Phy Amkha was just a high school student and the son of poor farmers from Preah Vihear province who did not know how to set life goals.

Then he was given training through the Everything is Going to Be OK (EGBOK) programme and Amkha came to understand his role in society and he learned useful life skills.

The 25-year-old Amkha developed his career from being a waiter in the food and beverage sector to working as human resources staff in an office and this enabled him to buy a motorcycle and land as well as finish university and even give financial support to his family.

EGBOK was established as an international NGO in 2009, but unfortunately it collapsed immediately when Covid-19 hit and the founder and board of directors were forced to announce the closure of the organisation which had been training Cambodians in housekeeping skills. They laid off their entire staff in December 2020.

EGBOK had earned a good reputation for training workers in quality housekeeping skills over 10 years and its former deputy director, Mao Sophanny, decided to scramble and quickly establish a human resource development programme by turning the NGO into a locally-based and focused non-profit.

“At EGBOK, I was deputy director. I think that if we closed it entirely with no replacement then we’d lose the opportunities and benefits for the students who are unemployed and who need real skills, especially those who have not studied in-depth,” Sophanny said.

Sophanny had worked for three years at EGBOK. She recalled that she asked the management not to close it down but they said they had no other choice.

A local team have been seeking funds to continue on their own with the operation of its programmes and they have registered at the Ministry of Interior.

They emerged with a new name and identity: SPOONS Cambodia Organisation. The team chose Sophanny and after legal registration, they set up a board of directors consisting of three foreigners and four Cambodians.

“This led us to open SPOONS Cafe and establish a management system again as well as increase our network of relations at home and abroad. I’m proud of the team who dedicated their time to the cafe and worked for no pay during the difficult times in 2021,” Sophanny said.

She said the reason for changing the name was that EGBOK was also locally registered as an NGO and they didn’t feel it was right to use the same name since it was a different board and the EGBOK founder was no longer involved.

“We still have the same mission and similar programmes to train people in housekeeping and life skills, including English and computer for 18-24 year-olds from remote areas and vulnerable people such as migrants and victims of domestic violence,” the 34-year-old Sophanny told The Post.

Since it began operations, the organisation has taught 400 students to learn hospitality skills such as cooking, food and beverage service and housekeeping. Sixty per cent of the students are female and have finished high school.

During the Covid-19 era, tourism – including a lot of hotels and restaurants – collapsed and many of their formerly trained staff had to change jobs or move from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh or Sihanoukville.

The not-for-profit SPOONS Cambodia Organisation has also re-opened the SPOONS Cafe social enterprise as a space for the students to practise their skills and generate income to support the students and the NGO.

“Currently, SPOONS Cambodia Organisation and the SPOONS Cafe social enterprise are two separate entities technically, with the latter registered at the Ministry of Commerce as a regular business. But we have the same mission to generate income to assist the students’ with their studies,” Sophanny said.

Mao Sophanny, director of SPOONS Cambodia. SUPPLIED

Originally from Prey Veng province, Sophanny graduated from the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) with a degree in social work in 2008 and worked in the community development sector at first where she taught life skills. She was also a child protection counsellor.

In 2014, she went to Siem Reap to work for an organisation focused on cakes and then she continued with social work until 2018, when she became a director at EGBOK focusing on the analytic project design to start teaching hospitality and life skills to youths who were often from very remote areas.

“They did not know anything – not even how to smile sometimes – and they did not even know how to use an indoor bathroom. We helped them change both their personal hygiene and their make-up. Eventually we got these country children to smile and serve guests in basic English and in a friendly and trustworthy manner focused on solving problems,” she said.

Amkha was chosen for the programme because his family was poor and he had an interest in working in the hospitality sector originally.

He said he had learned food and beverage service for six months – theory for three months and another three months practicing in a hotel using his housekeeping and service skills.

“One year of study changed my mindset a lot, both my attitude and my way of thinking as I used to live in a remote area bordering Laos,” he said.

“Now I am an independent person and do work that earns me a good income. I could afford to buy a motorcycle, land and help support my brothers with money to pursue their studies. And I managed to graduate from the university in management, hospitality and tourism. I never thought I’d ever get this far,” he added.

Amkha, now a staff member at the human resource department, told The Post that every graduate from SPOONS schools lands a job. When opportunities come calling, certain students receive jobs very quickly after they finish school.

Sophanny said EGBOK had increasingly struggled to survive on its own in the Covid-era. The donors to the organisation were all from the hospitality sector and when their incomes were affected due to the pandemic, the organisation had big problems and the restaurant focused mainly on foreign guests – many of whom left the country at the onset of coronavirus spread.

“When the country closed the borders and shut down all flights, we could not run our operation – it was all disrupted. Both humanitarian assistance and the SPOONS Cafe business were disrupted. We learned not to depend too much on business from tourists or donors from abroad anymore,” she said.

She closed the cafe first as it no longer even paid for the staff’s salaries and later they laid off all of the staff, which was painful because they had worked together as friends and family for a long time.

EGBOK was finally closed in March 2020, with some programme staff retained only to teach the students until they finished the programme in late 2020.

“We have strived for 10 years starting from scratch until we had everything like wide recognition of the quality of our training, close partnerships and good work done in the community. It takes a really long track record of success to gain a good reputation,” she said.

She emphasised the gratitude she felt towards the government who helped her through the Khmer Enterprise programme with a package of assistance that allowed her to renovate, prepare marketing materials and buy necessary items.

“In 2021, in addition to the establishment of the new organisation and spending January to March registering at the ministry, we tried to scramble to seek a little assistance at home and then continued by reopening the Spoons Cafe in May 2021,” she said.

At present, SPOONS Cafe breaks even without needing any outside assistance and it can survive on the trickle of Cambodian and foreigners visitors that come in daily.

“Currently, SPOONS Cafe staff consists of 10 students. It is a small number, compared to the pre-Covid student classes where we had 50 people a year. But we continue the same programmes, including accommodations, food and beverage service and so forth.

“These 10 students will finish training in September, and in October we want to add up to 20 more students for the school year 2022-2023. I expect that in 2024, I will be back to taking in 50 students a year again.

“I believe that if each one of us can help ourselves, we can think of ways to help others through other methods. We do not need to spend money on donations or carry out projects by ourselves. We must join and do something anywhere in a charitable manner while we learn to share. In our society, there are a lot of donors already, but if we increase that number even more, then I think that our country will develop further,” she said.