Alana Hart (18), Chloe Isles (17) and Eloise Burrows (18) are all currently sitting A level exams at St Benedict’s Catholic Upper School in Bury St Edmunds. Philippa Sutton (22), the group leader, has just finished her second year at university, whilst working at a local primary school.
Despite working until just before they leave, with some of the girls' final exams on June 24, the group set out on the 25th, together with Anne Jackson, retired head of RE at Notre Dame High School in Norwich, flying to Cambodia to help deliver education to those who struggle to access it, whilst developing links for future diocese trips.
The interest of the students was sparked by a religious week at St Benedict's as Alana, who is hoping to study biomedical science at university, explained: "We were asked "What do you want to change in the world, what do you find unjust?' We put down education and inequality ' people don't get education because of their wealth, gender, their social status or religion and it is not right. The majority of us here in England take it for granted. As part of St Edmunds parish, I have heard a lot about Siem Reap in Cambodia as we are twinned with it and so I jumped at the chance to go."
Leading the trip is Philippa Sutton, who runs First Communion classes at St Mary's in Thetford, hoping to soon qualify as a primary school teacher, she said: "As someone passionate about children’s education, having the opportunity to help improve just a tiny part of the unjust education in our world today is something that I cannot wait to begin.
"I have organised the trip so that we fly into Phnom Penh, allowing a day to expose ourselves to Cambodian culture and history, beginning to deliver education to those whom struggle to access it as we travel through the different communities, aided by Diocesan links. We will spend our final two-and-a-half weeks in Siem Reap, twinned with St Edmunds parish, teaching English in kindergartens, student and youth hostels and orphanages."
Chloe said: "Education is such a strong issue for me, I want to be able to help people with it. I am having a gap year before going to university, so this will be a great start to it. It will be an experience to learn from and I think it will change my attitude to quite a lot of things and make me a more grateful person."
Eloise, who lives in Newmarket and is hoping to study art and design at university, said: "I can't wait. I think it will help me to connect more when I see things on the news ' to actually experience it will make it more real for me. I am looking forward to meeting people from a different culture and getting immersed in it."
Bury St Edmunds parish priest, Fr Mark Hackeson, who has been to Cambodia numerous times, will be joining the girls for ten days. "The Cambodian youngsters often have dreams and plans for the future but it is so much more difficult for them to achieve them because everything is stacked against them. The young people are always keen to practice their English, its pronunciation and grammar, because for the most part they have to teach each other."
The girls are having to fund their own trips and have already received funds from the Catenians, their parishes and from Bishop Alan Hopes through a fund set up by the late Bishop Michael Evans to enable young people to go out and experience life in the twin Diocese. Other ways of raising money have included a non-uniform day at St Benedict's, cake stalls and Eloise making and selling lino-print cards of her church, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary and collections at parishes in Bury St Edmunds and Thetford and through the Alive in Faith initiative.
The girls are also collecting items requested by those in Cambodia that they will be visiting, including toothbrushes, combs and t-shirts, which will help with education in a different, but equally important way.
Anne Jackson explained: "We want to fill our suitcases with toothbrushes, combs and t-shirts. The toothbrushes are so important – at the learning centres all the students have a flannel, a mug and a toothbrush ' it is part of their education. We would also be very grateful for small educational resources to give to the people we will meet, such as felt-tip pens, pencils and children's books. Not only are the children extremely grateful for such items that we in the UK would take for granted, but it will help donors to relate to what we will be doing in Cambodia and giving gifts helps to break the ice and build relationships."
Anne added: "Having been twice, I think I have changed as a person because of my contact with the Cambodian people. It is hard to explain how people who have suffered so much can be so optimistic about life. They do not moan about anything and are such happy people. The churches are vibrant and you meet Jesus every day which is so powerful. It is often harder to find that in our own country."
Also planning to join part of the trip is USAF airforceman Garrett Wilson from Lakenheath.
The girls will be delivering a presentation on their return to the UK, showing photos, explaining their trip in greater detail, and sharing their experiences. All are invited to this event, details of which can later be found in parish newsletters or their blog, detailed below.
Any donated items, would be gratefully received, and can be left at the Catholic churches in Bury St Edmunds, Newmarket or Thetford.
You can follow the girls' progress at:www.ourcambodiatravels2016blog.wordpress.com
The fund-raising page is at:https://crowdfunding.justgiving.com/cambodia-alana
Pictured above, from the left, are back row, Philippa Sutton, Anne Jackson, Fr Mark Hackeson, front row, Chloe Isles, Alana Hart and Eloise Burrows.