On Christmas Day in 2012, Brett and Leanne Sturgess told their three sons that instead of gifts this year they would, as a family, be sponsoring a child, a young boy, in Cambodia.
“They were very excited and happy about that. And we chose Sam [Samean] as our new family member. So that was the start of our journey,” says Brett.
Nine years later, and around the same time, the family sponsored another boy - their third child - through the Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF) Sponsorship Program, this time in memory of Brett’s brother who passed away in 2021.
Now, a decade on from first becoming sponsors, Brett and Leanne, from Brisbane, Australia, have three children and a granny living in one of the poorest parts of Cambodia as part of their extended family.
Sponsoring has been amazing for us. You’re not just giving money to an organization and that’s it… There is a real connection
They have welcomed them as new additions to the Sturgess fold, embracing them as if they were their actual relatives.
“That’s our CCF family,” says Brett.
“When we write to the kids, we say that we are your family from Australia and that you are part of our family.
“Sponsoring has been amazing for us. The transparency and openness are key. You’re not just giving money to an organization and that’s it, there’s no experience after that. There is a real connection, you’ve got another family member.”
Brett recently became an Advisory Committee Member for the CCF Australia Board, bringing his experience and knowledge as a successful businessman to the table.
Christmas of 2014 came around and the family decided they wanted to do more, and decided to sponsor another child
Brett came across CCF by chance in 2011 at a time when he and Leanne were looking for a cause or charity to support.
He happened to catch a segment on The Morning Show on 7News about Scott Neeson, the founder of CCF, and the work he was doing to help impoverished children and families in Cambodia.
Brett is Managing Director of the family business, MJS Floorcoverings, founded by his late father and mother in 1967. He was fascinated by the story of Scott Neeson, a former President of 20th Century Fox International who gave up his Hollywood career and life to move to Phnom Penh and start CCF.
After doing some research and meeting the two volunteers who ran CCF’s Australia team in Sydney, Brett knew he had found the right charity.
The Sturgess family committed to sponsoring a child in the CCF program and chose a boy, Samean.
“Christmas of 2014 came around and the family decided they wanted to do more, and decided to sponsor another child, a young girl called Sokhom,” says Brett.
In 2015, Brett and Leanne made their first trip to Cambodia to meet Samean (they called him Sam for short) and Sokhom, and see firsthand the work CCF was doing on the ground in Phnom Penh.
When Brett’s mother passed away, they decided to sponsor a granny through CCF’s Granny Program, which supports the elders of the communities who are often forgotten and neglected.
“My mother passed away and we felt that we could honour her memory by sponsoring Grany Yon in 2016,” explains Brett.
We wanted our boys to go and have that whole CCF experience
In 2017 when Sam left CCF to study to become a monk, the family did not hesitate to sponsor another boy, Sochiva.
A year later, Brett and Leanne returned to Cambodia, this time taking their three boys: Luke, Jake and Lachlan.
“We wanted our boys to go and have that whole CCF experience and see what it’s about - meeting the children and Granny Yon - supporting and giving back,” says Brett.
During this trip, Brett and his two youngest sons went on a night walk through the communities where CCF works with a CCF member of staff, and met some of the children and families living in poverty.
It was a night that Brett and his sons would never forget, walking in the dark with the rubbish strewn ground crunching underfoot, and hearing the stories of struggle and hope.
Later, they helped out at CCF’s evening Food Program, where the children receive a nourishing hot meal - the only decent meal many will have that day.
“The two things that have really stuck with me out of the trips that I’ve done to CCF is the night walk and just seeing people living in the community, the amazing community spirit that they have,” says Brett.
“They haven’t got much when it comes to material things, it’s certainly not like our families here in Australia, but they are so happy, they have got each other, they’ve got the community.”
Thousands of children can say thank you to CCF for the start they have in their lives.
Visiting CCF has also given the family an insight into how crucial their sponsorship is to ensure every child in the area has access to life-changing education, offering a route out of poverty and ending generational deprivation.
“If they [the children] hadn’t come across CCF or CCF hadn’t come across their paths, they would very possibly still be working on the dumpsite,” says Brett.
“A good proportion of those kids would never have broken through the education barrier and today, thousands of children can say thank you to CCF for the start they have in their lives. It’s just amazing.”
In 2018, Brett and Leanne organized a fundraiser for CCF in Brisbane, raising around $40,000 AUD, and in 2019 returned again to Cambodia, this time with five couples from the fundraiser who wanted to visit too. They all support CCF too today through sponsorship or donations, as they have seen the difference they can make.
Last year, Brett’s brother passed away in his memory, they sponsored another CCF boy, Pheaktra, at the end of 2021.
Their Cambodian ‘family’ now consists of Granny Yon, 87, and students Sochiva, 17, and Sokhom, 14, and Pheaktra, seven.
Their experience of sponsoring with CCF has been everything they’d hoped for - and they recommend it to anyone looking to make a difference, give back or find new meaning in their life.
“When you first start sponsoring, you think we’re the ones we are going to give, to make a difference to a child, not thinking that you are going to get anything back. But you actually get back more than what you ever put in,” says Brett.
“It’s just such a humbling experience, it’s so grounding. It just gives you perspective in your life, that we are very fortunate and we shouldn't take things for granted.”
if we all did a little bit, it just adds up, and it changes the world we live in
Their CCF family are all doing well and Brett and Leanne are planning yet another visit to Cambodia in 2023 to catch up with them all - and meet Pheaktra for the first time who has just finished kindergarten.
In the meantime, they are organising the inaugural CCF Brisbane Gala dinner in October, where Brett looks forward to raising awareness of Cambodian Children’s Fund and raising much needed funds to help more children and families in Cambodia.
Sponsoring is a lifetime commitment for Brett and Leanne, the relationship with their CCF family enduring, and they hope their sons, now aged 32, 29 and 27, will pick up the baton in later life.
Brett’s mantra for life is to leave a positive imprint and the world in a better place through giving back. Sponsoring a child, providing guidance, care, love and support, is one way that he can fulfill this wish and leave a legacy behind, knowing that he has contributed towards giving vulnerable children (and a granny) in Cambodia the chance of a better life.
“You look at the world, you turn the TV on at night and you see everything that is going on, and you just feel so overwhelmed, but you can make a difference by doing your bit,” says Brett.
“People think they can’t do enough to make a difference, so don’t do anything at all. But if we all did a little bit, it just adds up, and it changes the world we live in. We can make a different world.”