When I first started dreaming about the relaunch of Mona Elisa Fine Art Photography this year, my hope was not only to provide beautiful botanical inspired fine art, or to build an online community focused on appreciating and marvelling at the beauty of nature, but it was also essential to me that it would somehow be a conduit for good in this world.
As I contemplated on how that would look like in the beginning stages of the relaunch, I pinpointed the causes that touched my heart: wildlife and habitat conservation, and PEOPLE! Specifically, rescuing children from sex trafficking.
As I researched different NGOs and organizations, it was vital for me that the organization in question had a) principles I could stand behind, b) received a high charity rating, c) had a good reputation, and d) transparency. In my research, I bumped into Agape International Missions (AIM) and was blown away by the work that they do in Cambodia. Their mission is to prevent, rescue, restore, and reintegrate survivors of sex trafficking. One aspect that highly impressed me was that they work in conjunction with the Cambodian government and local officials to conduct investigations, perform raids, make arrests and rescue victims of sex trafficking. In 2016 alone, the AIM SWAT team successfully performed 40 raids on local brothels and rescued more than 600 people, 100 of which were children!
Image courtesy of agapewebsite.com
Once rescued, these children are sent to Restoration Homes (under 18) or Transitional Homes (18+) where they can be safe and where they are prepared for successful reintegration into society. How do they do this? By meeting their physical, psychosocial, educational, vocational and spiritual needs. A totally holistic approach. An approach that some believe, "should be scaled and replicated on a global level." (Watch Mira Sorvino talk about AIM.)
As I looked more into AIM, somehow, I couldn’t shake off this feeling that it sounded familiar. I soon discovered that a friend from high school was working as the principal at one of AIM’s schools in Cambodia! After reconnecting, and hearing about her journey, I was convinced.
So, it is with the utmost pleasure, joy, and with the deepest respect that I introduce you to Shauna Weir, who has graciously allowed me to interview her for this post to give us a behind-the-scenes look at what she does within the AIM organization.
Hello Shauna! Thank you so much for joining us here and sharing some of your experiences with us. Tell us a little bit about you and what you do.
My name is Shauna Weir, and I’m an 80’s born Canadian (yup, we will leave it at “80’s born”), who grew up in Toronto, Canada but took off to Seoul, Korea after finishing my undergraduate degree. I taught Elementary expat. students at a fabulous International School for 7 years, and during that time began learning about the world wide epidemic of human trafficking. During my time in Korea, God really grabbed ahold of my heart for this cause and began directing my path toward serving in an anti-trafficking ministry. At the same time, He also called me to complete a Masters of Education degree in Administration. I didn’t particularly see the way the two would go hand in hand until I was finishing up my degree and He guided me to apply to serve with Agape International Missions (AIM); an anti-trafficking NGO in Cambodia that needed an Elementary Principal. I have now been serving with AIM for just over a year a few kilometers outside of Phnom Penh.
For those who don’t know very much about Agape International Missions (AIM) can you tell us a little bit about the organization, and how you and your team fit within the organization?
AIM was founded on the ground in Cambodia in 1988 as a humanitarian aid and church planting organization. Since 2005, our programs have focused on ending the evil of child sexual slavery that is prevalent in Cambodia. AIM takes a holistic approach to fighting trafficking, restoring victims and transforming communities, in order to defeat trafficking. Our projects and programs Prevent, Rescue, Restore, and Reintegrate. One of our main prevention programs is our Elementary School in Svay Pak, a village that was once the worst spot in the entire country for child trafficking but continues to significantly improve. I am the Elementary Principal of this school and we exist to give the kids of Svay Pak the opportunity to receive a well-rounded education and greatly decrease their risk of being trafficked.
What do you find the most fulfilling about your life and role there? What have you found to be the most challenging, both personally and as a school?
