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‘A great honour’: Kemptville’s Janne Ritskes awarded Meritorious Service Medal

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Janne Ritskes received a Meritorious Service Medal from Gov. Gen. Mary Simon on Thursday, March 21. Sgt. Anis Assari photo

For 30 years, Janne Ritskes has been dedicated to making a difference. The Kemptville resident went to Cambodia in the early ‘90s and found a country “completely destroyed” by war and genocide, where “95 per cent of the people lived in absolute poverty.” In 1994, she started the Tabitha Foundation, a registered charity that provided clean water, new housing and schools in Cambodia.

“I took out my pension and savings and started Tabitha,” Ritskes explained. “What I did was institute a program called ‘savings’ so that it would involve their decision-making and their putting some money in.”

The savings evolved into building houses, she noted, and by enlisting “volunteers from all over the world, we built almost 14,000 houses.” The foundation also built schools, giving “almost 1.9 million kids” access to education, and grew a cottage industry to provide jobs. Ritskes was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 and “what I ended up doing is building a hospital.”

Her legacy is the estimated “4.7 million Cambodians she helped out of poverty,” according to Ritskes’ website, by inspiring people to “save for a dream” that had a “tremendous impact on their lives.” Having realized its goal, the Tabitha Foundation closed last year.

“If you look at the country now, that deep poverty is pretty much gone,” said Ritskes. “That was our vision.”

Ritskes wrote a memoir, titled “I Am Who I Am: 25 Years of Working with the Poorest in Cambodia,” documenting her journey. She started a new charity in Kemptville, called Shalom Small Homes, and proceeds from her book sales are going toward building affordable housing for seniors.

“At a rental rate that’s far below normal,” Ritskes added. “What we’ve decided to do is look for one million people to donate $10 or buy my books.”

When asked why she’s so committed to helping people, Ritskes responded that “it’s who I am.”

“It’s just a natural part of me,” she continued, referring to herself as “an immigrant child” whose parents immigrated to Canada after the Second World War. “They were models for me; if there were people in need, you helped — it wasn’t when do I help or how do I help — it was you helped, just a natural given.”

Ritskes was recognized for her decades of charitable work with a Meritorious Service Medal, presented by Gov. Gen. Mary Simon. The ceremony was held at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Thursday, March 21.

Ritskes referred to the ceremony as “quite emotional,” and pointed out that “my two beloved countries have honoured me,” having previously received the Order of Sahametrei from the Prime Minister of Cambodia. She highlighted that having her daughter, Miriam Ritskes, and other family members there to “witness all of that was wonderful.”

“It’s a great honour,” Ritskes stated. “But you know what? The volunteers I work with, they’re a much greater honour, and the people that are stepping forward in Kemptville for Shalom, they’re a much greater honour than that medal. I’m not diminishing it, but the people I’ve been privileged to meet and to work with and to interact with, that’s a phenomenal gift.”