Community service and travel have always been important parts of my life. As the director of state and local relations for Habitat for Humanity International’s Government Relations and Advocacy office in Washington, DC, I often travel throughout the U.S. to support Habitat for Humanity affiliates with their local and state housing policy efforts. However, I rarely get the chance to travel outside the country to participate in Habitat for Humanity’s global work. So, when I was offered the opportunity to join Habitat for Humanity of Charlotte, North Carolina on their first Global Village trip to Cambodia, I jumped at the chance.

Our small group spent the first week of the trip in the Siem Reap Province. We traveled each day from the center city, deep into the countryside to complete the construction of a wooden home on stilts for the Hoeun family. Each day we worked side-by-side with family members and Habitat for Humanity Cambodia staff to do a variety tasks – flooring, siding, mixing cement, painting, masonry, you name it! Once the home was completed, we shared in a dedication ceremony and celebration with the family and community.

For most Global Village trips, this is where the story of my trip would end – a week working hard with staff of Habitat Cambodia and alongside the Hoeun family to build their safe, healthy new home. We would have seen the impact of Habitat Cambodia’s work in the life of one family.  But, in this case, building a home in Siem Reap was only the beginning.

Habitat Charlotte recently began a tithe relationship with Habitat Cambodia, in which they contribute a percentage of the funds that they raise to support Habitat’s work in Cambodia. Because this was Charlotte’s first visit to Cambodia, the staff of Habitat Cambodia arranged for our group to travel to three regions of the country to see a multitude of projects that the organization is leading in order to get a holistic view of their work, as well as the needs across the country.

Water and Sanitation for Health
We participated in a hand washing class in a small village in the Siem Reap Province. This class was part of Habitat Cambodia’s Water and Sanitation for Health, or WASH program, which aims to improve hygiene and sanitation practices, as well as increases accessibility to safe drinking water and sanitary latrines. Habitat Cambodia has found that engaging community members in simple but meaningful demonstrations, like this handwashing class, can promote lasting change in their behaviors and lead to long-term health improvements. We also toured a community safe water station, one of several water purification stations funded by Habitat Cambodia and staffed by community members to bottle clean water at an affordable price for local community members.

Participatory Approach for Safe Shelter Awareness
We traveled from Siem Reap to Battambang and on our way we stopped to visit a community participating in a program to promote disaster mitigation through community organizing and engagement. The methodology is called the Participatory Approach for Safe Shelter Awareness, or PASSA. Cambodia is regularly hit by natural disasters, especially floods and droughts, and the community implementing PASSA that we visited was no different. Community leaders shared with our group the stories of past challenges but were eager to share their progress in addressing local issues. They had mapped all the local homes, roads, rice fields, waterways and other assets. Through this process they had identified housing structures at most risk during a disaster and are working with Habitat Cambodia to address the greatest needs first. The community had also pinpointed and raised funds for a solution that would lessen the impact of floods and droughts: a sluice gate. This sliding gate now controls the flow of water in a nearby canal. It will help to reduce the amount of flooding during times of heavy rain and store water in times of drought.

Social Land Concession
The most impactful visit for me was a tour of neighborhoods in the city of Battambang.  Access to secure land tenure is a daily problem in Cambodia, with illegal development and mass eviction commonplace. The area that we toured in the city was once government-owned land, slated to eventually become a community garden. But as time went by, families began to build homes on the land, especially Cambodians returning from refugee camps on the Thai border after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Families that had built homes on this government land had no legal right to the land where their homes were built and could lose it at any moment. Over the last several years, Habitat has worked with community members and government officials to implement the Social Land Concession program in the community, aiming to transfer land from the government to private individuals. Through this pilot project, Habitat Cambodia worked to systematically and incrementally upgrade the informal community, leading to security of tenure for 82 families. Since, other neighborhoods in Battambang observed Habitat Cambodia’s work with the local government on social land concession and were empowered to  replicate the process themselves. Now, even more families in Battambang have security of tenure.

Now, I am back in the U.S. and have had time to reflect on my visit to Cambodia. There is much to be learned from the way that Habitat Cambodia approaches its mission. Like all Habitat for Humanity organizations, Habitat Cambodia shares the vision of a world where everyone has a decent place to live. But the organization demonstrates through its holistic approach that home is more than just a structure. If you have safe shelter, but lack clean water and sanitation, how healthy can you truly be? If you have safe shelter, but it is not built to withstand a disaster, how protected are you? If you have a safe shelter, but lack security of tenure, are you truly stable?

I am grateful for the many lessons that I learned on my trip to Cambodia and plan to employ them in my state and local policy work in the U.S.  I look forward to seeing the lasting impact of Habitat Cambodia’s programs on families, communities and systems in the years to come.