Travel broadens the mind and enriches the soul – but it can also change our lives and the lives of others in unexpected ways. This is a story of how purposeful travel has intertwined a pair of backpackers with a force for positive change that’s taken them far off the beaten path they began on.
My wife Carmen and I are sitting down to dinner in Ubud, Bali with Duncan Ward and his fiancé Nicola Courtin who have come to scope out locations for their upcoming wedding and find a new place to live amongst the peaceful paddies, far from the madding corporate crowd in Perth, where they have both just handed in their notice.
But Duncan is far from a corporate refugee seeking a more peaceful way of life and making money. The seeds of his corporate escape have a much nobler fertiliser. And as the wine begins to flow and the courses arrive, the story he and Nicola tell us unveils a vision higher than the skyscrapers they left behind.
Shifting from grief to purpose
Born in South Africa to parents who resisted the Apartheid regime, Duncan grew up with social justice at the core of his being. He left South Africa at the age of 19 to pursue a life in London, where he went to university, swept train platforms and tried his hand at modelling before going to Australia to work in tech management.
It doesn’t surprise me that Duncan was paid to strike a few poses in London. Aged 38 now, he looks a decade younger, if not more. But his features go dark when he describes what happened to him.
“My brother passing away was a big thing in my life where I started looking and reflecting and thinking, “What am I doing? Is this really what I want to be doing?” And so I turned my life upside down.
Duncan was very close to his brother, and his sudden death shook him to the core. So he hit pause on his corporate career in 2012, bought a plane ticket to South East Asia and went travelling. “I went with an intention and a thought of finding more purpose and meaning for myself,” he says.
What Duncan found was far beyond anything he could have imagined when he started his journey.
Starting at zero in Cambodia
When the Maoist Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia in 1975, they declared Year Zero, taking the nation’s calendar, and it’s existence, back to a clean slate.
An estimated two million Cambodians died – systematically murdered in the infamous Killing Fields or succumbing to disease, starvation and forced labour. Four years later, when the Vietnamese toppled the regime, Cambodia had been gutted, with its communities and infrastructure in ruins.
But one Cambodian man who narrowly survived the captivity and deprivation of these brutal years is Thy Bunrith, known as Racky, who stands unbowed to devote his life to restoring Cambodia, starting with the education of its children.
While travelling through Cambodia seeking his life answers, Duncan crossed paths with Racky in the rural city of Battambang and they became fast friends. Racky told of how the Khmer Rouge had forced him into slave labour as a child and attempted to kill him three times – once forcing him to climb a tree before setting it alight when he reached the heights.
Racky survived, and became determined to make his life count for something after Year Zero subtracted so much. He showed Duncan how he made a living driving tourists around on a rickshaw, and then used his earnings to help educate local kids.
Duncan was looking for purpose, and through a bit of serendipity, that’s what he found. “I was putting that out into the universe,” he says. “And guess what I attracted into my life? The chance to meet with Racky. And all of a sudden children need help. That’s purpose. That’s more meaningful than just me, me, me.”
Classroom of Hope begins
Duncan decided there and then to help Racky. But he didn’t want to simply donate some money or volunteer part of his time as a one off. He had found his purpose – to educate children in the world’s poorest countries, starting by helping Cambodia and Racky. And to do it, Duncan began thinking big.
That the children needed access to education was obvious, but they also needed the most important ingredient – a good quality classroom. Many of the children Racky showed Duncan were crammed into inadequate rooms or had to walk may miles to and from the places of learning.
So Duncan came up with a charity, The Classroom of Hope, which has a simple mission – build good quality classrooms for children in developing countries like Cambodia, and provide learning materials so they can get a good education.
Going back to Duncan’s roots in South Africa, he found a quote from Nelson Mandela that confirmed he was on the right path. “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Mandela’s words sum up and inform the mission of Classroom of Hope, to change the world one student and one classroom at a time. And with 57 million children world wide without access to primary education, it’s an enormous task.
Working hard, and smart
Duncan drew on his experience in the corporate world, setting up Classroom of Hope with an emphasis on it having a solid business model supporting the work. Rather than simply seeking general donations and then using that money to fund the day to day work, Duncan set up a system where major contributors take care of the running costs, meaning any other donations go directly to helping kids learn.
It’s a very modern way of doing things, using Duncan’s professional skills to create something more lasting. “We like to see ourselves as a creative digital start-up for-purpose organisation,” he says.
“Classroom of Hope’s model is all about creating ‘smartnerships’ and teaming up with best practice local NGOs in the countries we work to implement effective education projects.”
“The locals know their culture best and it’s our job to listen to them. Classroom of Hope’s role is one of due diligence, creative fundraising, monitoring and evaluation, whilst connecting our donors to the impact through impact reports and storytelling from the field.”
