From dropping out to helping out

26 August 2009

Written by: Lawrie Zion

Many of us care about the problems facing developing countries, but how many of us can honestly say we have taken action? Leigh Mathews can. At the age of 28, she has been named Victoria’s 2009 Young Australian of the Year for her work as founder and director of Future Cambodia Fund, a grassroots organisation that works with displaced children and families in Andong, Cambodia.

As a child, Leigh’s sense of social justice was directed towards animals. She left school at sixteen, travelled abroad and, like most of us, ummed and ah-d about what she wanted to do with her life. At 22 while volunteering at a New York animal shelter, she made up her mind. “I decided I wanted to do a Bachelor of Health Sciences and study naturopathy”, she says. “And on my way home, I’m going to stop off for a month in Cambodia to volunteer.”     

Crossing the border from Vietnam into Cambodia was a shock for Leigh. “The level of poverty was instantly heightened”, she says. “You go from lush vegetation to red dust and all of a sudden there’s kids begging at the bus windows. I’d seen poverty in Laos and Vietnam, but not like that.”

Leigh spent a month teaching English in a rural school, riding the 30 kilometres each way on an ancient 1960s fixed gear bike with back pedal breaks. “While I was there I witnessed a lot of poverty, particularly around street families,” she says. “Almost every day, there’d be more families and more kids around.” These families were victims of land-grabs, which happen frequently in Cambodia. 

She decided to stay past her one month deadline, doing her own research into the services that were available for displaced families, particularly children. “A lot of kids were falling through the cracks of their criteria,” she says, “and that really got to me. I wanted to find out if there was something that I could do.” And the seeds of Future Cambodia Fund (FCF) were sown. 

After six months in Cambodia, a determined Leigh returned to Australia in May 2005, aiming to raise money for her fledgling organisation. “I got a job in a bar and since that day, I have pretty much worked seven days a week to earn my own money,” she says. “I haven’t been paid for working for FCF at all.”

FCF employs ten staff in Cambodia, but in Australia, Leigh is a one-woman show. While her organisation is funded by individual donors and receives some money from Oxfam, Leigh has had to bankroll much of its work. “I’m in quite a lot of debt from it”, says Leigh, “and there are times when you step back and go ‘Oh my God, how am I going to pay this off?’” While the responsibility can be daunting, Leigh believes the value of what her staff are achieving in Cambodia outweighs that.

So what does FCF actually do? In Andong, the Happy Garden Centre is the focus of its activities. Named by local children, the centre is a community space that provides therapeutic support to children and youth. Other projects include water and sanitation programs, education for disabled street children and emergency grants. “I’d like to look into doing some work around income generation and micro-credit,” says Leigh. “I think there’s an incredible amount of work to be done in the community that we’re in”.

Her philosophy is humbling. “When I was in Cambodia and when I was witnessing and experiencing these things,” she says, “there was just no question that I wouldn’t try to do something. It was very much: well I’m a human, they’re human, so as a human I have a sense of responsibility, you know? I’m by no means a wealthy person, I didn’t grow up wealthy, but to them, whether I have financial wealth or not, I come from this country and therefore I have access to resources that they don’t, and why shouldn’t I try to use that for good and do my best to do it right?”

While she remains committed to FCF, Leigh is hoping to hand over the daily running of the organisation to Cambodian staff. She believes that while issues of humanity and social justice are not completely missing from our lives, they’re often not at the forefront. “I think social responsibility shouldn’t be something that’s a novel concept, it shouldn’t be something we’re applauded for” says Leigh. “It should just be a part of who we are.”    

Isabel Robinson is a Master of Global Communincations student.