Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Recent grad takes his hospitality training to Cambodia

Ben Justus '08, founder of the EGBOK (Everything's Gonna Be OK) Mission, visits with children at the Palm Tree Orphanage in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

By Lauren Gold

When Ben Justus '08 visited Cambodia for the first time in 2006, he was struck by the warmth and hospitality of the country's people -- especially its children.

A student in the Hotel School, he began thinking about how he could use what he was learning about the hospitality industry to help the young people in developing countries create better lives for themselves.

A year later, while still a student, Justus founded the EGBOK (Everything's Gonna Be OK) Mission, a philanthropic organization to support education and vocational training for children and young adults in the developing world. And this month, he will head back to Cambodia for six months at the Palm Tree Orphanage in Phnom Penh, where he'll begin putting some of the organization's goals into practice.

The orphanage, which houses and supports 93 children, is run by Cambodia's Hope, a nonprofit organization led by two New Mexico psychologists to support needy children in that country. Justus met the founders while participating in the Semester at Sea program in his junior year and visited the orphanage the following year.

"It was amazing experience," he said. "[The kids] are never not smiling ... they're so curious -- they're motivated to learn, they just need to be given that opportunity."

On his upcoming trip, Justus will work with the orphanage's teachers and students to establish classes and hospitality-related vocational training; and also with Phnom Penh hotels and restaurants -- including a restaurant owned by the orphanage -- to build a network of internship and job opportunities.

So far EGBOK has raised more than $35,000 through events, corporate sponsorship, online donations and word of mouth. Justus' friends and fellow Hotel School alumni have pitched in pro bono with help in marketing, logo design, event planning and more; and 100 percent of donations to EGBOK go to Cambodia's Hope and are earmarked for hospitality-related projects and education.

The organization's most recent fundraiser, an event at Tavern at the Park in Chicago, was a success despite the difficult economy. "People have been overwhelmingly gracious," Justus said.

The partnership with Cambodia's Hope is just the first element of what he hopes will be a global philanthropic reach for EGBOK, he added. A project in South Africa may be next; and projects in other countries, including the United States, may be down the road.

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