Throughout the course of our 5-month sabbatical in South and Southeast Asia, my wife and I were continuously exposed to a crushing poverty that, if most Americans were to see it themselves, they would find it abhorrent and intolerable. From each child attempting to kiss my feet in desperation for money, to the men who would not live beyond 40 after a career of smelting aluminum without protection, I found myself asking in each instance, “what does it take for these people to move up in the world?” Over and over again, the answer was simple: education and training.
In the Cambodian capital city of Phnom Penh, we happened across a non-profit organization that has made education and training a centerpiece of their mission. Through their restaurant near the banks of the Mekong River, Friends International assists marginalized street children by giving them hands-on experience in the hospitality industry. From learning how to provide exceptional service to the restaurant’s clientele of mostly Western tourists and expats, to mastering the culinary arts in the kitchen, these children are offered an opportunity to succeed in a society where the odds are stacked against disadvantaged youth.
After an extraordinary lunch at the Friends restaurant in Phnom Penh on a warm and sunny day in December, my wife and I can attest to the great progress that this organization is making. The service was exemplary, the food was exquisite, and the atmosphere was jovial and energetic. But the most satisfying aspect of the visit was knowing that the slightly higher prices that we were paying were going to support the next generation of hospitality service workers who would go on to work in some of Cambodia’s finest establishments. With their continued training, hard work, and a little luck, the tourism industry in Cambodia will continue to grow and deliver some well-deserved cash to this country’s magnificent people.