Australian-born Emily Williamson is one of the founders of the Siem Reap-based NGO REACH, which sponsors a variety of programs with the broad goal of alleviating the deleterious effects of poverty that often prevent the poor from improving their circumstances from one generation to the next without the kind of targeted assistance that REACH provides.
Although she’s had many eclectic travel experiences, coming to Cambodia for the first time when she was 18 years old was a turning point in Williamson’s life.
The Kingdom of Wonder and the Cambodian people had such a huge impact on her that she returned multiple times to volunteer in 2015 before making the decision in 2016 to resettle in Siem Reap long-term and devote her life to development work.
Her persistent dedication to empowering Cambodians culminated with Williamson founding REACH, an NGO based in Cambodia but relying mainly on donations from abroad that is officially registered with both the Cambodian and Australian governments.
She is passionate about helping families break the cycle of poverty by educating and empowering youths to succeed by gaining fair employment and changing their own lives for the better through REACH’s strategically designed programmes.
Unfortunately, things have not been going well financially for REACH during the pandemic for reasons similar to those of many other businesses and charities who have all been suffering through economic hardship for the past year.
REACH’s communications manager Shiv Fray tells The Post of the challenges that REACH is facing:
“REACH relies solely on private donations from individuals around the world. It receives no large corporate sponsorship, government funding or grants.
“We opened on March, 2, 2020. However, with the global pandemic forcing the countrywide closure of schools, REACH was then mandated to close its classroom facilities just three days later.
“Despite the school being closed we still have significant operating costs involved with distributing other kinds of aid through our other programmes, as well as rental fees and our Khmer staff’s salaries.
“In short, donations are low due to the pandemic but our costs have remained high as we continue to assist families in need during this difficult period,” Fray explains.
Williamson got the idea to do charity bike rides from participating in one for “Hands across the Water” in Thailand in 2017.
She then successfully ran two cross-country charity bike rides in Cambodia for another local NGO before starting REACH. Her inaugural “Ride to REACH” event was all set to take place in January 2021.
Ride to REACH was originally planned as an international cycling event where supporters from across the world would fly to Cambodia to cycle 650km across the country to raise funds for REACH.
However, with borders being closed and travel restricted this was no longer a possibility – and the main fundraising event that would keep REACH operating through 2021 could no longer go ahead as planned – but they did manage to pull off an unusual hybrid version of the event instead.
“As a replacement for our inaugural charity bike ride the directors of REACH developed a creative alternative which really strengthened the REACH community by providing the kids in our programmes with an incredible experience,” Williamson says.
To adhere to government guidelines on gatherings, REACH split the fundraiser into three events with smaller groups of riders consisting of REACH staff members and youths from their programmes cycling together in Cambodia while people in a number of other countries simultaneously set out to do the same after securing pledges for donations from their friends, families and communities.
REACH called this innovative approach the Side By Side Ride. Not all of their international volunteers were cycling, however:
“The three events had groups and individuals in 11 countries around the world running, cycling, swimming and even paddle boarding the same distances as our cyclists,” Fray says.
The first event was hosted on January 9-10 with 10 youths between the ages of 15-17 who are REACH programme participants – along with the staff and volunteers – cycling 200km in two days.
The second was hosted on January 16-17 with the adults accompanying 11 students from the same age group and going that same distance.
And the third event took place on January 23-24 with 11 more youths between the ages of 12-16 years old cycling a shorter age-adjusted distance of 130km.
On the morning of each of the events the students arrived at REACH at 6am to eat a nutritious breakfast. After breakfast, all of the youths listened to a safety briefing by staff member Rin Borith and were introduced to the support crew.
Accompanied by staff in-person and with the solidarity of volunteers abroad, the students cycled for two days – with designated water and snack stops – until they reached the campus where their parents were waiting to cheer them on as they cycled across the finish line on the second day of all three events.
Williamson and Chea Kosal, Khmer director of REACH, cycled the 200km alongside the youths while Joe Mcbride, another organisation founder and the director of REACH’s English programme, drove behind the cyclists in a tuk-tuk carrying water, a first-aid kit and other supplies.
The parents of the youths who participated watched proudly as their children collected an award and medal onstage for recognition of their achievement after they had crossed the finish line.
“The obvious highlight of the event was watching as the proud REACH parents and grandparents came on stage with their accomplished children and grandchildren during the awards ceremony.
“Nothing makes our hearts burst more than seeing their smiles,” Williamson says.
The length and distance of the ride was a challenge for the young cyclists – as was some of the terrain along their route.
Cycling guide Rin Borith explains: “Some of the kids found the bumpy and sandy roads difficult to manoeuvre on with a bicycle, which is why there were support vehicles following us the entire route in the event that any of them needed to take a break.
“Despite the difficult road conditions, every rider did an incredible job,” Borith says.
The events were a great success. They were able to raise sufficient funds to continue operating REACH’s programmes for four and a half more months and they are already planning their next big fundraiser while actively seeking other sources for donations to keep their programmes going.
The programmes help lift children and their families out of poverty and include classes for kids in several subjects, health and nutrition outreach, computer literacy training, youth mentoring and offering food and financial assistance to families whose children attend school regularly and join the REACH Rider’s Club.
The REACH Rider’s Club goes on regular group bike rides, operates a repair shop and does bicycle maintenance and road safety workshops.
According to Fray, prior to joining the REACH Rider’s Club many of these teenage cyclists had already dropped out of school. Some of them had been working in Thailand illegally and others worked seven days per work up to 16 hours per day as the sole provider for their family.
“One family had all been working illegally in Thailand together in construction, including their kids,” Fray says.
Willamson explains that REACH pays a stipend to selected families to enable their children to stop working and focus on going to school, volunteering through REACH and participating in the Rider’s Club.
“The two siblings from that family are now proud members of the Rider’s Club and their father told our social workers that as a result of their involvement with REACH their entire family has been able to remain together in Siem Reap.
“Had they not been receiving REACH’s support, they would have had no choice but to return with their children to work in rural Thailand and their kids would have missed out on getting a formal education,” Williamson says.
You can find out more about the important work REACH is doing to end poverty in Cambodia and donate to their cause via their website: www.reachsiemreap.org/donate