Boys become men on trip to living hell
Boys become men on trip to living hell

"You come to a place like this and you realise how lucky we are back in Australia and to be at a club like West Coast. We've got the future at our feet."

The reflective statement from youngster Koby Stevens and those of his West Coast teammates suggest the Eagles' trip to Cambodia this week was a major success.

The Eagles took 12 first and second-year players on a five-day tour of the poverty-stricken nation with the aim of fast-tracking their personal development, building the bond between young teammates and strengthening the club's culture.

They also wanted to make a difference in the world.

Mission accomplished.

Tours of Security Prison 21 and the Choeung Ek Genocide Centre - where thousands were tortured and killed under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime - aided the process, as did the experience of staying overnight at an orphanage outside the capital, Phnom Penh.

But it was building 20 houses for families in a remote village and witnessing their poor standard of living that really hit home for most of the Eagles.

[See Steve Ferrier's pictures from the Eagles' trip.|http://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/galleries/a/-/article/8401982/image/1/eagles-in-cambodia/]

They linked with Cambodian charity The Tabitha Foundation through WA-based organisation The Helping Foundation to put solid shelter over the heads of 150 people.

A team of West Coast coaching and development staff led by senior coach John Worsfold shared the players' experiences and kept a close eye on their responses to being placed in trying circumstances as part of the club's player profiling system.

AFL clubs often conduct team-building and fitness camps but the Eagles were determined to leave a lasting impact on a country in desperate need of help and one which provided them with the opportunity to serve their own needs.

It was a win-win situation for West Coast and the inhabitants of the Tra Pang Saray, three hours drive south-west of Phnom Penh.

More than 100 children live in the village but their parents struggle to support them.

Tra Pang Saray previously consisted of a smattering of poorly constructed grass huts, low to the ground and susceptible to flooding in the wet season.

By putting a solid roof over the locals' heads and raising them off the ground, the Eagles were effectively saving lives.

The experience had a major influence on the players, most of whom had never seen living conditions so poor.

"These people have nothing and do it that tough, whereas we've got everything and the foundations to build a great team," Stevens said.

"We'll go back and won't leave anything on the plate. We'll take away what we've learnt here.

"We've got everything; it's pretty easy back home, so we'll have to use it to the best of our ability."

Claremont product Tom Swift, who made his AFL debut in 2009, described the trip as a surreal experience.

The 20-year-old said the Eagles' competitive nature shone through when building the houses, with teammates battling it out to see who could get their houses finished first.

But they were united in that their initial feelings upon arrival at Tra Pang Saray were of shock and disbelief at the locals' standard of living.

"At home you hear things and you see pictures, but you don't really understand the impact and take it all in until you get there and see the poverty and the conditions that they're living in," Swift said.

The resilient Cambodian people, who endured Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, had provided an inspiration to the West Coast players.

"Seeing what these people go through and how positive they are through all these situations, we can take a lot out of it," Swift said.

"We have been down the bottom of the ladder for the last couple of years and it's not a great situation, but in the end it's not life or death.

"We've just got to remember these things when we're battling through the tough times.

"In the end we're going to be up there near the top and these people are still going to be battling away, so we've just got to put it into perspective a bit."

Worsfold expects the experience will have a lasting impact on the players and drive them towards the on-field success and finals football they crave.

And he believes it will make an impact off the field for the young players as they develop into mature adults.

Eagles manager of leadership and development Peter Worsfold said the Eagles had worked hard on building a stronger culture.

The trip to Cambodia, which was part of a two-year induction program for young players coming into the club via the draft, was designed to continue the process of developing that culture into one of the league's strongest and most conducive to success.

"Our culture is in a really good place and we want to continue that," Peter Worsfold said.

"What we want to do is hardwire the culture that we've got and part of that is to be responsible off the field as well as play hard, tough, ruthless football on the field.

"For the boys to come over here and be exposed to less-privileged people and make a difference to them as a group has got to help the players as people and certainly help them as AFL footballers.

"They won't take anything for granted and they got to know each other a lot better.

"And, in the end, they've built 20 houses that will house more than 100 people and had great interaction with 45 orphans.

"That's personally rewarding and certainly develops them as people, which helps with their football."

Club coaching and development staff used the trip to profile the players, surveying their responses to being put into testing situations.

Some stood out, but most players impressed their coaches, according to Peter Worsfold.

"They certainly got to appreciate what they've got but also have compassion for the less fortunate," he said.

"I also got to see the quality of resilience because the days were long and we were working pretty hard. Some of the guys really thrive on that, some not as much.

"We'll do a more in-depth profiling session when we get back, but they all showed good leadership traits.

"Certainly there are a couple of guys in this group that are exceptional leaders, that we think will be really good for the future of the club and will have leadership positions down the track."

West Coast left a lasting impact on the people they visited, from the villagers at Tra Pang Saray to the orphans at Awareness Cambodia's Sunshine House.

Husband and wife team Mike and Corinne Gurry, who established The Helping Foundation, said the Eagles had enhanced the profile of their organisation and The Tabitha Foundation and brightened the lives of hundreds of underprivileged Cambodians.

"The boys were very, very generous and they showed true spirit, it was fantastic," Corinne Gurry said.

"The local people were absolutely thrilled.

"Through our interpreter they kept saying 'akuncherang, akuncherang', which means 'thank you very much'."

The Eagles and project sponsor iiNet raised more than $5000 for Awareness Cambodia.

The Perth-based charity raises young orphans, many of whom have lost their parents to AIDS, and guides them all the way through to tertiary study.

The organisation has contributed to the upgrading of schools and medical services for the benefit of its children and the local community in the poorest province in Cambodia.

Dr Gary Hewett founded Awareness Cambodia in 1996 after witnessing the "chaos and devastation" caused by the Khmer Rouge regime.

Hewett said the Eagles' visit and contribution to Awareness Cambodia had provided a much-needed boost to the program.

It is looking to expand with new premises in Phnom Penh for the growing Graduation House, which houses university students who have grown up at the orphanage.

"You open up opportunities to the children that they could never in their wildest dreams thought possible," Hewett said.

"It's staggering and for me it's only the start. This is now a system that's in place for any kid in the slums who's lost their parents to come through and become a future leader in this country.

"It's stuff that we take for granted at home and now they can do it, too.

"To have a Perth-based team like the Eagles up here is great to encourage the link between what we're doing and the team's ethos."

Peter Worsfold said the trip had been an unbridled success and delivered positive outcomes for all parties concerned.

He expects the induction process to continue, and trips like the one to Cambodia are sure to be part of the program.

"While we were doing it, we were giving back," he said.

"We were responsible for the morale boost that a whole village got.

"We walked away having ticked all the boxes for things like the bonding, the challenging situations and the hard work, which is great.

"But while we got to tick all those boxes we got to help that village and not only that, but we got to have great experiences with the orphans.

"We were getting everything we wanted and giving something back.

"We made a big difference."

The West Australian

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