Imported Aussie chickens and bull semen are part of his weapons of mass sustainability. Miranda Glasser reports
Norm Clark isn’t your average 59-year-old – dividing his time between Melbourne and Siem Reap, the energetic antipodean spends his days ceaselessly devising plans to help villagers through his NGO New Beginnings Cambodia, from strawberry growing to house-building to Australian chicken breeding, and has plenty more ideas where those came from.
For his philanthropic efforts, Clark has been nominated for Australian of the Year, something he is typically modest about.
“I’ve fallen in love with Cambodia,” he says. “I will live here and die here but I’ll try and help as many people as I can along the way. But I don’t think it’s much – to me I’ve had my life, my kids are grown up. I just want to put something back into the world.
“As a Westerner I’m not trying to change the way they do things, I’m just trying to help them get there the best way I can.”
Clark first came to Cambodia in 2009, after attending a charity dinner in Melbourne for local orphanage Kampuchea House. The then orphanage chief executive Les Stott was planning a charity bike ride and Clark, a keen cyclist, asked to accompany him – they ended up cycling 700kms across Cambodia to raise funds.
“It just progressed from there,” says Clark. He met Son Sokhoeum, the then Kampuchea House director and became involved with the group.
Clark organised another bike ride in 2010, with twelve cyclists riding 1000km, raising about $55,000 in the process.
Then Sokhoeum told him he’d been approached by a social worker who was helping families with HIV in a district further out than the orphanage, and Clark agreed to help.
He returned to Cambodia in early 2012 and shortly after he and Son Sokhoeum founded New Beginnings.
Clark gave Sokhoeum enough money to support six HIV affected families for the next three months, and returned to Australia to come up with a long-term plan.
“I had no idea how I was going to get funds to run this thing,” he admits. “But all I knew is I would do it.”
The answer lay in two things: Clark’s dogged, ‘can do’ attitude, and his generous circle of friends, who he persuaded to spend $35 a month sponsoring the families. This bought clothes, food and school essentials for the children as well as providing healthcare.
“We implemented a sponsorship program which allowed the adults to get down to the local HIV clinic,” he says. “The children have to come in to Siem Reap, so we covered those bases.”
Two months later the program grew to 12 families, and this grew to 25 by the end of 2012. Clark meanwhile realised he needed to find a way of making the project self-sufficient, and saw a solution in buying some land. Because the people he was helping were famers or potential farmers, starting a farm was the obvious answer.
Thanks to another benevolent friend, Clark bought the land in May 2012, and decided to build houses for the seven families that had nowhere to live.
“By twelve months into our farm we had the seven houses built,” he says. “And what we found after our first house was that we had some really talented families, but the downside was they’ve got HIV so can’t work as hard, they get tired. But they had the ability – we had guys who could build houses.”
So the families built the next six houses themselves. Having worked in the construction industry, Clark had the expertise as well as the contacts, and turned to his builder friends for tools and equipment, then showed the families how to use them. He later started up a building and maintenance business in which they are now employed.
Each family was given its own 20m by 100m plot of land to grow vegetables. Realising that rice alone would not bring in a sufficient income, the next step was to introduce other crops, and Clark’s lack of expertise in farming didn’t hold him back.
“We went on online and worked out what we could grow out here,” he says. “We’re growing everything now from eggplant to corn to sugarcane to passion-fruit. We look at places where they can sell their produce, and at the moment we’ve given samples to a couple of hotels.”
Enterprising Clark’s latest idea is to introduce a hydroponics system to grow specialised vegetables. This allows the families to cultivate lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries and rosemary, as well as the humble Brussels sprout, a veggie little seen in Cambodia.
New Beginnings has also built a community centre and started a well drilling business which employs some of the families.
“Sokhoeum and I have all these ideas running through our heads and we’re constantly bouncing off each other,” says Clark. “I’ve got Australian chickens here. I bought over fertile chicken eggs and two incubators. We’ll start to breed chickens with one breed for meat, the other for eggs.
“I also want to eventually bring the semen of a bull from Australia and create a bigger cow here, change the breeding pattern and have something where we can farm bigger cows for meat. If I could bring Noah’s Ark up here from Melbourne I would.”
Working tirelessly to bring in funds as well as ideas, Clark is keen to stress that every single dollar donated goes direct to the families.
“I go back to Australia and earn a wage that pays for all our administration costs,” he says. “Not one dollar comes out of the donation.”
Clark says his vision is to eventually have all the families self-sufficient. Out of the 25 families supported so far, five will be able to come off the food program by Christmas.
“We’ve got 160 families to get through if we can,” he says. “We’re only at around 25 now. Our aim is to get there if we can in our lifetime.”