Imagine the pride and empowerment that must come with providing strangers a comfortable place to sleep when you haven’t always had one yourself.
This is the experience of the young men and women who have been under the training of the EGBOK Mission, an organization that provides hospitality industry skills to underprivileged Cambodia youth, offering them a pathway out of poverty and a renewed sense of identity and worth.
Coming of age in a country that has seen a genocide in the last generation, many of the young people lifting themselves out of poverty through EGBOK are orphans or raised by widowed mothers.
I had the privilege of talking to Annie Place, Director of Development at the EGBOK Mission. We talked about why the hospitality industry is a hospitable one to Cambodian kids looking for a way to improve their lives and expand their horizons, and heard one story of an EGBOK alumna who transformed her life through her own hard work—and with the opportunities provided by EGBOK.
Laura Cococcia: What is the story behind the creation of EGBOK? What needs did you see that needed to be met?
Annie Place: EGBOK Mission was founded in 2007 by Ben Justus during his time studying at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration in Ithaca, New York. Along with a number of his classmates, they began raising funds to start a hospitality-focused project for underprivileged young adults in Cambodia. In 2009, Ben moved to Cambodia, lived at an orphanage and began teaching hospitality classes at various orphanages in the Phnom Penh province.
During his travels he recognized that despite Cambodia booming in tourism and economic growth, deep down it is a country rebuilding itself from the Cambodian genocide. Despite all that the Cambodian people have been through, he observed that they remain resilient and eager to learn. He began to ask himself how a developing country like Cambodia can utilize this growing hospitality industry to alleviate poverty in local communities. Ben realized that he and others could use their backgrounds in hospitality to make a difference for the underprivileged young adults in Cambodia.
LC: Your organization primarily helps teens to become hospitality professionals. Why is this industry a good match for the underprivileged?
AP: EGBOK Mission’s Cambodia project utilizes the growing hospitality industry as a sustainable means for young adults to lift themselves out of poverty. We provide the skills and transition necessary to connect eager students with their future potential as hospitality professionals so that they can live independently.
Hospitality is a lifestyle. It builds confidence, leadership, and a spirit of service. The traits students develop—compassion, kindness, selflessness—reach across the world and beyond cultural barriers, acting as a universal language that everyone understands. Hospitality offers a wealth of rewarding, self-sustaining careers that rely on healthy work environments and positive life skills that will benefit young people both professionally and personally.
LC: Do you have any success stories that you’re particularly proud of? What program participants, either on the student side or the hospitality side, have left a particularly good mark on the world?
AP: Srey Lin (name has been changed for privacy and protection) is a 22-year-old female who recently graduated from EGBOK Mission’s program. Srey Lin’s mother died when she was very young and she was raised by her father, who was an alcoholic and very abusive to Srey Lin, her brother and sister.
While Srey Lin was enrolled in EGBOK Mission’s Phase 1 Foundation Course, her father died. Meanwhile, Srey Lin ‘s brother was trying to sell Srey Lin’s sister into the sex trade as a prostitute so that they could earn more income for the family. After learning of this, Srey Lin was able to successfully have her sister come live in an orphanage with her to keep her safe.
Later that year, Srey Lin entered EGBOK Mission’s full-time program to study culinary. She was supported by EGBOK Mission with all of the tools, guidance and mentorship she needed to succeed and build her confidence.
Previously a timid, shy young woman, Srey Lin blossomed into one of our hardest working, most motivated, confident students.
Upon graduation, Srey Lin secured a job at a Starwood hotel, Le Meridien Angkor, where she previously interned. Srey Lin has been working there since July 2012 and continues to receive exceptional remarks from her supervisor and manager.
LC: One fascinating aspect of the program is the opportunity students have to travel abroad. How does this foster cultural growth and exchange, and why is this an important part of EGBOK’s mission?
AP: The past two years we have partnered with Semester At Sea to offer selected students the opportunity to sail on board the voyage between ports in Asia. This provides an invaluable experience as these students have never left Cambodia, let alone sailed on a ship, flown on an airplane and seen a train. This exposure broadens the students’ minds to life as they know it in Cambodia and enables them to interact with people from all walks of life, adding value to their lives personally, academically and professionally. This opportunity is sponsored by Semester At Sea and we are very grateful for the experience they are providing.
To learn more about the EGBOK Mission, visit www.egbokmission.org. You can also watch this engaging TED Talk from founder Ben Justus:
Laura Cococcia is a traveler, author, Google alumna, Huffington Post blogger, and passionate about living a mindful life. Her professional and creative work both seek to prove that progress and profit don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and that in our globally interconnected world we can all thrive when we learn from one another. Find her here.
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Assistant Ed: Stephanie V.