My story of finding happiness

Ruth Lemon

Let me tell you how I came to be living in Cambodia, holding a Masters degree and getting paid a few hundred dollars a month – and being the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.

When I was just fifteen years old, I was offered the opportunity to travel to Cambodia and Thailand. A group of us from my state school in England fundraised for over a year to raise £3,000 each to take this trip of a lifetime (or so I thought). Most of the visit doesn’t matter to this story but during that first week in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, we volunteered at an orphanage. In hindsight this was probably one of those volunteering projects the media warn us against but, regardless, I was hooked.

Aged eighteen I left school with mediocre grades and an overwhelming desire to return to Cambodia. Being a determined person, I made it, and secured a volunteer post teaching in another orphanage (much more ethically sound this time) for seven months. Sovann Komar Children’s Village is home to 56 abandoned kids who have been placed in families with a mum and a dad and four or five siblings. Ten houses form a horseshoe shape around a beautiful green grassy area and the back of the property leads down to the bank of the River Mekong. It’s one of my favourite places on Earth.

When I left Sovann Komar in July 2009, I cried and cried and cried. And then in the summer of 2010 I returned for a month, fulfilling my promise to the children that I would, along with my co-teacher and best friend. In 2012, upon graduating from Cardiff University with a degree in History and Sociology, I returned to Cambodia for four months, resuming my volunteer post at Sovann Komar. By the time I had completed my Masters by Research in Cambodian History from the University of Warwick in 2014, there was only one place in the world I was heading.

I moved to Phnom Penh in August 2014 and started a (barely) paid teaching job at Sovann Komar. In November of that year, I was invited by my boss to accompany him and some of their children on an outreach mission. Unaware of what this entailed but happy to give up my Saturday to spend time with the kids and in the beautiful Cambodian countryside, I agreed.

We drove out to Kampong Chhnang Province, about two hours from Phnom Penh. When we finally arrived at a school at the end of a dirt track, I saw hundreds of students waiting for us. The children from Sovann Komar (which is a rather well-funded orphanage thanks to generous American philanthropists) handed out exercise books, stationary and, inexplicably, baguettes, to each and every student at the school. I felt my insides warm at the sight. Little did I know but a seed had been planted.

As the school year drew to an end, I had to decide whether to renew my contract. I loved teaching but I knew I didn’t want to do it as a career back in the UK. So I approached my boss and asked if he would be willing to let me work part time as an outreach coordinator for the orphanage. He agreed and a few months later, SKOPE was born.

Sovann Komar Outreach Program for Education was founded by me in September 2015. It operates through Sovann Komar and is integral to the development program the orphanage wishes to implement for the children living onsite. Through their work and involvement with SKOPE we are promoting social responsibility and community outreach amongst all 56 of the children who call Sovann Komar home. They help me to design items to sell, make jewellery, and fundraise. I also select a group of them to come with me whenever we do a donation day, so they can see and experience for themselves the good work the charity is doing. So far, SKOPE has:

In January 2017, SKOPE plans to build an entire library from scratch and fill it with books. We also have two other projects in the pipeline, waiting for funding.

So what has this got to do with happiness? That day I spent in the province in November 2014 was great: I loved it. But the emotions I experienced then are incomparable to the way I felt as I stood in the playground of the first school I visited as SKOPE’s coordinator. As I watched fifteen children from Sovann Komar hand out vital education supplies to 900 rural, impoverished children I could quite literally feel my heart swelling in my chest and I knew in that instant I had found my calling.

I don’t care that I can’t live on my salary. I don’t care that I’m having to find other odd jobs to support myself. I don’t care that I spend hours and hours emailing potential donors only to get one or two replies (at most, and they’re usually negative). Because the work I do, the achievements SKOPE has already reached, the difference we have already made, and the smiles our projects have put on the faces of children, is all worth it.

They say people can’t buy happiness but they can. It’s not about material goods, it’s about spending your money on something worthwhile. Don’t expect your shiny new BMW to make everything alright in your life. Don’t expect that new flat screen TV to solve all your problems. Put your money to better use and donate to a charity. By doing this, you’ll not only get an involuntary fuzzy feeling of happiness inside you but you’ll also make other people (or animals, or trees, I suppose) happy too. Because at the end of the day I didn’t start SKOPE to make myself feel good: that’s just a coincidental, happy side-effect. I started SKOPE to make a difference to the lives of poor children in the Cambodian countryside. We’re not a big organisation. Our projects aren’t elaborate or providing life-saving medicines. But we are helping. And the best part about it for me is seeing their smiling faces when we turn up at their schools