Restoring hope in a Cambodian village


More than three decades after enduring genocide, many rural Cambodians are still struggling. But one charity is determined to restore hope, one village, one family, one life, at a time.



 “I can’t deal with this anymore.  I’m giving you my child and I’m going.”

The first time hearing those words is perhaps one of the most distressing moments in a person’s life: words the leaders of the Restore One charity have heard too many times.

Co-founders Tanya Lawrence, Greg Allen, and Sokhun Prok were sitting on the wooden floor of a hut found in the Kampong Thom Province.

The elders of the small village were hosting them for dinner.

A kerosene lamp lit up the basic, one-room shelter, haloing the food at the centre.

Chatter was slow and relaxed, with Prok translating between the Restore One and village leaders.

A young woman, no older than 20, had been waiting at the edge of the dark room for some time.

The poor lighting provided her with privacy.

When the girl’s words were translated, only the ‘white people’ were disturbed from their meals.  “I can’t deal with this anymore.  I’m giving you my child and I’m going.”


Nothing can prepare you for the sheer desperation and hopelessness that can be found in Cambodia’s poorest demographic.

Hopelessness takes on many forms.

People in the poorest villages live in grass shelters and have no running water. Photograph: Restore One

In poor, rural villages in the Kampong Thom Province, it is a mother giving her child to one of the ‘over 500 orphanages in Cambodia’, so she can work in Siem Reap or Phnom Penh.

In January 2013, the Restore One charity was founded to keep the families together and give them choices.

Their mission is to break poverty: one child, one family, one community at a time.

“When you distil what [is] going on in poor Cambodian villages… it isn’t because the parents don’t love their kids,” co-founder and Volunteer Coordinator Tanya Lawrence said.

“They think that by sending [their children] to an orphanage, [the children] can get an education, and they can earn an income.”

According to Program Manager and third co-founder Greg Allen, Restore One’s main goal is to help with that ‘loss of hope’.

“When you first see mothers in that position, it is very confronting,” he said

“The people we work with can put up with poor living conditions, difficult lives. But if they don’t have hope then everything starts to fall apart. Like everybody else, they just give up.”


In 2007, Tanya’s husband, Tim Lawrence, was running Pathfinders, a Christian scouting group.

On one of the campouts, Tanya was sitting around a fire with the other leaders when the fateful question was asked: “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do a family service trip to a third world country?”

She recalled how she took on the role of organising the trip.

“I was the only parent at the time who wasn’t working full-time. I said, “Leave it to me!” and called different NGOs,” Tanya said, with her signature can-do attitude.

“A lot of charities wanted nothing to do with us, which was bizarre.

“Eventually, I was able to team up with Wat Prey Jesu who wanted us to build a school.”

Over the next year, Tanya and four other families fundraised more than $50,000 to build four classrooms in Wat Prey Jesu.

Opening the first rooms was perhaps ‘one of the most moving experiences’ of their lives.

“I wept!” Tanya said, with tears in her eyes.

“From then on, I knew this was what I needed to do!”

Over the following years, Tanya was employed by another NGO working in Cambodia where she met Grey Allen and Sokhun Prok.

It was working here that Tanya knew she needed to keep families together,

“I vividly remember many occasions where poor, local women were trying to give me their kids,” she said.

“We cannot fix the poverty in all Cambodia, but damn, we can help one village, one family, one life, at a time!”


Each bracelet symbolises a child who was beat or executed on this ‘Killing Tree’.

It was soon after a vicious attack by the Khmer Rouge forces on the capital city of Phnom Penh in April 1975, that Cambodia’s nightmare began.

Following a five-year civil war, Khmer Rouge military leader Pol Pot established himself as prime minister of Cambodia and led the totalitarian Pol Pot Regime to wipe out all Western influences in the country.

Cambodia became known as Democratic Kampuchea.

In the next four years, up to two million Cambodians were killed or worked to death in forced-labour camps.

