HN 23 | Dignity in the Midst of Disability


In Cambodia, those living with disabilities can struggle to earn a living. This group in Boeng Mealea has banded together to create an amazing new opportunity.

In July of 2016, my husband and I had the privilege of attending the first-ever meeting of the Savings and Loans group for people living with disabilities in Boeng Mealea, Cambodia.

And this past October (2017) I got to go back. What a difference 18 months can make!

At the heart of this transformation is relationship, trust, and education. 

In the months between my visits, Cambodian Food for the Hungry (FH) staff came alongside group members, getting to know them and their desires. Staff encouraged dreaming and assisted in envisioning a hopeful future, something foreign to those living with disabilities.

This is no small feat in a country where having a disability often results in isolation, loneliness, and extreme material poverty. 

Most people in Cambodia are Buddhist and believe in Karma—adopting an attitude that bad behaviour in a past life accounts for a disability in the present life. There is little room for empathy, understanding, or getting past the impairment. People are seen as their issue, not as valued human beings. People with disabilities are often seen as cursed and worthless, leaving them extremely vulnerable.

This worldview can also encourage discrimination and lack of regard for individuals living with disabilities and contributes to the ongoing cycle of despair and disparity. 

Savings and Loans group meetings can happen in homes, under trees, or anywhere that is most convenient for the participants.
In Cambodia, education is extremely difficult to access for people living with disabilities. Cost is certainly a prohibitive factor, but practical realities of accessibility create insurmountable barriers. While the law states that buildings need to be readily reachable by all, little is done to ensure or enforce this, rendering those with physical limitations unable to get into educational facilities.

Access denied. Opportunities withheld. Vulnerability increased.

And it’s this exposure to risk that makes these people ideal candidates to work with Food for the Hungry, the organization who intentionally seeks to walk with the world’s most vulnerable through initiatives like Savings and Loans groups.

FH Savings and Loans groups are so much bigger than financial transactions. To lay the groundwork for their formation, FH staff worked with the community members living with disabilities to build trust and shared a vision for how working together, and keeping their money local, could benefit them.

Loan sharks are rampant in Cambodia, preying on vulnerable people in crisis, charging exorbitant interest rates, recalling loans on a whim, and adding stress and fear to those already experiencing extreme material poverty. And yet, many turn to these ill-motivated individuals because they see no alternative.

And that’s the power of a local Savings and Loans structure where neighbours pool resources, collectively make decisions on loans, hold each other accountable and, perhaps most meaningfully, support and cheer one another on.

Group meetings provide participants with a safe place to save money, take out loans, pitch ideas, troubleshoot difficulties, and receive support and encouragement from their peers.

Practically speaking, FH staff provided training in financial literacy, savings strategies, and small business management. The group received a secure lockbox, ledger, and accounting books with instruction on how to use them. 

And the change began.

Each member contributed as much as they were able to the savings box—perhaps only a few cents at a time. Deposits were entered into the ledger by the designated bookkeeper, checked by another member, and witnessed by everyone sitting around on the mat at meetings.

While funds grew, brainstorming for how their collective savings would be leveraged continued. 

Ideas shared, research conducted, a plan birthed. The Savings and Loans group for people living with disabilities was ready to put their learning, strategizing, and vision into practice.

Joy and pride washed over me as I met with the group again. 

We shared time together discussing their road to becoming entrepreneurs. And then they gave me a tour of their store—the first of its kind.

So what happened between my visits? The Savings and Loan group met weekly with Food for the Hungry staff for learning, envisaging, and soon strategizing. 

Shelaine explores the new store with joy.

In the end, they decided on a grocery store and secured rental space for $25 a month. They sourced suppliers, stocked the shelves, and opened the doors. The business slowly grew but some of the stakeholders recognized an opportunity to reduce costs and therefore increase profit.

A piece of land on a busy highway located near a popular temple, right across from a school, became available for $35 per year. The lack of a building didn’t squelch their enthusiasm. The team banded together, contributing materials and labour as able, and constructed their own grocery store. Offering school supplies in addition to household necessities has been a stroke of marketing genius.

One hurdle the initiative needed to clear came with staffing. 

Initially, the group hired someone from outside their cluster to run the store. It didn’t work out because “she didn’t smile.” So, they came together and assessed skills and abilities within their own.

Tok keeps the store's books in order and provides service with a smile!

Tok was voted in as the salesperson and since he’s taken over, sales have skyrocketed. He is warm, inviting, helpful, and perhaps most significant, invested. He takes pride and ownership of the store and his passion is contagious.

And what does Tok have to say about this opportunity? He told me he loves his job—the people he meets and being able to do purposeful work. He also said his wife has a new respect for him and “no longer fights him.” She is proud that he has a job and that people now look up to him.

The new store isn’t just a livelihood to these people living with disabilities. 

This is a life-changing opportunity to hold their heads high and know that they are contributing to society, providing for their families, building friendships in community, and having fun in the process.


Shelaine Strom: Author and life-coach Shelaine Strom has seen life. Learning from her own professional and medical challenges, she has taught career and life transitioning for nearly twenty years and helped thousands of people get back up on their feet. Shelaine currently serves as the Manager for Education & Professional Development at FH Canada. Check out her blog.




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Food for the Hungry: HN 23 | Dignity in the Midst of Disability
HN 23 | Dignity in the Midst of Disability
Food for the Hungry
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