It started simply enough. In early 2005, Daniela Papi was finishing up a three-year stint as a English teacher in Japan and looking for a meaningful next step. She'd visited Cambodia a few years back and wanted to return. Her friend Greta Arnquist had volunteered there the summer before. The two decided they would bike across the country – and make a contribution along the way.
Papi had experience with other “voluntourism” trips and knew it would be difficult to find a project that benefited locals as much as it did her and Arnquist. Still, she says: “I felt like we could be using our funds toward something sustainable and ongoing.” The friends found American Assistance for Cambodia online and asked them how much money it took to build a school in Cambodia. AAfC said $16,000.
Giving themselves a year to raise the money, they set out on a tour of churches, synagogues, and community centers back home in America. (Papi is from New York, Arnquist from Minnesota). They met their target in three months – and kept going. By the end of the year, they had raised $100,000, most of it in checks of a few hundred dollars or less. The largest individual donation was $2,000.
Partnering with AAfC, they funded an addition on a primary school in Siem Reap Province. The school had been struggling to house 500 students in five classrooms. The money paid for a new building with another five classrooms, a solar panel, a generator, an Internet connection and salaries for computer and English teachers. And they had funds to spare.
They scheduled their bike trip to coincide with the opening of the school. Meanwhile, their fundraising campaign had an unintended side effect: a number of people who heard them speak wanted to tag along. As long as riders agreed to pay their own way and contribute funds to the school, they consented. By December 2005, they had assembled a group of 35 people from 13 countries – and they were turning people away. Protect the Environment Protect Yourself (PEPY) was born.
Two years later, Papi is leading several trips a year and overseeing seven full-time Cambodian staff members, along with eight foreign volunteers. (Arnquist now works for an NGO back in the U.S.) In March 2007, PEPY opened a middle school in Streung Treng province. The first school, meanwhile, has become a pilot for the One Laptop Per Child program.
PEPY has grown so quickly that it has split into two nonprofits, a development organization that funds and oversees schools and other initiatives and a separate tour company. Next year, PEPY Ride will have a Cambodian executive director. But the priorities that first sent Papi and Arnquist across Cambodia-- an interest in education and in finding a way to spur sustainable tourism – are still very much in focus.
Before each trip, PEPY organizers consider how riders might be most useful. On-the-ground local staff help identify community needs. While on the road, bikers strive to minimize their impact on organizations’ time. Rather than stopping at orphanages to play with kids or pounding nails into houses and schools, they might donate to worthy local projects – today’s riders commit to raising $1,000 each -- in exchange for a quick introduction to a local development issue. “People like to paint something and get dirty,” Papi says, “and that’s when they feel like they’re most valuable. But actually they’re being useful just by being there and talking to people.”
Riders might also talk with kids at PEPY schools about career options or teach them English. In exchange, children lead lessons on Cambodian culture. “We try to show people that they can learn as much as they give,” Papi says.
The emphasis on learning ensures that after the trips riders go home armed with ideas about how to keep working on some of the issues they encountered in Cambodia. After the first PEPY ride, one woman spearheaded a similar project for Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans. Two riders developed master’s thesis topics based on their experiences.
The program has also had less tangible outcomes. When asked what they want to do when they grow up, many local kids used to say they want to be shop owners. After exposure to other opportunities, many now say they’d rather become teachers. “They’re learning to expand their horizons,” Papi says.
I'm a huge supporter of Daniela and the PEPY team, this group is not only doing great work in Cambodia, they're part of a movement to educate travelers as well on the realities of supporting development projects in countries like Cambodia.