So, Duncan found a path, a charity and a way to run it. Now he needed some help to get it off the ground…
The Canadian connection
If Duncan is the evangelist for Classroom of Hope, then Nicola is the soprano of the choir, using her long experience in journalism and the media to shine a light on its efforts and spread the word, all while helping run the charity and keep everything humming along.
She leans into the candlelight glowing on our table and tells her side of the story.
“When I was studying my degrees in English, Socio-Cultural Anthropology and Journalism, I didn’t know how exactly how I would bring them all together,” she tells us. “I worked in sports media but I knew that wasn’t the right fit for me. I felt driven and compelled to tell stories that help and connect people.”
A chance holiday meeting with Duncan as he continued his travels in Laos gave her the opportunity to have her own questions about life and purpose answered – and when their paths crossed again in Australia, love blossomed.
Nicola threw herself behind Classroom of Hope and together, she and Duncan grew the charity in their spare time, working corporate jobs to pay the bills but burning the midnight oil to accomplish the work they were passionate about.
“We feel like we are being 100% authentic with what our hearts’ desire,” she says. “To create this, you need to take risks and leaps of faith with full belief that things will eventually work out, and they certainly have.
Sir Richard Branson gets on board
Classroom of Hope bubbled away, raising money in Australia and around the world to set up schools initially in Cambodia. And like all good ideas with a good plan, the momentum built and built.
Classroom of Hope was founded in 2012 – and a year later Duncan found himself shaking Sir Richard Branson’s hand while on stage accepting the Australian Impact award from Talent International in recognition of his work, and the charity’s potential.
That changed everything for Duncan and Nicola. They always intended to make Classroom of Hope their full time vocation, but the award confirmed that it should be sooner rather than later.
“It’s really tough working other jobs and making time in evenings or weekends for Classroom of Hope,” Duncan says. “Our passion drives us so we are disciplined in finding the time, but there are certainly days when we feel a little bit stretched.”
Nicola agrees. “Fundraising has also been challenging at times,” she says. “It can be challenging to get our brand voice heard above some of the larger charities. It’s been a huge learning curve and we are grateful for every challenge because it helps us grow.”
Making a commitment
Fast forward a few years and Duncan and Nicola are engaged to be married and have wound up their jobs for good while preparing to travel and spread the message of The Classroom of Hope.
They have left their corporate lives behind – and will now be starting a new, deeper journey to expand Classroom of Hope’s work in Asia and Africa, with plans for get schools going in Bali and India as well. But like the good corporate workers they were, there’s a tight plan for how things will be guided.
“Our vision for Classroom of Hope is to stay small and boutique style, rather than growing into a large high revenue charity,” Duncan says. “For now, we see it being somewhat of a family business and we don’t want to bite off more than we can chew. We focus our energies on delivering quality service for our donors and beneficiaries and by staying focused on what we are good at we are growing organically.”
“For us, it’s all about creating balance in our lives while also building a brand that people love. Life can seem really rushed at times and it’s our intention to maintain balance, do some good and have fun! Life needs to be pleasure not pressure.”
Conquering the fear
A common reaction Duncan and Nicola have when they tell people what they do – aside from encouragement – is the inevitable question of do you feel safe working in developing countries like Cambodia and Rwanda?
It’s a question that anyone considering overseas charity work should consider, but for Duncan and Nicola, it’s an issue that can be overcome with some common sense.
“The opposite of fear is love and by being loving in all facets of life then you attract loving experiences and beautiful people,” Nicola says. “We understand that there can be some risks when travelling in developing countries, but it’s important to be streetwise and always have a plan in place should something go wrong.”
It’s not all smooth sailing though. She beams as she remembers a close call. “We did have one moment in Rwanda where we were driving through a heavy downpour and our car nearly went over a cliff. That was terrifying!”
To keep their spirits and courage up, both Duncan and Nicola meditate regularly and keep up a regular yoga practise. But it seems that the peace of mind and sense of purpose they both get from dedicating their lives to helping others brings its own sense of strength.
How you can help Classroom of Hope
Bearing in mind that Duncan and Nicola have been working on Classroom of Hope part time, the statistics that measure their impact so far are extraordinary. 15 schools are complete in Cambodia with 9 due for completion in 2016. There also plans to add a further 6 to the portfolio next year.
You can help Classroom of Hope through donations or even by running a fundraising drive or event for them. Check out their website here.
Time’s up, pencils down
The cheque comes for us at the restaurant and it’s time to go. But Duncan leaves us with a quote.
“The way to happiness is to keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry. Live simply, give much. Fill your life with love. Do as you would be done by.”
“This quote from Buddha sits on our wall in our room so we can see it everyday,” Duncan and Nicola tell us. “We see this expressed by doing the things we love doing like yoga, meditation, surfing, travel, Classroom of Hope and letting go of attachments to material possessions.
“Belief, passion and action made that seed grow into 24 schools and 8,000 children being supported in just three years.”