About a year ago when I started BE FREE YOGA and began holding ‘practice for freedom’ yoga classes to raise funds for Project Futures, an acquaintance sent me an email suggesting that I might be interested in Free To Shine – a really cool Australian founded grass roots organization based in Cambodia that believe children should be in schools, not brothels, so they work to prevent sex trafficking by empowering young girls in the rural villages with an education.

I had a look at their website and absolutely loved what they were doing. There are heaps of NGOs in Cambodia that are rescuing young women and children from the sex trade in Cambodia, which is great, but very few programs are geared toward preventing sex trafficking in the first place. For every girl that is rescued from the brothels, traffickers are straight back out into the rural villages to get a new girl to replace the one that was rescued. How great would it be if none of these girls ended up in the brothels to begin with?

IMG_3689A few days later, the universe did what is does and I got a call from a really cool chick, Victoria Van Houdt, who wanted to hold a ‘practice for freedom’ yoga class in Brisbane, but wanted to know if it was ok if half the funds raised went to Free To Shine (an organization that she volunteered for!) and the other half to Project Futures. Victoria joined me on this recent trip Cambodia and is now an official member of the BE FREE YOGA team. We haven’t decided on a job title yet, but it will be something along the lines of Be Free Yoga Lawyer/Psychologist/Organiser/Planner/Business Development Manager. She’s really, really qualified.
Thanks to Victoria reaching out all those months ago, Free To Shine is now a part of our movement and we have seven ambassadors based in Australia and the US holding regular ‘practice for freedom’ yoga classes to raise funds to enroll girls in their program. In the last six months we have raised enough to enroll 27 girls, girls who’s chances of being trafficked and exploited are drastically reduced and who have a brighter future due to the education they are receiving. It makes me so happy each time I receive pictures of the girls we have helped thanks to Free To Shine.

My own daughter, Harper, starts school next year. I feel blessed that she was born in the right place, at the right time so that this is possible, because for millions of girls her age around the world, it is not. I think we have a responsibility to ensure all girls in the world get the same chance.

Since I was going to be in the area visiting AFESIP, Nicky Mih, Free To Shine’s beautiful founder and CEO, invited me to their head office in Siem Reap to meet the team and get a clearer insight of the work they are doing. Oh, and we thought I may as well teach the EEOs yoga while I was there.

IMG_3830ftsblogFree to Shine’s head office really lived up to it’s name, it was warm and bright and love at first sight when I met the team.  Before we practiced, the Education Outreach Officers took me through the process of how they identify girls at high risk of being trafficked in the rural villages and how they go about enrolling them into their scholarship program. I was so inspired by their passion and commitment to help these young girls and realized that this wasn’t just a job for them, they genuinely cared. And because many of them haven’t had an easy journey in getting an education themselves, they have a deep understanding of what these families are going through and relate to the girls easily.

They explained to me the whole process – how they regularly go out into the rural villages, and when I say rural, I mean rural! An initial assessment is done with the girl and her family, and their team begin gathering information from neighbours, the local village leader and the school director. They identify the girls most likely to be targeted by traffickers. Then a detailed application is submitted to their Leadership Team and upon enrolment onto their program each girl receives a uniform and a bike, a bag full of books and pens and off she goes to school.

Their team in Cambodia then visits with each girl regularly, to provide ongoing support and encouragement – a key part of keeping her safe and in ???????????????????????????????school. They reiterate the importance of education, encourage the parents to support their children in continuing their studies, and even teach that a university education is possible. They not only support the girl’s education, they also guide her and her family and help them problem solve.

Each time their Education Officers visit the girls, they change her library book, which the girls LOVE!. All of their books are in their local language, and have pictures of Cambodian children in Cambodian villages, so they are culturally appropriate. Some of them even have the English translation with them which is great for those girls beginning to learn English.

Some of the girls do not have adequate housing. They currently live in houses with so many holes in the walls and roof that they get very wet and cannot sleep when it rains, and in the rainy season it rains a lot! Some of the girls live in houses that are completely missing walls. Free To Shine have built 2 new houses so far, with another one planned.

It’s not an easy job, and the EOOs face many challenges, which they shared with Victoria and me. But mostly we heard good stories, the EEOs preferring to share their successes rather than challenges, and from what we heard, they have done so much good and have helped so many girls. So far they have enrolled 247 girls in their program and raised over $300 000.

I told them about yoga and explained that they were actually doing yoga each time they travelled to the villages to help these young girls because compassion and helping others is a part of yoga. Nicky told me that last week that Veasna, one of the EOOs, said that he was going out to the village to do yoga. This made me smile. These guys really are yogis in a way.

IMG_3854ftsblog After hearing all their amazing stories and learning about the work they do, it was time to get our OM on! We all headed upstairs and I taught the funniest, least serious yoga class I have ever taught. All of them have a great sense of humour which became most evident while I was trying to teach them yoga.  At the end of the class, after a very short Savasana, there was a pose off, which really isn’t yogic, but it was funny. Veasna effortlessly pulled out Mayurasana (Peacock pose), even though he’s never done yoga and another EEO told us that he had spent time training to be a Monk when he was a child. They were a very interesting bunch and I enjoyed spending time with them. It gave me peace of mind to know that the girls in this program were in such good and loving hands.

I often hear people say that they don’t trust NGOs in countries like Cambodia because there’s so much corruption and they can’t be sure where their money is going. This is part of the reason why I wanted to visit the NGOs that BE FREE YOGA supports. While I have always trusted whole heartedly the organsiations that we support, I want to be able to say to people, “I have been there and seen for myself the great work that these organisations are doing. I’ve met the young girls who have been touched by these programs and see how they shine despite the darkness that surrounds them.” Now I can.

Countries like Cambodia need NGOs to fill the gaps in government social and economic policies. Just because there may be a few dodgy NGOs, doesn’t mean we should throw our hands up in the air and refuse to help based on the premise that we cant be sure that our contribution will make a difference. Nothing in life is a sure thing and outcomes are generally not within our control, but the business of philanthropy requires a certain degree of faith. Most of the time, when you give, good comes from it.

I can personally guarantee that if you give to Free To Shine, some good will come to some little girl, who might otherwise have had a lot of bad coming her way.

If you’ve got a moment, I strongly urge you to watch Nicky Mih’s video (link below) about the sex trafficking trade in Cambodia and how she came to create Free To Shine. Nicky is one of the most beautiful, honest, compassionate and caring people I have ever met and I admire her deeply for what she is doing. Don’t hesitate to support this organization. What they are doing is making a difference.

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