Two weeks ago, I arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia – the fulfillment of a promise I made in 2013. Two days later I had one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
I arrived in the country tired, but excited about what lay ahead. The previous two weeks had been draining and had actually poisoned my mind against the world around me. The wonderful weekend with my nephew in Seoul was so fantastic that it restored a bit of energy. I was still arriving half-empty, hoping Cambodia could help me find more to care about in the world.
Room to Read Cambodia Headquarters
We quickly met the amazing team from Room to Read at the local office. They presented me with a framed picture of artwork from the book “The Snake Who Wants to Buy a Shoe”, which won Best Illustration by the International Board of Books for Young People in 2011. (Within minutes of arriving home in Sydney a week later it was up on my wall).
The snake who wants to buy a shoe
Soon we were in a car with Kall Kann and Socheata from Room to Read on our way to Kampong Thom (literal translation would be “Port Thom.” After a dinner with Racha (the manager of the province for Room to Read) and the architect who is responsible for the Room to Read libraries, we were off to bed, only to wake up to head out to the Andaung Trom Primary School.
An incredible surprise
Originally, our plan was to drop by and see the library, and just meet the librarian, since school is not in session. Then the plan changed – Kall Kann, the director of Room to Read Cambodia, would join us. Then, a few kids were going to turn up and we’d paint one of the walls of the library.
At the end of the hour drive, as we turned down smaller and smaller dirt roads, I could finally see the school. My heart stopped, as I looked out and saw around 100 people from the community waiting for our arrival. Over 100 people from the community were there to greet us, include well over 50 school kids: all in uniform, on their holiday, when school would not be in session for another couple of weeks.
When I visited Cambodia two years ago, I was representing Atlassian, which has given millions of dollars to Room to Read Cambodia. So our welcome two years ago made sense – there were 10 of us.
This time it was just me, and my contributions felt so small in comparison.
Entering Andaung Trom primary school
As usual, I went immediately into emotional overload. These people should not be here. I don’t deserve this kind of welcome. These kids should be enjoying their school holiday, and not in uniform for my arrival. I am not worthy of any of this attention.
Khanh vanishes into the crowd
There were welcome signs with my name and Khanh’s name on it. Khanh of course quickly ducked into the crowd to help hold the sign up, while I was pulled up on to the platform to talk to the community. Kall translated, since I know only 10 phrases in Khmer (one of them is “I am hungry” and another 5 are numbers).
Talking to the community members and kids who had come out to welcome me
I introduced myself, and talked about why I am so passionate about Room to Read, about why I believe world change starts with educated children – that the only long term solution to the challenges we face as a planet is to invest in education, in the kids of developing countries.
Kids having to listen to me on a day off from school. No good deed goes unpunished.
I spoke about my kidney transplant, and how it taught me to give back to the world since I had been given a second chance at life. I talked about how important education was in my life.
It felt strange being on stage in front of the kids, explaining my story. Their daily lives are harder than any Ironman. Their families struggle to make ends meet, and yet they are optimistic about the future despite the brutality of their nation’s bloody past.
And then, we had some fun! Socheata had organized an awesome icebreaker, “Dancing Telephone,” played just like the game of telephone, except instead of whispering a phrase in the next person’s ear, you perform a dance move, and then it gets revealed to the next person. I think it helped loosen me up more than the kids, because I was still feeling completely overwhelmed by everything.
The kids were treated to some serious dance moves
Inside the entry of the library, there is a plaque. Chantal from Room to Read had contacted me about what I would like the inscription to say. I knew exactly what belonged on the plaque.
The librarian walked me through the system of reading levels, how kids indicate that they have visited the library, and how they teach kids to take care of the books. How they could check out a maximum of three books at a time, how they handled new arrivals to generate excitement about new stories. How much the kids loved to read to their siblings and their parents.
The walls, the books, everything was awe and wonder for me, even though I’d seem similar libraries two years ago. But this one did not exist then, and was specifically developed using part of the funds I had raised for my last Ironman.
Thank you to everyone who donated to my campaign. We raised enough money to fund not one library, but five libraries, some built from the ground up, and others from existing structures that needed a refresh. We changed the lives of 100s of kids, and made it possible for kids to learn to read outside of the classroom.
The librarian checking to see if I have any overdue books
A Moose, a Seal, a Kangaroo, a Koala
After the library tour, we walked back to the side of the library, where we were going to paint. But it wasn’t just painting the wall – it was painting a picture, of four animals on a tandem bicycle. Four animals – two from my childhood, and two from where I live now, Australia. Once again, I couldn’t quite believe it. The funds for this library were around $12,000 – and the difference it was making for this community were enough to bring them out to celebrate with me.
The Moose (or probably Deer or Caribou) is steering the bike
Tea with the community
The final hour, we spend with members of the community, asking about how they had raised the funds for their 20% of the building. Room to Read requires the community to co-invest, so there’s commitment and dedicated on the part of the community, and a strong signal that they want the library and will work to maintain it in the future.
They asked me questions, ranging from whether American and Australia do better financially because we’re not involved in wars, to how much a plane ticket to Cambodia costs, to how old I was.
I aksed them about the difference the library had made in the last year, the difference in their children, their appetite and aptitude for reading. The kids loved to read – and loved to show their parents how well they could read and how they were progressing.
Eventually, it was time to leave. I was exhausted but happier thanI could imagine.
Where do I go from here?
The next five days, Khanh and I would be riding mountain bikes through rural Cambodia along the Mekong river, then returning to San Francisco and Sydney. will be blogging about the rest of the trip – the adventure had just begun.
But this is just the first step in the journey.
- I will be kicking off a new fundraising campaign for Room to Read in the next two months – there’s so much more we can do, and Cambodia has the potential to truly change, and we can make an incredibly impact.
- I’m setting a higher goal than anything I’ve ever considered before – I honestly don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I learned form Ted Whatley who I served with on the Breakthrough Austin board of directors, “You give until it hurts.”
- I am planning on racing my third Ironman. My body has paid a permanent penalty from previous races, but I’m not done yet. There’s still plenty of suffering left in me.
In the end, I realized that this visit was not about me – it was about the community, and the amazing evidence of how they want a better future for their community and their children. They want their kids to grow up to be teachers. They want a better life for the next generation.