As darkness fell near the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers in Phnom Penh, I chatted with some young alumni of programs sponsored by Sarus Beyond Borders, who had gathered for a boat cruise marking the organization’s fifth anniversary.
I expected a few polite thank-you’s for the bit part I’ve played as a member of the Sarus board, and perhaps some comments from the enthusiastic alumni about what the programs contributed to their personal development.
But I wasn’t prepared for this:
“Thank you for helping change attitudes in my society” about gender equality.
The speaker was a young Cambodian woman who had participated in a program that brought together college students from Cambodia, Vietnam and the United States to coach younger soccer players near the border of Cambodia and Vietnam.
Attitudes toward women and sports apparently aren’t much different than they were in the USA a few decades ago — girls don’t play sports, and women aren’t looked upon as leaders.
But this young woman felt her participation in the Sarus program had helped to change some people’s attitudes. Not only did she gain confidence in her own abilities, but others saw young women coaching effectively, and new horizons opened for some young women whose options previously seemed very limited.
One woman who previously participated in the Sarus program now coaches a men’s professional team in Phnom Penh. (How many men’s leagues in the US can say as much?)
The coaching program, run in conjunction with Volunteers in Asia (www.viaprograms.org), is just one Sarus program. Another brings promising college students from Vietnam and Cambodia together to work on service projects near the two countries’ borders. A new program similarly unites young women from Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The students develop leadership skills while gaining understanding of neighboring countries’ perspectives, which are often shaped by a history of conflict.
The dream for Sarus is that some of these promising students will go on to be leaders of their country. But even if that never happens, it’s likely that many of these students will become leaders and influential members of their local communities.
Sarus programs are small and I don’t think my involvement in Sarus will change the world. But it’s clearly making a difference in the lives of some young people, and maybe even in their societies.
If you’d like to help, your contribution during the Sarus crowdfunding campaign would make a real difference. For example, raising an additional $1,000 would pay transportation expenses and allow two more young women to participate in the Bangladesh-Myanmar program. You can contribute at www.igg.me/at/sarus2015.
Editor’s note: This post was written by Tim Lundergan, Sarus board member, friend and colleague, in the aftermath of his visit to Phnom Penh, Cambodia to attend a meeting of the Sarus Exchange Program.