How Ordinary People Can Achieve Extraordinary Things – with Jenni Lipa

New Yorker Jenni Lipa is an ordinary person doing extraordinary things. She first visited Cambodia in 2007; and while on her journey, took the opportunity to sponsor one water well for $220 that drastically changed the lives of 40 Cambodians.  This astonishing effect came through a simple act, and inspired Jenni to cause a ripple effect amongst her friends and family. With newly found passion, Jenni reached out to her email contact list of 1,500 individuals and got responses from friends and family to build 100 more wells.

With this foundation, Jenni grew the movement into a larger entity and founded the Cambodian Child’s Dream Organization (CCDO), registered in Cambodia, USA and now in the UK.

From Jenni’s small beginnings, CCDO has worked to built 920 wells and 124 latrines. But they haven’t stopped there. Jenni shares,

“Everything is connected, and when we see a [new] need, we find a way to fill it”

Following this mantra, they have grown organically to now sponsor 2,000 children with school supplies, run two preschools for 70 children and feed 1,100 children every single day.  CCDO’s expanded projects include a student scholarship program at four schools, English literacy courses, sports programs, library rotations and community classes. In their women’s workshops they strive to reach the true backbones of the society that were a lost generation from the tragedies of the Khmer Rouge through casual subjects such as parenting, family-planning, puberty, domestic violence, anti-trafficking and agriculture.

Although Jenni and her team regularly bring volunteers over to Cambodia on a long-term basis to head up special projects, CCDO believes in a partnership with the local communities, as they give what Jenni refers to as “a hand-up and not a hand-out.”  Her goal is for their projects to become self-sustainable and managed by Cambodians. This outlook is especially important in a country where traditional dependent aid models can lead to long-term reliance on handouts  or even worse, the exploitation of children.

Jenni shares further insight with us below:

What was the defining moment on that trip that touched your heart and caused you to act?

Having heard tales from my father’s experience as a POW in Germany in WWII and helping to fight the atrocities of Apartheid in South Africa, I felt that it was my duty to give back and help Cambodia recover from the Genocide.  It was time to give back and make a difference. The well of $220 was very affordable to change people’s lives.

What was it like to walk through a poor Cambodian village for the first time?

Walking through poverty villages and seeing the thatch houses on stilts, more often than not, with gaping holes in the palm-frond walls and ready to collapse, one realizes how lucky they are living in a sophisticated society. The children are minimally dressed in tattered clothes, and stare at you with big eyes.

When going into a “hut” you see that they have NOTHING… perhaps a few mats rolled on a corner for them to sleep on, some pots and pans and  one change of clothing, strung across a wire that gives a little privacy for the parents.  It is still like this today, although I have seen a marked improvement in the villages that we work with around Siem Reap.

It truly takes bravery and perseverance to start a movement, and bring together people and resources for a cause. What is one piece of advice that you can share for how to find the courage to make a positive change in our own lives and in the lives of others?

Any small change can make a huge impact on a person’s life, you never know the spark that it takes to ignite a light and start a combustion of momentum. Life is made up of ordinary people doing extraordinary acts. I receive much more than I give.  The feeling is priceless.

What type of volunteer opportunities do you provide? What is a typical assignment and what can people expect? 

We only take long-term volunteers from 2 months and onwards.  We have serious programs and it takes a few weeks before the volunteers are able to be productive.  We like to team people up with projects that explore their own expertise and have them own the project to make a difference.  We recently hosted a volunteer who was interested in the library; she devised a library system with different grades and a special card system for the kids to loan books.  The kids are excited to read and get recognition for reading many stories. The volunteer went on the give a full report on her system and we received a $10,000 grant for two more libraries. Her time with us led to astonishing change in the lives of many.

We also have a visitors program to the schools and the villages, so travelers can get an idea of life in Cambodia.

Our Travel with Purpose trips are usually in January and March of each year, where we highlight specific missions.  This upcoming January (2015) the focus will be on teacher training at our schools. We will also work with our Women’s Workshops.  Those interested in future Travel with Purpose trips can refer to our website and email us for more information.

 And lastly, what is your #1 pick for things to do while visiting Cambodia as a tourist or volunteer?

I would suggest getting involved and seeing at least one NGO on the ground to see how they are making a difference.  It truly changes your perspective in life. One person CAN make a difference. It takes an ordinary person to do extraordinary things.


Jenni Lipa - Cambodian Children's Dream OrganizationJenni Lipa, President of CCDO currently resides in New York City when she is not traveling to Cambodia.For more information on CCDO and their work in Cambodia, visit their website or contact them via email.

Cambodian Child’s Dream Organization

Further Thought

Jenni’s words got me thinking about how small, ordinary acts can spark a large movement like CCDO.

Do we all have the capacity to ignite this type of change?

There are many factors to consider when attempting to answer this question. The context in which you view this question is perhaps the most important. However, Jenni’s words prove powerful when viewing every aspect of our daily lives. It all depends on how you define extraordinary. After all, isn’t it really anything other than ordinary. Perhaps it is meeting a personal goal, achieving a milestone others discouraged you from or finding great joy in everyday tasks.

I like to turn this concept outwardly, taking the focus off of myself. Even if we can’t change thousands of lives across the globe, we can touch lives within our realm of influence each and every day. Your smile to a stranger, love for a friend or compassion to an acquaintance in time of need are of great impact to the person on the receiving end. These small but extraordinary gifts have power.

Let’s continue this week to be inspired by Jenni as we strive for more than others think we are capable of.

– Kari

Make sure you check out the other posts in the Cambodia – The Land of Smiles Series!


Feature Photo Credit: ruchos/iStock/Thinkstock

2 thoughts on “How Ordinary People Can Achieve Extraordinary Things – with Jenni Lipa

  1. I think Jenni is a unique ‘Power of One’ …… also helps that she survies on very little sleep!!! Her passion and devotion to theCCDO has changed and enhanced communities! It is now called The Cambodian Community Dream Organization, as the NGO has expanded to include Women’s health and education, latrines, improved and maintained water wells, children’s nutrician and education. Their wells have been adapted to deal with the annual floods. The challenges are daily yet Jenni’s energy is unstoppable!!

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