Sister Len and the journey of hope

21 Jul 2016   |   Blog   |   Cambodia   |   Long-term Development

Tags:  mercy, hope, HIV and AIDS, Cambodia   |   No comments

“To bring hope to the people that we work with,” says Sister Maria Leonor Montiel (‘Sister Len’), “means walking with them and walking slowly, at their pace. It’s a lifelong process - a journey.”

Throughout her life, Sister Len has offered hope to people living in vulnerable circumstances. Born in the Philippines, she has worked for more than two decades in Cambodia as a social worker and community development worker. She helped to found the first School of Social Work at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, and teaches Social Work at the university.

As the director of the Seedling of Hope program in Cambodia, she works daily to offer a life with hope and dignity to people affected by HIV and AIDS. The program has been run by the Maryknoll Sisters since 1995 as a holistic response to the HIV and AIDS epidemic. It supports affected children and adults through healthcare, education and vocational training, life skills, and spiritual and psychosocial support.

“The aim is to make a real difference in the lives of youth and families for whom the effects of HIV and AIDS have been compounded by the impacts of living with poverty and disadvantage.
Sister Len

Seedling of Hope is subdivided into two distinct programs. The Maryknoll Seedling of Hope Youth Program is supported by Caritas Australia and funded by a private donor. It offers vulnerable young people access to education, healthcare and social services.

The Seedling of Hope Adult Program focuses on both physical and psychological healing, and on reintegrating people living with HIV and AIDS into society and the economy, so they can have improved quality of life and sustainable livelihoods. Services include home-based care, skills training, income generation and livelihood development, as well as health referrals, counselling and secure housing. This program is supported by Caritas Australia and the Australian Government.

“Through the program, people living with HIV and AIDS have a chance to live a new life with dignity and a chance to improve their economic wellbeing and become independent, agents of their own change. They develop skills, self-confidence and initiative,” Sister Len says.

Seedling of Hope Impacts, July - November 2015

Youth Program:

  • 348 (178 girls) orphan and vulnerable children/youth affected by HIV and AIDS had access to education (basic education, skills training or higher education) and medical care and treatment.
  • 16 orphans and vulnerable youth siblings were enabled to live independently with their siblings in their own home, with regular monitoring and follow-up from the project.

Adult Program:

  • 287 (169 females) living with HIV and AIDS had regular home-based visits to supervise their medical care.
  • 118 people were trained in livelihood planning and supported with microcredit or grants.
  • 14 families received secure housing, and 13 houses were repaired.

Find more about Caritas Australia's response to the global problem of HIV and aids

Transforming Service Conference

With her combined education and community development skills, Sister Len is recognised internationally as a significant contributor to the field of service learning. This is an educational approach where students have both informal instruction about service in their own environment, and the opportunity to serve in communities. The focus of Service Learning is connecting the traditional classroom experience with the lessons about life that come through service.

On 14 April, Sister Len was a keynote speaker at the Transforming Service Conference, held at the Australian Catholic University in Brisbane between. This was the first international ecumenical service learning conference, enabling educators involved in leading or organising service learning activities in Australian schools to provide a national profile of activities, and work together to advance understanding.

In her address, Sister Len said: “Service Learning? How about calling it Learning Service? It is an experience of service but it is mostly learning for the students. We have so much to learn from communities. We should be putting emphasis on the role of the students as learner rather than providers of service, and of the communities as the 'educators' rather than the receivers of service."

“We’re not travelling in this world alone. We’re co-travellers, we’re co-creators.”
Sister Len, speaking at the Transforming Service Conference

Education resources

'Just Visiting?'

Sister Len is a key figure in ‘Just Visiting?’, an online teaching resource with Catholic Social Teaching principles as a framework. ‘Just Visiting?’, featuring film clips where Sister Len is interviewed, offers a guide for teachers and students in Australian Catholic schools in planning immersion travel programs and reflecting on the experience on their return. This resource is useful for anyone planning to visit a development program.

Learn more about this resource

Year Of Mercy

Caritas Australia has produced prayers, posters and resources on the Year of Mercy, suitable for secondary schools, parishes and general information.

Learn more about this resource


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