Published: Wednesday, 02 December 2015 19:01
Written by Joe Conway
I love a good pair of running shoes. I prefer lighter weights, solid heels, and I am easily swayed by colorful designs and patterns that look good but don’t necessarily improve my performance. I never thought much about running shoes beyond their usefulness as a tool until a few weeks ago while on a social entrepreneurship trip to Cambodia when I joined a group of kickboxing students on a shopping trip for what I would later learn were the first shoes they ever had in their lives.
What I thought was an investment in their training equipment was really an investment in their future.
Kickboxing is the national sport of Cambodia – a country that has seen more than its share of violence from the Khmer Rouge and civil war in the ‘70s and ‘80s – however, the tradition as an art form goes back many centuries. For a kid without a strong education, kickboxing can be a career, or at least an option, beyond a construction job orfarming.
I got involved in this endeavor through Fight for Cambodia, Inc., a 501c3 organization that invests in people who are empowering themselves through sport and marital arts, as a way to give back from my own experience living and working in Asia as an expat banker.
A shopping trip with these dedicated students, who are in their 20s, to pick out running shoes, shorts and shirts for training would be transformational for them, and as it turned out, for me as well. While the source of funds for the clothing was charitable, these young men earned the opportunity through their own efforts and dedication. They mostly work 8-12 hour days for about $80 a month and still find the time to train for two hours each day at Selapak, a kickboxing and arts center in the heart of the capital city Phnom Penh.
The shoes were meant to replace the flip flops these young men wear for their daily six-mile runs so they could improve their training. But they turned out to be more. They became a source of pride and the feeling that they were part of a team. The new shoes showed them that people believe in them and that their futures hold promise and possibility. Fight for Cambodia is investing in them as amateur athletes by not only investing in their training, but also in their education. The organization provides them the opportunity to learn English and life skills and teaches them how to set up a business venture as kickboxing tour guides.
Being present for someone’s first pair of shoes was an incredible experience. The Cambodian students took so many photos and selfies with them smiling from ear-to-ear. We even had to do a shoe lace tying lesson in the shop. They all walked a little taller on the way out of the shopping mall in their team jerseys and new shoes. The look of pride on their faces can never be forgotten. And I think, despite all their optimism and hope from their new shoes, workout clothes, and investment in their future, the life that was changed the most was mine.
For more information on the team and their activities, visit fightforcambodia.org or Fight for Cambodia on Facebook.