By far the most fulfilling aspect is the people. The Khmer people are absolutely incredible and awe-inspiring. They are full of life, senses of humor and love; a true illustration of their resiliency since the Khmer Rouge. It has been an absolute honor to build relationships with so many of them this year, and to be able to pour into them the blessings that have been poured out upon me. As a school principal in Svay Pak, I have had the chance to get to know the stories of my teachers, students and the community at large, and their un-relenting attitude to keep going and hold onto hope in adversity is positively compelling. There are many challenges to serving in Cambodia, but they do pale in comparison to the blessings. Personally, the poverty, brokenness, crazy traffic and intense year-round heat tend to be the things that most drain me. It’s also a challenge to keep focused on what I would call, “the one.” That no matter how big the problems at hand may be and how many are affected by them, it's worth helping "the one" and keeping my eyes fixed on that.
Images courtesy of Shauna Weir
What are your hopes and objectives as a school?
Our objective as a school is first and foremost to provide protection and the love of Christ for all of our students. We want to provide our students a quality education with teachers who care about their well-being not only academically, but physically, emotionally and spiritually. We want these kids to experience the freedom to learn and dream without fear. Our hope is that with the education they are receiving, that they will go on to be leaders in Cambodia that stand for things that are just, true, and right.
What do you do in those moments where things don’t make sense – when you see suffering, injustice, heartbreak, and/or cruelty, etc? How do you re-center and pick up the pieces?
I’d love to say that I just take it in, swallow it, and move along with joy, but most of the time it looks more like wrestling with God as Jacob did. This past year, I’ve personally realized how crucial preventative health and self-care is in my life for combatting this. If I am not…finding pockets of time to rest and do things that fill my soul back up, those moments I experience suffering, injustice and heartbreak that don’t make sense, can quickly take over. They can create a lot of bitterness, anger, and hopelessness...I have been really blessed to receive regular encouragement from my pastor, a counselor, and some close friends who are very intentional in providing me regular reminders to stop and take care. I can only pour out from an overflow, so it’s crucial to take the time and find rest in Jesus to be filled.
This blog shares a lot about appreciating the beauty of nature, conservation, and taking care of our earthly home for ourselves and for future generations. Is there any natural wonder or place that you found that touched you deeply? Perhaps on your travels, or in the many countries where you’ve lived? And how did that natural wonder make you feel?
I could probably write pages upon pages for this question, but to keep it short, the Sea of Galilee in Israel is the first natural wonder that popped into my head that deeply touched me in a personal way. I’ve seen countless man-made wonders of the world that left me completely speechless when considering their intricacies and grandiose architecture, but nothing touched my soul like the natural wonder of the Sea of Galilee. When I was there, I was so overcome with how much of Jesus’ ministry occurred there: recruiting apostles, the Sermon on the Mount was given on the hill just overlooking the body of water, miracle upon miracle occurring directly in that sea including Jesus walking on water, calming the storm, and feeding the five thousand close by. Knowing all the powerful work Christ had done there, right by that unassuming and untouched body of water, left me with such a deep sense of peace and assurance.
What are the best ways that we can support AIM as an organization, as well as, your school, and you personally?
Pray. I know that seems like a buzzword or very cliché, but we thrive on the prayers and encouragement of friends, supporters, and churches. Also, I am personally so encouraged by letters or notes that are sent to me, as they show me that people are intentionally going out of their way to try and communicate with me and let me know that I’m not forgotten. Sometimes life in Cambodia can feel a bit lonely and isolating, and it’s such a gift to feel remembered and loved from afar. If you feel led, you can financially support our AIM programs by making a donation on our website. Your donations and generosity are what allow all of our programs to run and are so crucial to the ground work that is done here.
As I read Shauna’s words and the impact that she is making in Cambodia it reminds me again about how important it is for me to leave the space in which I inhabit on this earth (hopefully) better than the way I leave it. And how I want it to be a part of my business model, without question.
When you invest in a piece of fine art with us or any product you purchase in our online shop, a percentage of all proceeds will be donated to one of three organizations whose sole mission is: wildlife and habitat conservation, offering medical care to displaced persons in war torn countries, or rescuing children of sex trafficking. One of which is AIM and the incredible work that they do in Cambodia. You can choose who you wish the proceeds to go to at the checkout.
I encourage you to visit their website and get more acquainted with their programs, their mission, and the work they do. You can also follow them on Instagram where you can see updates and amazing rescue stories.
Whether you support AIM directly by making a donation at their website or indirectly by purchasing an item from our webstore or both, we hope to inspire you to make a difference in the lives of these children.
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