A few days ago, I had the opportunity to go out and visit a community center run by Child Wise Cambodia near the Boeung Kak Lake in Phnom Penh. The area used to be a backpacker hotspot full of cheap restaurants and guesthouses, but recently it has faded back into disarray. Only a few guesthouses remain, and many restaurants have shut down or moved. Poverty around this area is intensely visible. There is a large population of street children who go out begging, looking for cans, peddling bracelets/books, or engaging in other forms of labour to scrounge up a few dollars for the parents/guardians who send them out into the street. The population of street children used to be larger, but due to government-enforced evictions to “clean up” parts of the lake area, many of the children and their families have been displaced.
(Graffiti-covered wall on a street near Boeung Kak Lake…I think this is kind of beautiful…)
A woman named Barb (who now works for Child Wise) used to own and operate a restaurant in the Boeung Kak area. Like most of the restaurants in the area, Barb’s trash pile was rummaged through on a daily basis by a group of street children in search of leftovers and cans. Some of these children had been offered assistance by other organizations in the past—some had started programs with (incredible) groups like Mith Samlanh and similar groups—but they had always dropped out. They found the rehabilitation programs too restrictive, or their families were unwilling to work with the program, or the kids were simply unhappy with the ‘institutionalization’ and structure of some of the programs and left to return to the streets. Barb decided she wanted to do something different to help them. She recognized that you can’t use a “one size fits all” model of approach. These kids had individual needs, individual histories, and individual strengths and weaknesses. And they needed an individualized approach.
So about 10 months ago, Barb started the community center in Boeung Kak. Initially, it was set up as a “soup kitchen” of sorts, but it has grown into much more. Now it operates with the goal of providing a safe place for kids to drop in, have a nutritious daily meal, and learn how to be kids again. Barb doesn’t demand that they stop working, stop collecting cans, or stop begging. She doesn’t demand that they enroll and attend school, or that they change their entire pattern of living. She doesn’t demand the kids suddenly become rehabilitated or else be kicked out of the program—she recognizes that change is a process, and one that happens at a different pace and takes a different form for everyone. So all she asks is that they leave their work at the door and respect the rules of the space. At first, the program was incredibly challenging. The children that found their way to Barb’s program had no real socialization, no skills for interacting with other children other than fighting and physical violence. Barb and her partners at the center had to rely on their incredible wealth of love and patience to help move the kids in a forward direction. Eventually, they were able to establish a semblance of structure for the kids.
(Some of the kids’ artwork decorating the walls upstairs at the community center.)
Some of the kids in the program now were brought to Barb by other children in the program. One little boy (and I mean little…he is maybe 5 years old?) in particular has been responsible for bring 4 or 5 other children to the center. When he sees a hungry child, he says "Come with me—I know a place where you can get something to eat." When he started at the program, he would drop in every now and then for soup and rice and then disappear. But he began coming more regularly and bringing other kids with him. Now he comes everyday, a bundle of energy and joy.
At first, none of the children had any interest in attending school. Barb didn’t force them or push the issue. She knew that if the kids didn’t want to go, they wouldn’t. So she waited patiently, occasionally encouraging the kids to consider the option. Then she recruited one of the most famous kickboxing stars in Cambodia to help. He started coming in to teach the kids kickboxing as a therapeutic sport—it offered exercise, empowerment, self-discipline, and provided the kids with skills to help protect themselves from abuse and exploitation. The children were awestruck by him, and one day he briefly told the kids: “Go to school. Take the opportunity to study—work hard, study hard, and be successful. Okay. Let’s box.” After that day, a few of the boys in the program approached Barb and said they wanted to go to school. She enrolled them and worked out transportation for the boys to and from school everyday. Soon, a few more children approached her and said they wanted to enroll as well. Most of the children are now enrolled in school, and several are beginning to excel.
(One of my new friends showing off his awesome kickboxing skills.)
The kids at this program range in age from about 4 or 5 to about 11 or 12. They come from broken homes, poverty, violence, abuse. Some have lost one or both parents—others have been abandoned by their families. Some come from families that simply cannot support them, that do the best they can, but that still needed the income generated by sending their children out to work on the streets. Some left home to escape daily violence and abuse. Some have parents and/or siblings that are HIV positive—and some of those relatives have progressed to late stage AIDS without medical care or treatment. Most live in unsafe conditions, lacking access to medical care, proper nutrition, reliably clean water, and protection from exploitation and abuse. But the community centre offers them a change to escape all of that. They get to come in and just be kids—they play games, they learn kickboxing, the watch educational videos, they learn their alphabet and their numbers, they play computer games on donated PCs, they laugh…they are joyful children full of love and life. Despite their histories, despite the heartache they have seen and the brokenness most of these kids come from, they are amazingly full of hope. They are vibrant.
(This girl is brilliant—she showed me some of the English vocabulary she is learning while I helped Barb apply some basic first aid to her foot)
Barb has helped these kids access much needed medical care. Through a partnership with the Children’s Surgical Center, some of these kids have had surgeries to correct basic injuries that never received treatment. One boy recently had his sight restored through surgery. Others have been started on antibiotics to treat infections that had been plaguing them for months. One boy who had terrible infections on his legs and one of his hands was given basic treatment and has healed amazingly fast—he used to sit alone in the corners, refusing to speak or play with the other children, refusing to interact. His legs were covered in festering wounds. But after a few days on antibiotics, his wounds began to heal, the infections clearing up. And he suddenly became a new kid—he now runs around wildly, playing, laughing, giggling, interacting with everyone around him. Barb says the change in him is like night and day.
(After receiving medical care for a persistent infection, this boy transformed into a lively, adventurous, joyful kid. We played together for a long time, and his giggles were contagious.)
These kids are resilient. They are strong. They are smart—brilliant, really. But they needed to be given a chance to grow. They need to be given love and safety. And Barb has offered that and so much more. I was only at the center for a few hours, but I cried—hard—when I left. I was so moved by those kids and by the work that Barb was doing with them. They gave me hope and a renewed sense of purpose for the work I am doing. And they gave me new insight into how I can make a real difference. I love Barb’s program. I love those kids. And I wanted to share some of that with you…
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