Biking Cambodia

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Author: John Monczunski

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About two years ago Daniela Papi ’00 was bicycling over mountains and through rice paddies and jungles in Cambodia. “The original idea was to do it for fun,” the economics grad says. “Then it became, ‘Let’s bike across Cambodia and visit schools and raise funds and deliver school supplies.’”

What began as a lark, an adventure vacation for Papi and five friends, has evolved into The PEPY Ride, a nonprofit organization whose twin goals are to increase educational opportunities in Cambodia and to offer meaningful volunteer experiences for tourists.

PEPY stands for “Protect the Earth, Protect Yourself” and reflects an environmental sub-theme of the organization. As part of their mission, PEPY riders present lessons on the relationship between the environment and health at schools along the way. “While I was teaching in Japan,” Papi says, “I participated in an educational bike ride about the environment, and I wanted to take that idea with us to Cambodia.”

Prior to the first ride in December 2005, Papi and her friends lined up sponsors and raised money and awareness through a variety of fund-raising and information events from book sales to scavenger hunts. They also set up a website, www.pepyride.org, explaining their endeavor and solicited donations online at Firstgiving.org, which acts as a fund-raising clearinghouse for qualifying charitable groups.

For five weeks, they pedaled down Cambodia’s red dirt back roads, visiting 17 schools and orphanages along the way. The experience proved to be life changing for the riders—especially for Papi, who discovered a new direction in her life—and for the children of the village of Chanleas Dai, who acquired a new school through the fund-raising effort. Not only did The PEPY Ride raise enough money to build the school, it also provided computers, a satellite dish, books and uniforms for the children.

With the success of that first ride, Papi knew she was on to something and quickly organized a second ride a few months later. The second time around, 35 people from 13 countries signed up for the fund-raising volunteer trek.

A beneficial business

The idea took another twist last year when PEPY Tours won the social venture business plan competition sponsored by the Mendoza College of Business’s Gigot Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at Notre Dame. The adventure travel/fund-raising concept won $5,000 in the competition, and, more important, the company received savvy advice from Notre Dame business faculty and alumni entrepreneurs on ways to enhance the novel social enterprise. A student affiliate group, PEPY at Notre Dame, working under the Student International Business Council, also has been a source of continuing support and advice.

The adventure travel tour company, which last fall opened an office in Phnom Penh, now offers two levels of cycling tours, an intense three-week trek, and a more relaxed one-week tour that consists of four days on a volunteer bike-ride and three visiting tourist sites. In addition, a noncycling volunteer trip, in which tourists spend four days sightseeing and three days in some form of volunteer work, is available. In the past, volunteers have built rainwater collection units at a school, taught lessons on ecology, painted and distributed supplies.

“We’re aiming at people who have never been to Cambodia, who want to experience the temples, to see Angkor Wat and the floating villages, and also have a hands-on development experience. Each tour is unique,” Papi says. She notes the slogan of PEPY Tours is “Go Where Your Money Goes.”

“As great as the impact we may have in Cambodia, I think our impact may be even greater on those who take our trips,” she adds. “They see firsthand the good their money does. And they realize that they really can make a difference. And that may be the most important thing. If someone comes back from one of our trips and volunteers at their local Boys and Girls Club or anywhere, I’ll check that off as success.”

Thus far in its brief history, PEPY has led more than 200 people on 13 biking and volunteer tours, including a spring break tour of Notre Dame students. In the process more than $200,000 has been raised; a second school built with PEPY funds opened in March.

That success has not gone unnoticed. PEPY has received requests from organizations in Laos, Thailand and Africa to replicate the idea. For now the plan is to concentrate on Cambodia. Perhaps, Papi says, someone else will take the idea elsewhere. “I really hope our impact will ripple out into a thousand different places.”

John Monczunski is an associate editor of the magazine.

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