A life-changing move

Emily AceSouth Western Times

SELLING the family home, liquidating all his assets, resigning from a decent paying job and leaving family behind in Bunbury, Rhett Topliss and his wife Gaynor made the bold decision to move to Cambodia to care for some of the world’s most vulnerable.

“You could just live here for the rest of your life doing the same old thing, in the same old place – I’ve been here 18 years now, this whole region is all we have known,” Rhett said.

“I thought to myself, in three or four years do I want to look back and think ‘why didn’t I do that, why didn’t I take that risk, why didn’t we have an adventure?’.”

The life-changing move came after the couple, who both work in human services, received an expression of interest email to fill a position in the country’s capital, Phnom Penh, from organisation Awareness Cambodia.

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After wrestling with the decision, Rhett decided it was the right time to take a leap of faith.

“An opportunity like this doesn’t come up every day and all of a sudden we get this random email, but we both had been thinking ‘yeah we need a change’,” he said.

“I knew that little window wouldn’t stay open forever, so we thought, let’s do it, let’s jump in – why not.

“It’s a mixture of fear and excitement of the unknown, It’s like ‘OK are we really doing this?’.”

Awareness Cambodia is an Australian-based humanitarian organisation established by Perth dentist Dr Gary Hewett OAM in 1996 after an eye-opening volunteer trip to Cambodia compelled him to help with the rebuilding of the nation still traumatised by the genocide carried out by dictator Pol Pot in the 1970s.

Awareness Cambodia rescues and educates vulnerable and exploited children, from early schooling right through to university, as well as providing education and medical services to the local community to break the cycle of poverty.

The couple will manage the organisation’s office in Phnom Penh, about an hour away from the orphanage housing 50 children in Kompong Speu, one of the poorest rural areas of Cambodia.

The organisation has a focus on education, which is vital to helping the next generation take their place in society to help deliver a better future for their nation.

“Pol Pot’s regime wiped out basically all the educated people – most of that whole tier of community was just wiped out – aids and HIV has taken a toll as well and these are the kids of that generation,” he said.

“It’s about raising them up and developing them, bringing the kids right through in their education so they can take their place as leaders and contributors in their own culture.

“Just to see these kids, what we have seen in the videos and footage and photos of kids running around the orphanage with smiles on their faces, knowing they are safe, knowing they are secure, knowing they are cared for and knowing they have hope for a future – it’s just priceless.”

The couple intended to relocate three months ago, but exciting news of the arrival of their first grandchild postponed their plans until August 25.

“You wouldn’t believe what happened as soon as we made the decision, everything went haywire but we are just navigating our way through it,” he laughed.

The couple plan on staying in Cambodia for at least a year, in which time Rhett said he will most miss his family who have given their full support.

“We have lived on gravy here, for so many years we have had it real good – it’s time to give something back.”

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