Justice is a passion of Douglas Smith IV.
So when he flies into Phnom Penh, Cambodia this August, he’ll be taking aim at human trafficking and other injustices that impact impoverished people in third world countries.
Not bad for a high school freshman.
Smith, a 15-year-old Bellevue resident and student at Overlake School in Redmond, is raising money for his trip to Cambodia, where he will spend two weeks teaching English to rural Cambodians.
“When I was younger, I always had a passion for fairness, from playing sports to debating to volunteering to feed the homeless,” he said. “One day, I was walking around Seattle and saw a billboard that said “stop human trafficking.” I didn’t know what that was, and when I found out I was horrified. It’s such a disgusting thing. It sparked my drive to fight human trafficking.”
Smith will use the $5,000 he hopes to raise before his trip to support ongoing programs in Cambodia and to purchase school supplies and equipment for students learning English. He has set up a GoFundMe page to raise the money.
The program Smith will be working through, the Cambodian University Scholarship Project (CUSP), is a Shoreline-based Christian nonprofit that allows rural Cambodians to attend high school, vocational schools and college. It was started in 2007 when dorms were built in a regional capital.
The region CUSP heads into, the Kampong Thom Province, is a land-locked agricultural and tourism region in the center of the country. CUSP sponsors poor, bright young Cambodians through high school and college, where it is hoped they will pick up skills to lift themselves out of poverty.
Ray Durr, head of CUSP, said Smith was the youngest person the group had ever sent to Cambodia in the nine years it has been operating.
“He’s mature beyond his years and he has a clear vision of what he wants to do,” Durr said.
Smith said that helping people in the third world learn English is the first step to lifting them out of poverty.
“A lot of people are impoverished in Cambodia,” he said. “And English is kind of a gateway to help them.”
By teaching English earlier, Smith and CUSP believe that Cambodians will be able to attend college, make improvements to their communities through other organizations and will be more aware of the scourge of human trafficking.
While Smith’s passion for fairness stems from his early days on the playground, his own family background provides another level of insight. His mother, Soojung Smith, is Korean. His father, Doug, is white.
Smith was born in Seoul, South Korea and spent some formative years in Jakarta, Indonesia; Dallas, Texas and Ann Arbor, Michigan before coming to Bellevue.
“We’ve seen all sorts of things,” Soojung said. “Inequity, corruption. People around the world are so, so nice and are just not getting the opportunity, the lucky break they need. Some people in Bellevue tend to live in their bubble.”
The Smiths acknowledge that by living in the affluent Eastside, it’s easy to remain distant from the problems of the world and treat them as a novel phenomenon instead of real-life occurrences in daily life.
Durr said this attitude was one that his organization relied on.
“People sometimes get intimidated about going to Cambodia,” he said. “It is a third world country. But the Smiths have seen it before. They aren’t scared.”
Cambodia still has a historical legacy from the 1970s, when the Khmer Rouge-led genocide killed millions. That spectre still hangs over the country and influences westerners at times, Durr said.
Soojung tried to instill a message of caring for others in her sons, and Douglas, the oldest, has latched onto it.
Last summer, Douglas and his brother sold lemonade to raise money for the Human Society, and even in playing basketball and golf for Overlake, his fair play mentality comes to the surface. He founded a diversity club at his school and hopes to go on to a career in law, where he can affect real change in social justice.
Soojung is proud of her driven son.
“One of the best gifts we can give to our children is a view beyond themselves,” she said. “What’s around us is not always the real world. To see what’s really going on, you have to see the worlds of other people.”
Visit www.gofundme.com/cuspenglishcamp016 to donate to Smith.