Shining a light on CCT’s Unsung Heroes: Darren Sterling

January 2022

By Darren Sterling

It was January 2013, when I first visited Battambang which the guidebooks had described as the cultural and architectural heart of Cambodia. The Sora bus had broken down halfway from Phnom Penh and it was night as I entered Battambang City. Exhausted, I grabbed a tuk-tuk to my accommodation and fell into bed, unaware of what lay ahead.

I spent the next day with a local Cambodian guide travelling by motorbike to historic sites and driving to some remote communities. His insight, cultural wisdom and love of his country were only surpassed by the welcoming smiles and gestures from the people I met. Driving back to town on the dusty roads as the sun set over the fields, I knew I’d stumbled onto something special. And so, began my love affair with Cambodia and her people.

My family joined me on the next visit (and many after) and I was fortunate to be able to have my passion for Cambodia reflected in my roles at a global NGO in Australia where I worked, enabling me to visit multiple times each year. Over the next 7 years I introduced Cambodia and Battambang to Australian teachers and groups of young adults exploring community development and ultimately accepted a position with my NGO in Phnom Penh for 2018 and 2019.

Photo taken by Darren

Having learnt about CCT, visits to Battambang would always include introducing Australians to Jaan Bai (CCT’s social enterprise restaurant) for meals and a chance to learn about another NGO’s approach to community development. With an Australian co-founder and based in Battambang, I couldn’t help but remotely follow CCT’s evolution over the proceeding years, and on a few occasions meet Tara and Jedtha.

So after working in International Development for 13 years I’ve seen a lot of well-meaning organisations working to change the world. Some great, some good and some, well…

So why do I support Cambodian Children’s Trust?

Well there are many reasons including the holistic Village Hive model, but let me share just a few.

Firstly, I believe Cambodian children deserve the same educational opportunities that my children enjoyed. The reality of course is that the overwhelming majority do not. Faced with significant challenges many NGOs seem to aim low, introducing positive yet basic changes that follow the long historical development processes of the west. So the focus is on providing notebooks, pencils, school bags and potentially some reading materials. All of these are positive and needed.

Yet to ignore the global transformation of education and knowledge derived from digital technology is to restrict and limit the potential of another generation of Cambodian youth. My time with Cambodian students has taught me what they need most is to have the opportunity to see new opportunities and to have people encourage and believe in their ability to succeed.

So, when CCT opened an Information and Communication Technology (ICT) curriculum based on that of Australia in 2015, I noticed. When I discovered that they were teaching robotics I was thrilled. Sure there would be benefits for the thousands of students who participated, but initiatives such as this also raise awareness of new opportunities and create new horizons, reinforce the value of education for children and their families and provide pathways for better futures. They act as a beacon on a hill, reaching far beyond their immediate vicinity, providing hope and inspiring change.

The ICT program also highlights how CCT works in partnership with the relevant ministries and local authorities, which is a second reason I regard their work highly.

It can be tempting to work in isolation of government, which tends to almost universally be bureaucratic and slow. Yet national, sustained change will only happen with government support in Cambodia.  So, when the funding for the program was no longer available to CCT, their approach of building the ICT program in partnership with the local high schools resulted in the schools committing to fund the ongoing program themselves. While not by design, the outcome demonstrated that CCT’s approach through partnership leads to positive sustainable outcomes, with the program continuing to this day.

Before moving to Cambodia, I noticed that public libraries in Australia were changing. Digital technology and the decline in physical books have seemingly resulted in their growing rebirth as community hubs with meeting rooms, activity groups, education events, mentoring programs, etc. The more I visited programs across Cambodia the more frustrated I became at the immense unused opportunity that school buildings offered for broader community engagement, support and education. With limited resources, the more that existing assets like schools can be utilised, the better. So the decision by CCT to pilot relocating a youth centre into a public school in Phum Ang Village demonstrates financial acumen, a desire for sustainability, but critically recognises the important role and opportunity of local schools in village life.

I have wondered how Tara, with no formal education in community development, co-founded CCT in her early 20s and has somehow managed to lead CCT from a dependent orphanage to an organisation that displays best development practice. I can only explain such a technically remarkable achievement as the result of a relentless focus on the people they serve and the absence of personal ego by both co-founders.

I had the opportunity to meet Tara in Battambang about 5 years ago and found my way to the office. It was located an outer part of town, in a very plain building and seemed devoid of all the branding so often seen for similar organisations in Cambodia. Apart from Tara’s passion and drive, I was struck that she came across as something of a reluctant organisational leader. She spoke of having to return to Australia to do some fundraising events and how uncomfortable she felt at public speaking. I’ve seen enough to know that some people who work in this sector end up driven by ego, motivated to create their own legacy, or perhaps seeking redemption for their disappointments from their earlier career. I’ve found that the great leaders are those that have little regard for themselves. They do what they do simply out of a deep desire to help others. Despite a growing profile back in Australia thanks to Australian Story, Tara was it seemed, one of these rare servant leaders.

And perhaps this is reflected in the final reason I wanted to share, identity and localisation.

So many founders fail to develop local leaders perhaps subconsciously wanting to always be at the centre of what they believe to be “their” organisation. Their identity and self-worth are so entrenched in the organisation that they ultimately begin to damage the organisation they worked so hard to build.

So, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to read in the latest Impact Report that the Cambodian operations have now become 100% Khmer. Yet again CCT is ahead of the curve.

So why do I support CCT?

  • A relentless focus on the communities they serve.
  • The ability to push beyond the easy and help young people to dream and achieve.
  • Their ability to work with government and partners to create truly sustainable change.
  • Their wise use of assets.
  • Their understanding of the importance of the village in Cambodian culture.
  • Their demonstrated servant leadership approach.
  • The transition to 100% Khmer staff in Cambodia.
  • The ever-evolving best practice development programs.

And ultimately the change they support in the lives of children and families in Battambang! I have and continue to encourage friends to support the amazing work of CCT.

Darren Sterling is an Australian who has spent the last 13 years working in International Development and lived in Melbourne, Cambodia and Vietnam.