Schools were closed and destroyed, cities were evacuated, their inhabitants displaced to rural villages, as owning private properties became illegal.

Intellectuals and professionals were targeted and exterminated.

Anyone who owned glasses, modern technologies or who even spoke foreign languages were executed immediately.

It is estimated up to one-fifth of Cambodia’s population was wiped out under the Regime.

Despite the Khmer Rouge government being overthrown in 1979 by Vietnamese troops, the radical communist group left behind a legacy of devastation and impoverishment.

Victims of genocide: Skulls and bones found in mass graves in Choeung Ek, Phnom Penh.

The aftermath of such brutality is impossible to fully comprehend.

Since its fall, the legacy of the Khmer Rouge has been politicised.

To this day, political tensions are high as many former Khmer Rouge personnel remain in power.

The population of Cambodia’s median age is 25.6 years, with just over 10 per cent of the population being 55 years and older.

The Asian Development Bank’s 2019 statistics show 12.9% of the population is living below the poverty line.

It is in one of the poorest villages in the Kampong Thom Province, the Village, where Restore One began picking up the pieces, giving the locals choice and hope.

Because without hope, what do we have?


Sokhun Prok, the second co-founder and Project Coordinator of Restore One, is a Cambodian citizen born in Ta Ngal, Prey Chhor district, Kampong Cham Province.

Prok’s mother passed away in the middle of the Khmer Rouge’s rule in 1977 when he was only nine months old, leaving his father and two sisters struggling to survive.

Growing up in a rural area during the brutal aftermath of Cambodia’s ‘Killing Field Era’, there was no access to water, housing, or schools.

According to Prok, Restore One charity was established when he, Greg and Tanya, recognised the ‘still-overwhelming lack of basics’: hygiene facilities, proper shelters, and education.

Avondale School’s 2017 Year 12 ‘Schoolies’ group built raised houses in villages. Photo credit: Bryelle Cherry.

 “[The children] need school in their community because they live in areas that have no government schools nearby, and most kids are not literate,” Prok said.

The Restore One school in the Village was built for the purpose of educating the poorest children, giving them work and financial opportunities.

Greg Allen builds basic homes which are elevated off the ground to prevent flooding in Cambodia’s wet seasons. Photo credit: Bryelle Cherry.

Greg Allen, the third co-founder and Program Manager of Restore One, uses his background in project development and agricultural work to help the villages.

Working part-time in both Cambodia and Australia, his role is to, quite literally, build impoverished communities back up.

He fondly recalls how reading motivated him to ‘do his part’ and ‘make a difference’.

“The first [book] I read was called Three Cups of Tea and another one called Hospital by the River,” Greg said.

“Once I read those, I got interested in ‘service to humanity’ type work.”

With his background in construction, Greg works with different teams of volunteers, building village houses and classrooms.



Avondale School sends a team of students who have just finished their HSC exams to Cambodia to work with Restore One.

They have assisted with various projects for the past decade.

“It’s great because the students can pick up where the last group left off and see the improvements each trip makes,” Greg said.

When the first classroom was built in the village eight years ago, the village elders made a point of telling Restore One what the school meant to them.

“They said that they know they are considered one of the poorest villages, and to have no hope,” Greg said.

“But now we are giving them a school, it’s like they have gold!”

The elders were the first to send their children to school, showing ‘great leadership’.

Before and after: Seven children stand together after enrolling into school in 2012. The four eldest girls graduate Year 12 in 2020. Photographs: Greg Allen

“On the first day, I met seven children who had just been enrolled. Now four of the girls are finishing Year Twelve!” Greg recalled.

“It is amazing to see how an education makes a difference in one village.”



In the next five to 10 years, Restore One’s big vision is to expand so Year 12 students can get a tertiary education.

It will take a lot of time to fundraise for such a big project, but Tanya knows this will ‘hugely benefit’ to the village.

“In the past decade, the village’s education program has come so far,” she said.

“It will be great when the village and our team can experience the opportunities higher education provides.”