“Cambodia? You can’t go to Cambodia by yourselves!” This was my first reaction when my two teenage daughters broached the idea of going on TASSEL’s summer teaching trip. As a result, my husband and I ended up chaperoning Singapore American School’s first student service trip to teach English and serve Cambodia’s rural poor. TASSEL was new at our school that year, and I expected it to be like most high school service clubs, discouraging adult involvement in favor of student empowerment. Little did I know how greatly it was not to be “either/or” but “both/and”—how much we were about to learn, and how deeply it would affect our lives!
Lesson 1) I needn’t have worried about my kids’ safety.
TASSEL Cambodia is run with meticulous care, transparency and integrity. Painstaking attention to detail is poured into every schedule for every summer trip, as well as most everything TASSEL does. Although we go to serve, not to be served, Joji Tatsugi and TASSEL’s Cambodian leadership do their best to oversee and arrange every detail from our arrival, transportation, accommodation, meals, training and program with excellence and superb organization. International volunteers are suitably supervised and guided; the accommodation is simple but sufficiently clean and safe. English-speaking Cambodian TASSEL staff accompany international volunteers for all transportation, home visits, program events and teaching. Drivers are professional and courteous, with clean, air-conditioned vans, usually traveling caravan-style. Itineraries are carefully planned out and executed on time. Meals are clean, sufficient, well-prepared; plenty of chilled, bottled drinking water is provided. The financial accountability is a priority: every expense/receipt is noted down to the cent, and the accounting is distributed to all. TASSEL’s leadership is self-effacing and self-sacrificing; Joji Tatsugi takes no salary from the organization, so that all funds go to help Cambodians. Seeing the care that was taken during that first trip, I felt confident that my daughters would indeed be safe and looked after with great care by TASSEL—so that they actually could “go to Cambodia by themselves”! And in fact, my oldest daughter did just that this past summer—spending nine weeks with TASSEL, without us!
Lesson 2) My kids didn’t need me, but TASSEL did—and we were the better for it.
The only real risk one takes in going on the TASSEL trip is the risk of having your heart broken by poverty and tragedy, your vision expanded, and your tidy life-schedule upturned. We went on the trip, thinking we knew about the needs of the poor, and how to teach our English curriculum. A trip to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields shattered our simplified, preconceived notions and gave context to the depth of the pain, hopelessness, and sorrow our TASSEL families are struggling to overcome. As we stared at the photos of hundreds of prisoners—all falsely accused, imprisoned, tortured and executed for crimes such as being educated, wearing glasses, speaking a foreign language—we could only shudder, knowing “that would have been me.” Then we met family after family in the villages, every person with a heart-breaking story of generational post-traumatic stress induced by the genocide. We heard their stories and shared their tears. We saw how TASSEL’s work was transforming their lives through education, kindness, service, food and medical support and tangible proof that there is hope for the future. We saw that we can be part of making that transformation continue to happen.
Lesson 3) We each can help make a real difference.
That first trip changed our family in several ways, and we’ve been back six more times since. While many good service organizations do valuable work, TASSEL provides us, and our students, a very personal and direct way to make a difference. We don’t just hold bake sales and remain distant, uninvolved benefactors. We get to know the people we serve, both through our weekly on-line teaching and yearly in-person visits. We can see lives being saved, houses being rebuilt, the sick getting treated, and young children learning and laughing with hope—we can see that our efforts, our resources, are truly helping. And we see the need is still great. This motivates us to do more.
Both of my daughters’ high school years were consumed with transforming a tiny, fledgling service club into one of the largest, strongest, and most impassioned student organizations on campus. As successive officers for TASSEL, they cast vision, crafted strict new recruitment guidelines, taught with TASSEL, trained volunteers, raised funds, and created videos, artwork, and multimedia presentations to share the stories of our TASSEL students, teachers and families. As a doctor, my husband helped many needy villagers get medical treatment. As a family, we have opened our home, hosted and helped organize significant fundraisers to help Cambodia, and we continue to do so. TASSEL has never asked us to do these things. It has been a natural response to wanting to help Cambodia. Even as a student at Stanford University, my oldest daughter continues to serve with TASSEL, exploring her interest in international human rights, studying Khmer, creating a new curriculum resource for TASSEL’s writing program, and obtaining a summer service fellowship.
We have seen the heart-breaking need in Cambodia. And we have seen TASSEL work to meet that need, bringing practical help and hope that is changing lives, and changing hearts. It has done so with exemplary integrity, ethics, compassion, and excellence and proven to be trustworthy and effective.