Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
While most Swatties spent their spring breaks at home, on campus, or maybe points southern, the SwatCambodia and Fellowship in Nicaragua student groups each went abroad, to their respective focus countries. The two groups focus on different ideas of community service, but both emphasized the importance of sustaining interest in these communities and maintaining a long-term relationship with the non-profit organizations they worked with.
Founded two years ago, SwatCambodia primarily focuses on spreading campus awareness about issues in Cambodia and building houses in Cambodia. During SwatCambodia’s the one-week trip, the group members participated in a building program started by the Tabitha Foundation, a nonprofit organization that focuses on helping community wellness in Cambodia. A variety of people participated in this one week program, including six Swarthmore students, two Swarthmore faculty members, one Swarthmore alumus, two local residents, and four others.
After a grueling twenty-one hours of flight, the group members arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, on Saturday night, then participated in the Tabitha’s Foundation orientation the following day. The organization’s founder, Janne Riskes, held a brief orientation for the group that included a trip to the Killing Fields and S-21. According to Ivana Ng ’12, a student member of SwatCambodia, thousands of people were killed and buried during the Khmer Rouge regime at the site called The Killing Fields, and S-21 was a former prison where thousands of people were imprisoned, tortured, and killed. On the impact of this field visit, Ng described, “I had had a vague idea of what happened, but after talking to Janne and seeing these sites, I’m just left with a lot of anger (especially about the US’s role in keeping Pol Pot in power), sadness and compassion for Cambodia and its peoples.”
The rest of their trip focused on building a total of fifteen houses for homeless families in Kampong Thom, a small town approximately four hours outside of Phnom Penh. Jen Trinh ’11, the founder and current president of SwatCambodia, describes these families as “homeless” even though “some of the families had homes,” because “they were essentially palm-leaf shacks that were falling apart and would probably not have lasted through the monsoon season.” Fortunately, local Cambodian contractors had already placed the foundation for these fifteen houses, so the volunteers mainly concentrated on nailing the floorboards and walls of the houses.
After the two days of building houses, some volunteers went back to Phnom Penh to return to the US. The majority spent the rest of their week in Cambodia visiting ancient temples, including Angkor Wat, Wat Bayon, and Ta Prohm.
Fellowship in Nicaragua
The Fellowship in Nicaragua trip abroad also followed a similar itinerary of an orientation/meeting, community service, and a tour of notable sites in Nicaragua. The campus group works closely with ASODECOMAT (Associacion para el Desarrollo Comunitario de Matagalpa), a Nicaragua community development organization, on improving the general welfare of people in Nicaragua. The group particularly focuses on ASODECOMAT’s psychosocial program on issues of domestic violence and abuse. Chemistry professor Tom Stephenson, who works with Joyce Tompkins of the Interfaith Center on advising the student group, describes, “Our hopes for the trip were to deepen our partnership and to get a better sense of how an on-going student group at Swarthmore can contribute.”
After two days in conferences with ASODECOMAT offices on discussing a sustainable partnership in Managua (the capital of Nicaragua), the Fellowship of Nicaragua and its twelve volunteers (nine students and three adults) traveled to the countryside to spend a day learning about a psycho-social program in seven communities to expand opportunities for women and children, and another day making bricks as part of an ASDECOMAT program to “improve the safety and efficiency of wood burning stoves in individual homes,” according to Stephenson. On the group’s last full day in Nicaragua, the volunteers toured the Granada islands.
Erin Floyd ’10, founder and current president of the Fellowship in Nicaragua, said that the group’s main objective is to emphasize and expand ASODECOMAT’s program for issues of domestic violence and abuse. The program focuses on providing psychological help to children who have experienced domestic violence, teaching them artisan skills, and enabling them to sell their original works. Floyd said, “I really like the idea the sustainable self-empowerment, [it] was an idea that I really enjoyed and wanted to help promote in developing countries.”
Reflecting on their respective trips, the volunteers have found their trip very inspirational, rewarding, and enriching. Members of both groups especially noted how the trips gave them new perspectives on the world. Heidi Wong ’10, a member of SwatCambodia, is interested in architecture; she said that for her, “it was refreshing to see architecture in this way, to build primarily for function…Hammering nails into crudely-cut wooden floor boards all day provided me with a different take on what building a house is about.” Likewise, Victoria Pang ’13, a member of the Fellowship in Nicaragua, said, “My stay with a Nicaraguan family without electricity or running water taught me so much about the strength of the people in Nicaragua, despite political turmoil, corruption, and widespread poverty.”
Despite experiencing a variety of challenges including language barriers, travelers’ sickness, flight delays, and fundraising, both groups have consistently emphasized the long-term goals of their service to Nicaragua and Cambodia, and they both plan on visiting their respective communities every other year. As Pang puts it, “I left the country inspired and energized to do more work with the Swarthmore student group.”