What can I do for you? A story of Friends…International

This story is not about what you should do or what is best – this is about what can I do for you? That is how Friends International began. It began by asking, “what can I do for you? What do you need?” On 22 of February 2012 I was able to meet with staff from Friends International, recently voted Top 100 NGO in 2012 by Global Journal, as well as experience their work, “help out” in it, and live the impact. James and Charlotte welcomed me into their head office to share a bit about their backgrounds, the projects, and the impact.

Part I – Beginnings

Almost 15 years ago when Cambodia was opening up post Khmer Rouge, Sebastian, the Executive Director, was traversing through Cambodia on his way to Japan. While resting he noticed truck after truck of NGO and Aid vehicles passing by. But beyond the image of these, in the distance along the river, were homeless and suffering Cambodians and youth laying along the riverside. The amount of aid pouring into the country since it opened was enormous – but why were there so many homelss and impoverished youth untouched and unaffected, Sebastian thought.

Sebastian decided to start speaking to them about their stories asking them what they needed. The number of education facilities and orphanages were skyrocketing, but the surprising answer from these youth were not to go to school or for a bed –  they wanted work to support themselves and families.

Part II – An answer to the calling: 4 Friends Programs

Yes, educational opportunities exist (for those under 15 if they wish). Outreach teams go out to street kids, ask what they need, build relationships, and encourage the value of education.  The participants are never forced but supported to make the decision on their own, but the demand was for opportunities to gain skills for jobs, and so was born the (1)Friends Programs providing vocational skills training, (2) Friends Social Businesses to support the trainings and provide real world application, (3) CYTI Alliance, a coalition of best-practices and lessons learned to collaborate and involve NGO’s in supporting marginalized communities, and finally the (4)Childsafe Network to spread advocacy and include the community in child-safe tourism and business practices. This includes the “Thumbs Up” logo that is featured everywhere from tuktuks, to hotels, police, and even airlines (coming soon).

The Friends Educational and Training Center 

Part III – Experiencing the Vocational Programs

It is one thing to hear about and read about programs, but it is another to experience it first hand. After the meeting, off I went to track down the social businesses and trainings, speak with the beneficiaries, and observe how well their hospitality program REALLY was. I was able to find 2 restaurants, which has now separated to be its own entity (Mith Samlanh) as well as the stores selling the beneficiaries’ products, and a beauty training salon.

Mith Samlanh – Romdeng Restaurant – Social Business and Vocational Training
Romdeng Friends International Product Store – featuring items made by beneficiaries

Vocational Training – Nail and Beauty Salon

Finally, I decided to sit down, relax, and try out the training program of Friends Restaurant. First thing I did was ask a “Teacher” and staff how it worked from their  perspective – and the trainer was VERY well versed. He knew all of the details of the levels of the hospitality program. This trainer was actualy from the local university there to support the program. Another staff with little anglais did not want me to go empty handed even though he could not answer my questions (language barrier) so he brought me a ChildSafe Traverler Tips brochure (in Khmer). It was thoughtful and sincere. Every member of the staff were sincere, focused, and in a state of learning – the highest state I would say to be in life.

The Training Process:
Step 1: preparing food for chilfren in schools (4months training)
Step 2: Training in serving and hospitalitiy in Cambodian restaurants (for locals) (about 10 mths)
Step 3: Move to training/working in Friends-Mith Samlanh Center

And voila… there I was about to sample the cooking and services of Friends International trainees…

Menu, staff, and trainee board (in background) at Friends Restaurant

Getting work done at Friends Restaurant while having a non-alcoholic Passion Fruit chiller, reading the ChildSafe pamphlet, and about to taste the  tuna and egg salad (YUM)

Part IV: Creating Advocates

At the end, I was sold. Not only did I buy gifts and a Friends trainee-created notebook for myself, but I had lunch at the restaurant and visited their training salon. Yes, Charlotte and James were fantastic pitchers of their program. But beyond that (and I am not saying I am a hardened jaded global development specialist)… it takes a lot to get me to buy in. And there need not be any pitching necessary – because the products were quality, they were items I wanted to buy for myself (but I couldn’t be selfish…so I’ll call them gifts and figure out who they’re for later), the food was delicious, and I had better service than at the more expensive restaurants of Phnom Penh.

When I asked James how he would describe the FRIENDSISH image,  he said it is about fun, smiling, and bringing those back into the community from the margins. It is about collaboration (see previous post), and being young at heart. When you learn you feel young again, and being young is not about age.. it is about a state of mind. That is how he viewed friends… and that’s how I experienced it.

For more information: Friends-International

GlobalGiving InTheField Traveler | Texas

Jacqueline is an InTheField Traveler with GlobalGiving and is now making her way across Southeast Asia. Jacqueline has lived all around the U.S., Central America, backpacked along Australia’s eastern coast while volunteering for the National Park Service, western Europe, and traveled around the world. You can also follow her via Twitter.

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