children from the villages round us are invited to play and to attend free classes in Khmer and English. They are also invited to our Christmas party, resulting in over 200 children of all ages spending Christmas (or the nearest Sunday) afternoon with us.
Chhunly and I manage a project for a colleague who is sponsoring our nearest village school to remain open all day, so that the teachers can teach one grade at a time, rather than two. We are in school very often to visit as we monitor this project. As we bump through the village on Chhunly's motor bike, we are followed by shouts from the houses of "Hello, Mak Sue San!" (Mother Susan). We are also sponsoring the construction of a pre kindergarden room for our children's school, which will serve two villages (although not ours); the materials were given by Norway, and we have been able to add to these and pay building costs. The room will accommodate 47 x 4 year-olds in two shifts, and their mothers will attend courses in basic hygiene, nutrition, health, etc.
How do you plan to secure the future of Honour Village?
By continuing our efforts to interest people in the work we are doing and finding a growing number of supporters. Our friends and sponsors help in a great many ways, and donations are sometimes one-off, more often a regular commitment but varying hugely in amount from a couple of pounds a month to much more. As funding grows, the work will spread into the surrounding villages, where there is great need and extreme poverty, coupled with few work opportunities. We need to find ways of helping people to support themselves, and are beginning to think of possibilities.
We have an excellent Manager, Chhunly Tiev, and it is my hope that he will make Honour Village his life's work. We have a wonderful team of UK Trustees, and are beginning the process of international registration here in Cambodia, which will simplify the structure and communication for urgent decisions, as our UK Trustees are always at hand to respond, despite being half a world away!
Who are your main supporters?
We now have supporters in UK, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Germany, Abu Dhabi and probably other countries that I don't know about! Increasingly our friends around the world are responding to our needs because they can see the difference their money is making to the lives of children both in HVC and in the villages around. It is important that people realize that no westerner ever receives so much as a penny (or a cent!) in payment or expenses (and that includes the UK Trustees!) The only paid staff are local Khmer people.
If you were granted three wishes what would they be?
Am I allowed multiple choices here? Of course, my vision reaches much further than inside the walls of Honour Village, and even beyond our neighbouring villages.
- That teacher training in Cambodia be up-dated and new methods of teaching be used at least to supplement learning by rote, and that class sizes be reduced (most of our children are learning in classes of more than sixty).
- That health care be more widely available and at greater depth than is possible at present; and that those living far from the towns have easier access to health care other than what can be provided by the village clinics.
- That the economy of Cambodia could be improved to enable more people to find work, and that more vocational training opportunities become available. (We hope to do our bit here, in 2 to 3 years' time!)
And finally, what do you miss most about living in the UK and in particular the Isle of Wight?
The fact is, I'm so busy here I barely have time to miss anyone or anything! But of course it would be lovely to see the people I love rather than having to email, and a roast shoulder of lamb with mint sauce and roast potatoes, peas and roast parsnips would be a dream
come true! And I sometimes feel I'm back at Brambles, the place where I was so incredibly happy, and where I never dreamt of leaving until I died. I remember Dilkhush and walking along the beach searching for shells and pebbles and glass. But aren't I blessed to have these memories so close and real to me while I'm here on the other side of the world? And I am so involved and absorbed in every minute of every day here that I rarely stop to think of the past. Just sometimes, fleeting nostalgia drifts through me, but it is a gift, not a sadness.
FunkyRosebud Studio will be continuing to support Honour Village by donating 10% of all profits from sales to them.