Working together while so far apart

Students from the Cambodian Children's Fund.

Photo credit: Cambodian Children’s Fund

Originally posted on LinkedIn.

It seems strange to be writing about the current project I’m a part of in Cambodia from my desk here in San Francisco. I had hoped to be writing this post from Phnom Penh, with a wealth of experience from my time working with my Adobe colleagues and the teachers, students and staff at Cambodia Children’s Fund (CCF) through a project led by Team4Tech. But here we are in the middle of a global pandemic, and all of us are finding new ways to work together, collaborate and connect—even when we’re thousands of miles apart.

While I would have loved to be working side-by-side with my colleagues and new friends in Cambodia (and I plan on getting there someday to do just that), I am beyond grateful that I get to take part in this newly created three-month virtual program. In many ways, it’s an even more unique experience as all of us join forces to figure out how to manage what is normally a hands-on mentorship and digital skills training program from the various countries where we live and work.

While we’re only three weeks into the program, I’m already feeling such an incredible sense of camaraderie, enjoying the laughter and good humor as we figure out the ins and outs of how this all works, and a deep sense of commitment from all involved because we know that, in our small way, we are contributing to a better future for the children and families that CCF exists to serve.

Here’s a few things I’ve learned and experienced so far:

There are so many inspirational people around us!

Students from the Cambodian Children's Fund.

The CCF Education Program is designed to serve as a foundation for lifelong learning, providing students with a pathway out of poverty and preparing them for the world beyond CCF.

CCF’s founder, Scott Neeson, took a break from his job as a Hollywood marketing executive to go on a sabbatical back in 2003. During a trip to Phnom Pehh, he saw hundreds of children and their families scavenging through a garbage dump, fighting for survival. Something shifted in Neeson, and it wasn’t long before he sold everything he had, left his 26-year career in the film business, and moved half a world away to start the Cambodian Children’s Fund. Now that’s inspiring!

Through this program I’ve gotten to meet CCF and Team4Tech staff, as well as some of my Adobe colleagues that live all over the world. In our weekly meetings, and as part of our smaller sub-groups, I have loved learning about people’s histories and stories, triumphs and challenges, personal passions and their own reasons for taking part in this project.

While so many of us are holed up at home and isolated right now, this project is introducing me to a whole new world of people that I may never have met otherwise. Through this work I have been reminded that there are so many interesting and inspirational people in the world, and I feel so grateful to be working with so many of them.

Taking a human-centered approach

Students from the Cambodian Children's Fund.

CCF’s own community-based satellite schools are a haven for students to learn, play and grow.

One of the things that impresses me most about CCF is their robust, community-centered approach to addressing poverty. Operating 64 projects across six core program areas, CCF is taking a holistic approach to provide a set of solutions to break the cycle of poverty. The program is based on a simple idea – that if you provide a child with a high-quality education, they will be able to lift themselves out of poverty. But a child cannot study if they are hungry, and a family cannot prioritize education if they don’t have a roof over their heads, food on the table or the support they need to survive.

The CCF Model, which provides a pathway out of poverty.

The CCF Model, which provides a pathway out of poverty.

CCF placed children and families at the center of their work and looked to a combination of solutions and resources to create their model. As I’ve become more familiar with their approach and impressive impact, it’s really shifted my thinking of how to problem-solve based on real experiences and perspectives. It may seem obvious, but sometimes I can get so caught up in trying to come up with some grand solution or big idea, I often forget to simply ask what someone really needs, and use that as my starting point.

Be open to change

Students from the Cambodian Children's Fund.

CCF is removing barriers to the classroom and bringing high quality education to kids living in one of Cambodia’s most impoverished communities.

Since joining Adobe nearly a year ago, I was determined to volunteer with a Team4Tech project. The testimonials I read talked about the invaluable experience of working in-country with staff and students, getting so much from working with teams at learning centers and the unforgettable memories and experiences with new friends and colleagues through the program. I couldn’t wait to apply and experience the project firsthand.

Then the pandemic hit, and I was so disappointed that the program would be cancelled for the year. But amid everything, all parties came together and said, “what if we make this virtual? Can it be done? What if we don’t have to cancel the program, but instead re-imagine it.” And through countless hours, dedication and incredible effort, the entire program went online.

How this will compare in impact and effectiveness to past in-country programs, I don’t think anyone knows just yet. But the fact that everyone involved was willing to give it a try and do things differently in response to unforeseen circumstances is incredibly inspiring. The world may be changing around us, and who knows what things are going to look like in the months ahead, but by being open to change and willing to try new things we’re exploring new ways of working together that are opening new avenues for collaboration and creating impact. By nature of being virtual, this also means that people can take part in these types of programs from just about anywhere, creating a whole new way to volunteer and get involved in causes and organizations people care about.

Get involved!

If there’s one piece of advice I would offer, it’s to sign-up to do a project like this.

I have already learned so much, met so many amazing people, become more open to trying new things and am learning new ways of thinking and doing that will carry over to both my personal and professional life. I am beyond excited to be working with such incredibly dedicated staff at CCF and Team4Tech, have met new friends and colleagues from Adobe and am inspired everyday by the extraordinary children and families at CCF.

If you’re somewhere where you can sign up to volunteer with a program like this where you live, I highly encourage you to do so. And if you’re somewhere where you need to stay close to home right now, there are so many options to volunteer and engage online. From intensive year-long projects and multi-month commitments, to a few hours here and there or filling in where you’re needed most, there’s an infinite amount of possibilities and something out there for you.

Students from the Cambodian Children's Fund.

CCF empowers kids living in one of Cambodia’s most impoverished communities to pull themselves and their families out of poverty.

I’m really looking forward to the remaining months of our project and to seeing how this grand virtual volunteering experiment goes. More than anything, I’m excited to continue working with my incredible new friends and teammates from CCF, Team4Tech and Adobe. One of these days I’ll be able to dust off my passport and head to Phnom Penh to meet everyone in person and work side-by-side with them in CCF’s incredible learning center. Until then, I’m beyond happy to laugh and learn, collaborate and problem-solve and work together with my team from all corners of the world right here from my little desk in San Francisco.