South Surrey residents Jim and Holly Scott have travelled to Cambodia four times with Tabitha Foundation’s house-building teams. Here, they pose for a photo with one of the families who benefited from efforts in 2017. (Contributed photo)

South Surrey event to benefit efforts to help Cambodia rebuild

Cambodia ‘missing a whole generation’ due to Khmer Rouge genocide

Holly Scott remembers trying, along with her husband, to put a finger on the gap they sensed in Cambodia during their first visit in 2007 as part of a house-building team.

Then it became clear – a generation of people were missing. There were the young and the old, but few in-between; a heartwrenching reality of the decimation inflicted on the country decades before at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

Under Pol Pot’s brutal regime, more than two million people died between 1974-79 – by execution, starvation or disease – and the country has yet to recover.

“They’re so devastated,” said Scott, a South Surrey resident. “You don’t just pick up and dust yourself off after something like that. You’re missing a whole generation of people.”

Scott said “so many” people don’t know about the devastation and ongoing struggles, but she hopes an event next weekend in South Surrey will help draw some attention to it, and to the efforts of one woman to help the country rebuild.

Tabitha Foundation founder Janne Ritskes is to speak at the Rotary Fieldhouse on Sept. 28.

It’s hoped Canada to Cambodia: An Inspiring Evening with Janne Ritskes will raise at least $5,000 for projects including construction of houses, wells and schools.

Scott said the proceeds will also help purchase solar panels for the Nokor Tep Women’s Hospital, to create a more stable source of the electricity needed for surgeries.

The hospital opened last year in March; an effort Ritskes focused on after seeing women dying of treatable cancers, after-birth difficulties and other ailments for which First World residents take treatment for granted.

Scott, who was invited about three years ago to join the foundation’s volunteer board, said she is in awe of the fact that Ritskes was able to make it a reality.

“I just find it incredible that one woman can use her contacts around the world and raise money to build a three-storey hospital,” she said.

Ritskes launched the Tabitha Foundation in 1994. At its heart is a savings program that helps families “break the cycle of poverty and graduate to complete financial independence,” according to information on the foundation’s website.

In Tabitha’s first 24 years, 578,000 families benefited from the program, which Ritskes explains in an online video is not about loaning money. It’s about helping the families involved – over a five- to seven-year span – identify their needs and find a way out of poverty, by encouraging them to save a little of whatever cash flow they do earn to put towards “dream items” such as livestock, pots and pans or education. After 10 weeks of saving, a family will have three days to purchase the item, and then the cycle repeats.

During the Scotts’ first trip to Cambodia, they were part of a 21-volunteer house-building team with Tabitha, helping to construct 10 houses for families who had saved up enough money to buy land.

The “amazing experience” changed Scott’s outlook on life, and prompted her and her husband to invite Ritskes to speak locally in 2008. The couple has returned to Cambodia three times with Tabitha in the years since, most recently in November of 2017.

The house-building tours are “quite an eye-opener,” she said, explaining that Ritskes has volunteers visit the sites where the Khmer Rouge perpetrated the mass killings.

It’s an experience that hits harder with every visit, Scott said.

“Every time we go back and every time I go to that killing field… I feel that I’m hurt more inside than I was the time before,” she said.

Fellow board member Dave Moran – an Okanagan resident who said he also got involved with Tabitha after seeing the desperation in Cambodia firsthand – said the biggest challenge Tabitha faces with fundraising is for most people, the need in Cambodia is “off the radar.”

“Cambodia’s kind of old news in some ways, and yet people there are still in desperate ways,” he said. “The struggle has been to get people here to really care.”

Two per cent of the funds raised in Canada for the Tabitha Foundation go towards administration costs; five per cent ($10,000 in 2018) goes to a stipend for Ritskes.

Tickets to the Sept. 28 event at the Rotary Fieldhouse – which gets underway at 6:30 p.m. and is to include appetizers, a silent auction, Cambodian silk handicraft sales and more – are $25 in advance, available through www.tabitha.ca/tickets, or $30 at the door.

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Before and after photos show the difference a 2017 house-building effort made for one Cambodian family helped by the Tabitha Foundation. (Contributed photos)

Janne Ritskes, Tabitha Foundation founder

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