An Evening in Steung Meanchey
This story was written by Ros, a supporter of CCF from Australia who visited earlier this year.
After sponsoring our three children for over a year, in February this year the exciting moment arrived when I was able to visit CCF for the first time, together with my daughter Emma and her partner Anthony.
A special part of our visit was accompanying [CCF founder] Scott on his evening visit to the impoverished Steung Meanchey community of Phnom Penh where virtually all of the CCF children come from.
The experience was, predictably enough, overwhelming.
We met Scott at five at the CCF headquarters, which is right in the middle of Steung Meanchey. We were immediately mobbed by happy, excited children. Scott was standing waist-deep in a sea of them, talking to one after another, picking them up, cuddling them, chasing them, playing ‘tickle monster’, familiar with each child and his or her story. Soon we all had children clinging to every hand and leg. Scott’s eye fell on three small children standing quietly together whom he did not recognise. They had arrived that day, from another family in desperate circumstances, and were understandably bewildered by all the noise and excitement.
Our sponsor child, seven-year old Saram, who I had met for the first time earlier in the day, emerged from the scrum and I recognised her mother standing nearby and smiling at me. It was great to meet her.
We were shown around the classrooms where evening lessons were in progress. A group of little girls put on an impromptu dance performance. Scott hooked his mobile phone up to a speaker, miraculously producing the music, and off they went, hips swinging, jauntily acting out cute postures.
At last we were off on the excursion of a lifetime, almost too hard to describe. With us was Scott’s brother, Norman; Bob, the new manager of operations at CCF; and a Cambodian who is Scott’s right-hand man in his interactions with the community.
We set off through the filthy laneways, stumbling through dust, rubble, broken glass and boggy areas whose origin I chose not to contemplate. We still had a little band of children with us, and were each holding several small hands, the children nimbly picking their way through the mess, some with bare feet.
Very soon the twilight gave way to darkness. As we went along people greeted us from their huts. Pressing on deeper into the shanty town, Scott told us to stay close together, this area was ‘dodgy’. Boys and men sprawled sleeping or sitting in groups, women squatting outside their huts preparing food, unbelievable filth, scraggy dogs we were warned to stay clear of. Every now and then Scott popped into a dimly-lit house to check how families he knew were getting on.
An older woman emerged from a hut with a girl of about 13, and asked Scott if the child could come to CCF. Several adolescent boys lay asleep under the table inside the hut. Hanging on the corrugated iron wall was a framed CCF certificate earned by the girl’s older sister. As in many of the houses we passed, the proud display of this certificate was evidence of the high status attached to attending CCF, the ‘Harvard’ of Steung Meanchey.
This young girl was clearly at risk. Scott asked his assistant to take down her details and photograph her, gave the grandmother a form and told her to bring the girl to CCF in the morning. Hopefully, she will be another child out of harm’s way and about to begin a new life at CCF.
Scott led us to an area where CCF is constructing a community of new houses for single mothers, sponsored by an American construction company. For every house they build in America this company donates the materials for a home valued at $2000. Made of steel and insulated, the houses consist of a single room, built high on stilts for the wet season, with a lockable door, and powered with solar panels. The residents have access to a communal toilet and shower facility, with a supply of potable water.
At Scott’s request we were invited into one of the houses, the occupier a mother of two young children. Her son, a little boy of two or three, was settling down to sleep on a low bed. The house and its few basic possessions were kept clean and neat, the mother smiling and proud to show us her home.
Returning to CCF, Saram and her mother and older sister came up and pleaded with us to visit their home. Scott agreed, so with Saram hanging on to one of my hands and her 14-year old sister latched on to the other, we headed out again through the dark laneways. Scott stopped to say hello to a 104-year old lady on the way, one of the many valued ‘grannies’ that CCF looks out for and who frequently provide helpful advice about families needing assistance.
We finally reached Saram’s house, and Emma, Anthony and I climbed the ladder and crawled into the single-roomed hut. Saram’s grandfather was there and another man soon joined us who was introduced as her father. We all sat on the ratang mat on the floor, and they seemed pleased to have us visit. For me, it was an eye opener to see the home and the environment that little Saram returns to each day after school and CCF classes.
On the way back Scott wanted to check on a woman who had been ill with Hepatitis B. Some of the children wanted to follow, but he sent them back. He soon returned with a concerned expression. The woman, just 25 and with two children, was in the final stages of the disease and was dying. She had been to the hospital but was sent away as they could do nothing for her. Her grandmother had kicked her out of the family home because of the ‘bad energy’, and the poor woman was lying in a hovel at the edge of the compound, alone and desperately sick.
Hepatitis B is the most common infectious disease in Steung Meanchey, followed by HIV and dysentery, and all CCF children are vaccinated against it.
Scott immediately put in a call for a CCF car to come and take the young woman to the CCF community centre where she could be cared for immediately in some comfort. She was later provided with accommodation by CCF for her last weeks, and her children are being cared for by her grandmother.
So, this is Scott’ s life – every night locating more children at risk, more families in crisis, a seemingly endless stream of deprivation and hopelessness which he and his inspirational team at the CCF patiently deal with, case by case, child by child, family by family.
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