Armed with his conviction that housing is a basic human right that should be available to all, Sinn Mang – a former carpenter from a small fishing village in Kandal province – has dedicated the past five years of his life to constructing homes for poor families through his charitable organisation.
Mang founded the organisation, called Volunteer Building Cambodia (VBC), in 2014. VBC celebrated its 5th anniversary in March, and in that time it has completed 255 homes, 120 toilets and 87 wells for poor communities in rural Siem Reap province.
Hailing from Kandal province’s Koh Thom District, 43-year-old Mang had 20 years experience as a carpenter prior to establishing VBC.
“I come from a poor family in a small fishing village and I could relate to the problems these families were facing. I could see the need for better housing and I wanted to help poor Cambodian families like my own. Sometimes you just need an opportunity,” the VBC director says.
In the early 2000s, Mang left his hometown in Kandal province to work as carpenter in Siem Reap province, earning a daily wage of only 5,000 riel ($1.25).
Mang slowly began earning more money in construction before starting his own tourism business – earning a small fortune in Angkor Wat.
“I have a background in construction and I owned a tourism business. Through my business I met some volunteers who were building houses, so I joined them one day to find out more. I then helped them out initially for a short period, but when the previous charity operator wanted the project run by a Cambodian I decided to start Volunteer Building Cambodia.” Mang says.
VBC started with just three people, taking two weeks to build one house. Since then they’ve grown exponentially, with volunteers coming from all over the world and representing all occupations.
The youngest volunteers are 16-years-old and the oldest was in his early 70s. To the surprise of Mang, 70 per cent of volunteers are female.
“We have accountants, lawyers, architects, students, builders, farmers, IT people, administration officers, secondary school and university students,” he says.
Volunteers do not require any experience as they are guided on site through the process by professional builders.
“A large percentage of our volunteers have never used a hammer or saw before volunteering . . . we just require people who genuinely care about others and want to make a difference,” Mang says.
While VBC is located some 45km from Siem Reap town, Mang wants volunteers to be aware that they will be working in challenging conditions in remote area, which are a far cry from the luxuries enjoyed on the tourist trail.
While volunteers will enjoy beautiful scenery in the form of rice fields, tropical green farms and animals, they will also be exposed to muddy paths, hot and humid air, as well as an ever present threat of torrential rain during monsoon season.
Typical day for volunteers
A typical day for volunteers with VBC is as follows: Each morning at 7am, after a western breakfast is served at the volunteers’ guesthouse, the team is driven 30 minutes to the building site for the day.
Volunteers then spend a whole morning working on a physically challenging building project. They help with sawing, hammering and chiselling before they are transported back to town for lunch and free activities in the afternoon.
“Usually they spend Monday to Thursday building the house. On Friday they attend the house blessing ceremony,” Mang says.
Mang says that last year, when volunteers built their 200th house, they decided to change the house’s design. VBC added an extra window to increase air flow, as well as paved the area beneath the home to make it more usable for families. They also increased the size of toilets so people can use the bathrooms with more privacy.
Volunteers fund most of VBC’s projects. Some fund the building of an entire house which they help to build themselves, but occasionally people who do not physically volunteer.
Others choose to physically volunteer with the organisation but do not fund the house. In this instance, the organisation asks them to pay a volunteer fee, which contributes to the project’s costs.
Mang says that to broaden involvement he has an “increasing numbers of school groups” taking part along with “support from some international corporations”.
One notable VBC supporter is German Ulrik Nehammer, the Global Senior Vice President of American software company Salesforce. Last year he celebrated his 50th birthday by raising money to build 10 homes, 10 toilets, 10 wells and 10 solar energy packages.
“It was the most memorable story for us that our organisation was able to build 11 houses in one week when normally we can only do three houses,” Mang recalls.
“We sometimes receive sponsorship or donations from individuals and organisations. Some have made big donations that have funded the purchase of land and the construction of our warehouse and classrooms.”
But Mang says the projects are not just about helping the families, but also the Kingdom as a whole.
“When people are given an opportunity and education they are more likely to have better health, they sleep better, stress less and they are able to work more. They are able to provide better for their children and those with more education can get better jobs. This helps everyone and our economy,” he says.
In 2017, Mang also opened a community centre some 25km outside of Siem Reap town, providing free English classes to children and young people in the surrounding area. Last year, he also built a computer lab and now also provides computer lessons, along with a library.
He would eventually like to include vocational training for villagers.
“We also have a warehouse located next to our community centre. We store and prepare the wood and building materials there. We are extending the warehouse at the moment and would eventually like to offer woodwork and other training [to villagers], such as furniture making, but that won’t be until 2020,” he says.
Building the house is one challenge faced by VBC, but Mang says that another difficult part of the process is how to select the families who will receive the home.
He says it requires in-depth background checks by regional social workers to make sure that they help the most in need.
“We do many interviews with the families, their neighbours, village and commune chiefs to ensure the families are in genuine need of a house,” he says. “We require families to own the land and have the documents to prove it and to be debt-free. Because all our funds for houses are donated we cannot build a house if there is a risk that it could be taken from the family.”
Drawing inspiration from his own life, Mang says he gives priority to poorest people who have struggled to work hard and are free from drugs and gambling.
“I did not finish school, but I worked hard and learned a lot, which helped me get where I am today. VBC means I can help people and see the people’s smiles. It is very meaningful for me that when we can help people they can change their lives – it makes me very happy. But I get upset when they don’t also help themselves,” he says.
To ensure the family is making good use of the home, the organisation will follow up with three impact assessments over a two-year period to see how they are doing.
VBC currently employs 19 staff, including social workers, volunteer coordinators, finance and administration, teachers and builders.
After five years of operation mainly in Siem Reap province, the organisation is now looking to improve and expand. Mang has already drawn a long term plan for VBC to expand out of Siem Reap.
“Life and business is always changing and we have to move with the changes. We cannot stand still. Eventually we would like to move to other provinces to help more people.
“But we need to build a strong foundation in Siem Reap first. We need to do everything step by step and make sure we do it properly,” the former carpenter says, with his characteristic mix of ambition and precision.