Derek and Pam Helt always felt drawn to overseas service. Soon after their wedding, they had the opportunity to spend some time in Argentina. Although the Helts wanted to put down roots in the South American country, life didn’t work out as planned.
Fast forward to their late 40s, the Helts became exposed to life in Cambodia thanks to a church trip with a congregant who had been visiting the Southeast Asian country for the last decade with a few Cambodian-Americans.
After another trip the next year with more family members, Derek and Pam decided they wanted to spend the next few years working in Cambodia doing something, but weren’t sure what they had to offer. Soon, the Helts became aware of Agape International Missions, or AIM. AIM’s mission in Cambodia centers on the trafficking of minors and women in the sex trade, and has a four-prong approach for combating the phenomenon: prevent, rescue, restore and reintegrate.
Another American Christian couple, Pastor Don Brewster and his wife Bridget, started the anti-trafficking arm of AIM after visiting Cambodia in 2005. While they witnessed the crushing poverty many in the war-torn nation live in, he was unaware until returning home the scourge of sex trafficking that plagues the country. On their website, the Brewsters explain,
“The very children I held hands with and saw running in the streets were not just trying to survive poverty. Many were living in hell, enduring torture,” says Don. “I couldn’t believe it was right under my nose and I didn’t even know it.”
Far from hidden, the community of Svay Pak, in particular, is a notorious haven for international pedophiles where girls as young as 8 brazenly wave foreigners toward brothels and karaoke bars to purchase sex. These children were trafficked from Vietnam, kidnapped from rural communities, sold by impoverished family members or exploited by members of their community. Once a girl is controlled by a pimp or brothel owner, she is forced to sell herself up to 12 times a night.
Many organizations in Cambodia (where I’ve spent a good deal of time myself) are interested in one flashy objective without seeing the full-picture of the needs of the community. In one town I lived in, Siem Reap, there was an organization that taught children how to become photographers. After these volunteers left, children were left with skills — but no cameras or ability to market their new skills. Volunteers often swoop in, decide what Cambodians need, offer unsolicited help, then take off, leaving a situation sometimes worse than what they found in the first place.
Once a girl is controlled by a pimp or brothel owner, she is forced to sell herself up to 12 times a night.
How is AIM different? Almost everyone, including the Helts, fundraise for their own salaries. Its volunteers focus on helping women stay out of brothels, conducting raids with trained Western law enforcement personnel in conjunction with a team of trusted Cambodian counterparts, and then staff rehabilitation centers to help women and children heal from their experiences and teach new skills to keep them from returning. Westerners and Cambodians staff every part of AIM’s mission, with the goal that operations will one day be passed onto local staff. That’s already happened in Siem Reap. The last of the Western staff have moved down to the capital, Phnom Penh, to work with the rest of the AIM staff there, including the Helts.
Pam and Derek are officially “directors of staff care” and spend their days doing everything possible to make the Western staff situated, settled and cared for. After selling their home, cars and quitting their jobs, the Helts spend their days in the hectic city of Phnom Penh meeting newly arrived volunteers at the airport, visiting staff in their workplaces or, providing spiritual and emotional guidance to those working on the front lines carrying out AIM’s mission. These volunteers range in age from 23 to other couples in their 50s and 60s.
AIM is staffed by mostly American volunteers and low-paid Christian employees who have walked away from their entire lives at home in order to live and work in one of the poorest countries in the world.
AIM doesn’t take any government money — not from the U.S. government and certainly not from the often corrupt and bankrupt Cambodian government — in order to maintain operations. AIM is kept running thanks to the sacrifices of its volunteers and staff, in addition to those in the U.S. funding their mission.
While AIM is a Christian organization, with a Christian mission and staffed by Christians, they aren’t practicing what many in the Cambodian NGO-world call “rice for prayer.” There is no quid-pro-quo for anyone at AIM, including Derek Helt, a former pastor. While teaching about Christianity is available to those in AIM’s programs, attendance is not mandatory. The Christian ideal driving those at AIM isn’t conversion, Derek told me, instead “unconditional love is the idea.”
You can donate to AIM’s Cambodian anti-trafficking project here.
Bethany Mandel is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @bethanyshondark.