Our Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme (DDP) is in the process of becoming the Caritas Cambodia Deaf Development Programme. We are what is known as an international NGO (non-government organization) and need to have an international group as our parent entity.
Maryknoll can no longer provide that.
The Deaf Development Programme started in 1997 as a collaboration between the Finnish Association of the Deaf (FAD) and a local Cambodian disability group. The disability group ran into financial problems in 2001, though, and to save DDP (the only organization serving all the deaf people of Cambodia) Maryknoll Cambodia replaced the local disability group as the partner with FAD. I became the DDP director.
At that point DDP had 13 staff members and just one education project. Slowly we added other projects — sign language interpreting, social services, job training and community development — and employed 86 staff in four provincial centers.
This expansion was made possible when we received additional funding from the Maryknoll Priests group and then from Caritas Australia.
But all of that changed in the space of two years. Covid was a big factor. Our staff had to work from home, we could not travel between provinces, and our funders reduced their contributions to DDP because they were receiving less money in their home countries.
Because of reduced funding, we had to reduce staff and close two centers.
Worst of all for the deaf people, we could not bring them together for activities. Maybe the worst aspect of deafness is the isolation — not having a common language with society. Our deaf students cannot even talk to their parents because their families do not learn sign language. Not being able to come together to talk to other deaf people was real suffering.
But then our situation became even worse. The Maryknoll priests group withdrew from Cambodia because they had no more permanent members to send here. (I am what is called a Maryknoll associate priest and still belong to the Archdiocese of Louisville.)
In June, 2022 my Maryknoll priest contract was terminated and Maryknoll stopped their funding, 40% of our DDP budget.
Then Caritas Australia went through a reorganization and changed their focus from development and disability projects, like DDP, to work on climate consciousness. We lost another 20% of our budget.
Because we lost all together 60% of our funding, we closed our education project in Kampong Cham Province, moved to a smaller and less expensive office, and further reduced our staff which now consists of 31 deaf and hearing members.
I was able to get a new contract with the Maryknoll Lay Missioners, which makes it legal for me to work in Cambodia, but the lay mission group has no funding for mission projects. And we still needed a new legal sponsoring group for the Deaf Development Programme itself so we turned to Caritas Cambodia.
They graciously took us under their wing to give us a legal basis for working here, but funding is an ongoing problem.
We were blessed to have major institutional donors for so many years, but now DDP is in a new era where we will need to work on a reduced scale and depend more on individuals and small organizations that can help support us.
Hearing of our plight, family and friends and some generous Louisville donors have come forward. We are really appreciative of their support. But continuing our mission to the deaf people of Cambodia will be a challenge for the foreseeable future.
Father Charles Dittmeier, a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, is the co-director of the Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme in Phnom Penh and pastor of the English-speaking parish. Follow his journey at parish-without-borders.org.