'I can't shake the poverty I've seen'
Struck by the scenes he witnessed while backpacking, Andrew Sweeney, founder of SCOOP charity, tells about building schools in Cambodia
When Andrew Sweeney set off for a backpacking trip around the world in 2008, then aged 26, he had no idea what impact that journey would have on his life.
Now 34, and founder of the charity organisation SCOOP (Supporting Children Out of Poverty), it has not only helped fundraise two schools outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia, but also helps with voluntarism with schools in India.
In 2015, the charity is planning building a third school in rural Cambodia.
"The impact is smallish, but it's encouraging, it means we're on the right path," says Dubliner Andrew.
Founded in 2010, SCOOP's main ethos is to help break the poverty trap through education in Cambodia and India. SCOOP works in conjunction with other NGOs to help create schools where communities can create and avail of opportunities for themselves.
"[Cambodians] are passionate about education; they're passionate about other kids. That was just bricks and mortar, it was a school and they went there, got involved like another hundred kids. So schools have a huge impact, they're just simple; they're stepping stones themselves for the village."
It was Andrew's own experience of seeeing poverty in Cambodia that inspired the formation of SCOOP.
"If you fall down in that society nothing catches you, you just keep falling and that really struck me. These kids are born into that descent, into that trap and their parents are the ones putting them deeper because the parents are uneducated themselves."
After graduating with a degree in Spanish and Sociology from Trinity College Dublin in 2008, Andrew decided to go backpacking around the world. While in Cambodia, he was struck by the poverty.
"I wasn't ready for the scams and the thievery and everything that went on," Andrew explains.
"I fell for everything. When I left Cambodia for the first time, I swore I would never go back."
Despite that vow it was his initial visit to a school outside the city of Phnom Penh that really impacted on him.
"It was just a very kind of rough, two-storey building," Andrew says. "It was a dark windowless classroom downstairs, and a bedroom upstairs and there was like 20 kids living there."
The school was formed by the Cambodian NGO Save Children in Asia (SCAO). Andrew was so impressed with the NGO's work that he decided to organise a fundraiser for the school.
"Definitely when I came back to Dublin, it stayed in my craw. Still to this day, I can't shake it, and that led me to want to do a fundraiser for that small school."
On his return from Cambodia, Andrew and friends arranged fundraisers through the arts community.
They were successful but Andrew wanted to do more and began planning his own charity. "I realised there was a gap, a potential to set up a new type of charity that was very inclusive, very young person-orientated, aimed at college students and graduates and giving them a platform to develop skills and to get real-world experience".
After registering as an offical charity in 2010, SCOOP placed its efforts into building a second school outside Phnom Penh. The SCAO Educational Centre opened its doors in 2011, and has now around 250 students.
"There has to be a hub where people congregate where ideas are thrown around and energy happens. So we definitely know the Cambodians themselves have a thirst to change and to learn and to break the system," says Andrew.
Not long after SCOOP's formation, Andrew decided to expand by helping schools in India.
His decision was as a result of his own friends who had heard of two schools in India with a similar ethos to SCOOP and SCAO's schools in Cambodia; Jeevan School in Varanasi and St Mary's School in Kerala.
"There was an Irish connection, my friends told me about it, and we just set up SCOOP and were ready to take on the world."
Upon going to India, Andrew met director and head teacher of the Jeevan School, Kati Richter. Since then, SCOOP has helped with volunteering and plans to fundraise for a Children's Village in Varanasi.
Andrew alternates one-year visits between Cambodia and India, while still running services with the SCOOP team at their offices in Smithfield.
Among the obstacles SCOOP has faced was the CRC scandal in 2014, when charities countrywide found it difficult to fundraise.
"Everyone suffered but we suffered big time. We had no overheads, no employees and we just needed to have these fundraisers to be a success. But we couldn't get any traction, any support."
But with hard work, the charity continued to grow and has recently opened an office in Perth, Australia.
"My role [will focus on] setting up a global NGO, strengthening ties between Australia, Ireland, India and Cambodia, and just making sure everyone is singing off the same hymn sheet, same mission and vision, like a good website that represents us both."
Andrew continues to find inventive ways to promote the organisation through fundraisers in the arts community.
"We take the arts very seriously, we see it as a way of connecting the organisation to donors and the public."
The most recent fundraiser is a unique art cookbook, which features Irish-based artists sharing their creative recipes and artworks illustrating it.
"We decided to ask some old SCOOP friends for art and we got an overwhelming response, now we're up to 65 artworks."
The art will be auctioned off this Wednesday at Third Space, Smithfield, from 6.30-8.30 pm, to raise money for a third school in Cambodia.
SCOOP's future looks bright, with plans for a second edition of the cookbook, a new website launch in November, and just recently, the charity received a Melbourne Design Awards for their new logo.
But for Andrew, the main successes are those of former pupils who are now thriving with aspirations of their own.
"That's definitely my drive going on," says Andrew. "Keep building these schools, and these villages, and some of the children are totally just going to rise up to it."
And it's not volunteers making the difference, it's the village themselves."
For more information see scoopfoundation.com/store To attend the art auction, contact SCOOP on (01) 685 4727.