This year, the Tabitha Foundation marks two decades of helping poverty-stricken Cambodians rise from the legacy of a brutal past. Founder Janne Ritskes recounts the journey, from the early days of dodging bullets in war-torn Phnom Penh, to its most ambitious project yet – the building of Nokor Tep, Cambodia’s first hospital for women.
Look at any fundraising event in Singapore, and chances are the Tabitha Foundation is involved. If your child attends an international school, he or she may have been, or is likely to go, house-building with Tabitha to support the poorest Cambodian families. Perhaps you’ve been on a corporate house-building trip yourself. Or purchased a silk accessory, handmade by Tabitha’s seamstresses, from their regular silk sales in Singapore.
Since 1994, Tabitha programmes have touched the lives of four million Cambodians, raising many of them from poverty to self-sufficiency. The numbers are staggering, considering Tabitha started with just one small team in a battered, war-ravaged country. By focusing on six key programmes – savings, wells, house-building, cottage industries, schools and now the Nokor Tep Women’s Hospital – Tabitha has presented long-term solutions to poverty.
Much of Tabitha’s success can be credited to the vision and tenacity of its Canadian-born founder, Janne Ritskes. She has lived in Phnom Penh for two decades and is a familiar figure in Singapore because of her regular school and fundraising visits.
Cambodia is a very different place to the shell-shocked country that she encountered in 1994. “Our first office – my goodness! – when it rained, it flooded. I slept in one of the rooms, and every night we heard gunfire and grenade blasts,” she says.
“We were surrounded by poverty. I remember one little boy marvelling at a bottle of fish sauce, a staple in Cambodia. ‘All my life,’ he said, ‘I’ve wanted to know what fish sauce tasted like.’ I felt sick to my stomach when there was not enough to go round, seeing young children look with such envy at those who received something.
“Today, we do not distribute gifts, because we would never have enough. Instead, we work harder to bring people into our programmes,” says Janne.
Its family savings programme is the cornerstone of Tabitha. Every week, each family saves a pre-agreed amount, sometimes as little as 25 cents. After 10 weeks, the family uses the money to buy a pre-determined item, such as a cooking pot. The saving cycle continues, and after five to seven years, the family “graduates” from the programme with a steady source of income, a sturdy, permanent house and all of their children in school.
“The first families found this concept incomprehensible,” Janne recalls.
Introducing the wells programme was a landmark moment because it gave communities the chance to grow crops all-year-round, rather than just during the rainy season. For Janne, though, it came with the loss of a dear friend.
“On his deathbed, Dara, one of our most passionate staff members, kept saying, ‘Give them wells, Janne; give them water.’ It was his passion that started the wells programme. His life gave life to hundreds of thousands of people.”
Two decades of achievement in numbers
* 9,000 houses built by 15,000 volunteers
* 523,426 families moved to a middle-class income bracket
* 18,014 wells and ponds build to guarantee irrigations and safe drinking water
* 66 schools built, with three more under construction
Janne fondly recalls moments during the start-up of the Tabitha cottage industry. “We used silk to make our first product, Christmas stockings, but the choice of item almost closed down the programme; our staff didn’t know about Christmas or stockings. They thought that people would laugh me out of the country if I wore those stockings on the street! Now they’re skilled, they create not only Christmas items, but all kinds of products.”
The house-building programme is one of the Foundation’s most successful, and often has unexpected benefits for volunteers. “Our very first house-building team was a group of young students with behavioural problems. James, expelled from three schools, was team leader. After house-building, he wrote to three schools and asked for a second chance. All of them gave him that chance. Over the years, thousands of people have been changed by house-building.”
True to Janne’s nature, she has turned personal struggles into opportunities for good. “My treatment for breast cancer had been organised within an hour of diagnosis, and it was successful. If I had been an ordinary Cambodian woman, I would not even have got a diagnosis, let alone treatment. Instead, it would have been a painful death sentence.
‘Building Nokor Tep Women’s Hospital is a good project and the right thing to do, but like all facets of our work it involves struggles – struggles that make us strong,” she says.
“Women are the backbone of family life in Cambodia, but the last to be attended to. Some 90 percent suffer from gynaecological infections that often lead to cancer. Paying international hospital prices is unthinkable for a family with an income of a few dollars a month, so women simply suffer their pain in silence.”
In Tabitha’s 20th year, the pace of the foundation’s work has only quickened as the hospital takes shape. Janne’s vision, together with that of co-founders Dr Ing Kantha Phavi, Cambodian Minister for Women’s Affairs, and Mr Trac Thai Sieng, Vice-Governor of Phnom Penh, is unwavering.
“No woman in Cambodia will be denied treatment because of an inability to pay the basic fees. The project and its costs are immense, but building is well underway. US$665,000 is needed for the next phase. The hospital will also provide mobile clinics to reach isolated communities, but we still have a long way to go before that becomes a reality.”
Operating independently of Tabitha, the Nokor Tep Foundation raises funds in Singapore for the hospital, including at an annual Gala Dinner held in November. A number of events are planned for 2015.
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