Interview with Daniela Papi of PEPY Tours
Hello and welcome to another inspiring Go Overseas interview. This week we are excited to feature Daniela Papi, founder of PEPY (Protect the Earth, Protect Yourself). Daniela, and the rest of the PEPY organization, have been working in rural Cambodia since 2005. Their goal is to invest time and resources in people by providing education, training, and stimulating ideas. They regularly bring on international volunteers, but pride themselves on working closely with the local community. You can follow Daniela on her personal blog at Lessons I Learned, and learn more about PEPY at PepyRide.org. Enjoy the interview and share your comments or questions below!
GO: Lets start with a brief introduction. Who are you, where are you, and what are you doing?
Daniela: My name is Daniela Papi and I am the founder of PEPY, a hybrid organization working in Cambodia. PEPY's tag line, "Adventurous Living. Responsible Giving." highlights our dual organization: An educational and adventure tour company offering travelers a chance to learn about development work, and a non-profit organization working in literacy, leadership, and school support.
GO: Tell us a little more about PEPY and what this organization aims to accomplish?
Daniela: Some friends and I started PEPY in 2005 when we organized a bike trip across Cambodia. We wanted to leave more than tire marks, so we decided to build a school. It was only after we spent a year raising funds, twenty dollars at a time, and the school was built that we learned an important lesson: Schools don't teach kids. The organization we had partnered with was building schools, but we realized that in order to improve the quality of education in a place, we needed to invest in people.
PEPY now works in ten schools in a variety of capacities, from literacy and leadership programs, to a "Creative Learning Class" program in the junior high school. We also offer non-formal education programs on the weekends in 15 community areas.
Due to the success of that first bike ride, we also started a tour company, PEPY Tours. PEPY Tours exists both to fund the non-profit work that we do and also to educate travelers about responsible tourism and travelers philanthropy practices. Participants pay a fee to join the trip and also have a fundraising minimum which goes back to our education programs.
As far as volunteers, both PEPY and PEPY Tours take volunteers in our Siem Reap office. These roles are typically office based and range from donor communications to web design and IT support.
GO: What do you believe makes a good volunteer, and how PEPY finds/select volunteers to participate in their programs?
Daniela: We do not take volunteers to work with students in our education programs. Our volunteer positions are designed to put the volunteers skills to use in areas where our Khmer staff are less capable, and that usually means in areas where English communication is necessary such as with donor relations and marketing. This means that all of our school and education programs are run by our Khmer staff with occasional support in some programs by qualified paid staff.
A good volunteer is one who is willing to do what is needed even if it isn't glamorous, sexy, ego-boosting, or always fun. No, volunteering does not need to be "tough", but it should be about filling the needs of the organization not about putting your own needs first. In the cases I am usually writing about, it is not the individual who is really at fault - it is their teachers or their volunteer placement organization saying things like "We want to make sure our students feel a sense of accomplishment, so their volunteer work should be a project they can start and complete during our visit." What a volunteer does should fit in with actual needs, not be created for them to have a "great experience of doing good." We're not "doing good" if the experience was created for us!
GO: How can interested volunteers stay centered with realistic goals?
Daniela: Speak to people who have been living and working in the area to learn more about your work and theirs. By understanding more about the realities of the place you are working in, your expectations can better fit with reality.
GO: The new industry 'it' word is voluntourism. Do you believe these opportunities are capable of benefiting the communities they aim to serve?
Daniela: That is like asking if I think mortgages are good. Of COURSE making money available to lend to people is a good thing. Yet.. we had a mortgage crisis? Why? Because if we let our motives become profits and we start creating opportunities for people which shouldn't be there by stretching reality, well, then we have a problem. In voluntourism right now I think we have a BIG problem. There is way too much "making up stuff to do", and I myself am guilty of this as well.
GO: What is the continuing benefit of volunteering abroad after a volunteer returns home?
Daniela: Home, where you know the place, the language, the culture, the problems, and the people, is where you can really effect change. By volunteering in a place you know or are from, you can have a much bigger impact than trying to make changes to a people and place you are not a part of. I should know! I will never be Khmer and PEPY will never be as successful as it can be until a Khmer person is running our organization. I would never recommend that someone come in from the outside and "start an NGO" like I accidentally did. I'm here doing it now, and I think it would be more irresponsible to stop at this point, but I am indeed looking to transition all program leadership to Khmer teammates.
GO: How does PEPY approach communities to start new volunteer projects?
Daniela: Our education programs are not volunteer projects - they are run by our 37 full-time Khmer staff. Our tours are educational tours rather than volunteer tours where travelers learn about development work. The idea is not to go abroad and "save the world in 10 days" but instead to go aboard and learn, get angry, get interested, and then go out and do the world saving the other 355 days of the year.
GO!: What does the future hold for you and PEPY?
Daniela: We are still thinking about it.. there might be a PEPY guesthouse on the horizon. We'll keep you posted.
GO: Famous last words?
You have to learn before you can help. We need to prioritize LEARNING about a new place over coming in from the outside and "helping people".
I think Ivan Illich knew what he was talking about in this last paragraph.