An Inspiring Visit to the Cambodian Children’s Fund

This blog was originally posted on The Art of Wonderlust website.

LIFE ON THE TRASH HEAP

You wake to the sound of the rooster crowing—it’s 5 AM. As the sun peaks over the hill you pull on your shorts and the only shirt you own – the one with the big hole under the armpit. No shoes because your little feet are growing too fast to invest in a good pair. Besides, you’re surviving on $1 a day.

Off you go to another grueling day on the trash heap. You wade through Phnom Penh’s discards and medical waste—not infrequently encountering body parts and aborted fetuses—searching desperately to find your gold: recyclables you can sell so you can eat tonight. You work through the stench, fumes, and heat of the Cambodian summer. No time for childhood games, dreams of the future, school. You fight for survival every day through poverty, physical abuse, and illness. You persist out of pure instinct. But your future looks bleak. You’ll be under-educated and under-skilled. You’re destined to live this life forever and your descendants can’t possibly escape this same fate.

 

A NEW HOPE

This, we learned, was life on the Steung Meanchey trash heap just ten years ago when Scott Neeson, a Hollywood executive who was involved in movies like “X-Men” and “Titanic” happened upon the village on a trip to Cambodia. What he saw changed his life forever. Hundreds of children, many of them abandoned by their families, were left with no option for survival but to scavenge the city’s garbage dump. Scott gave up his star-studded career, million-dollar salary and life in America for the children of Steung Meanchey.

He saw the lack of options, lack of hope in the community and planned to offer quality education and leadership training so these kids could lift their families out of poverty. With a whole generation of these leaders, the entire village and perhaps even the entire country of Cambodia could be empowered and changed. With that lofty goal in mind, Scott began the Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF).

 

A LIFE-CHANGING CHANCE ENCOUNTER

Fate put Rolando at a breakfast table next to a couple during our stay in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and they struck up a conversation. It turned out the man was a part of the CCF’s Board of Directors, and had just returned from visiting the CCF. He spoke highly about the organization, how they were changing the face and destiny of an entire community in Phnom Pehn. We were intrigued, and seeing as we were visiting Phnom Pehn the next week, we asked if we could visit. He kindly offered to connect us with the organization to see if it was possible.

We went, and what we saw would leave an enduring mark in our hearts.

At first, we weren’t sure what to expect as our Tuk Tuk wound its way through the dirt roads of Steung Meanchey. Our driver turned sharply and came to stop in front of the gated CCF courtyard. The first thing we heard were the sounds of children laughing. As we walked through the gate we saw a thriving, lively community… toddlers playing on a jungle gym, a woman filling a jug with fresh water, children running in between classrooms, men and women sitting in a line outside a free clinic sponsored by the organization. And we saw smiles, so many beautiful, genuine smiles from children who see a bright future ahead of them.

We met with Cath, the CCF’s Donor Relationships Manager, who generously guided us while we visited some of the different sites and met children of all ages. Cath explained that the success of the community didn’t happen overnight—it has taken over a decade of tireless work, trial and error and patience.

The CCF started small at first, offering education and shelter to 45 children working at the dump. While the children were grateful for the opportunity, absentee rates were shockingly high (around 55%). With a bit of investigation, the team learned that families took their kids out of school to get back to the dump to earn money. It became clear that any successful program must also address the barriers that keep children out of the classroom.

 

BROADENING TO A HOLISTIC SOLUTION

Over the next 10 years, the CCF team went beyond education, developing a more holistic, systems-thinking approach to help the Steung Meanchey community. Today, it offers 65 programs that support every aspect of community life. We saw many of these programs in action during our visit, and boy are they making an impact!

A few highlights of the programs the CCF offers:

  • Schooling: Multiple schools with study spaces offering primary and secondary education, and even financial support through university (85% of CCF’s original class is now in college). The organization offers incentives (including food and housing) for perfect school attendance
  • STEM Education: A brand new STEM (science, technology, math) building with state of the art science and computer labs
  • Adult Education: Training and career development programs for those too old for the school system
  • Placement and Leadership: Internship and job placement support, as well as leadership training or volunteer opportunities for teens
  • Nutrition: Fresh water, plus a free meal each day for children with a low BMI
  • Healthcare: Free quality healthcare and medications for the entire community
  • Senior Care: Care for a number of “grannies” in the community, including providing housing, house cleaning, and programs to interact and share with the children
  • Financing: Micro-financing for families to get out of debt or start a new business
  • Protection: Development of the child protection unit to investigate cases of child abuse and provide counseling to child victims

…among many others!

 

LETTING THE NUMBERS TALK

Naturally, we were curious about the impact so many programs have had. The numbers are nothing short of astounding:

  • In all, 20,000 people in the community benefit from CCF´s programs annually.
  • More than 2,000 kids are currently enrolled in CCF´s education programs. And the high absentee rate the CCF contended with in 2004 fell from 55% to just 3% in 2015.
  • All the while, school enrollment rose from 45% to 99%.
  • 91% of students graduate high school, and now over 100 of those first children helped by Scott Neeson are currently enrolled in university.
  • Almost 40,000 medical treatments and consultations were provided which among other things, lowered the maternal death rate from a staggering 8-12% in 2004 to 0% in 2015.

Moreover, transparency is a big component of the organization’s philosophy. The CCF takes pride in guaranteeing that money provided will actually benefit the families they serve. Being independently audited each year, it has been rated among the Top 1% of charities in the worldwhen it comes to financial responsibility and transparency by Charity Navigator. To see CCF financial statements click here, and click here for Charity Navigator’s review of CCF.

 

DREAMS

After walking through the facility and getting greeted by dozens of children yelling ‘hello’, we were lucky enough to witness the Nightly Food Program, an initiative that provides a nutritious meal for children with low BMIs. This program is led by teens in the leadership program who organize the kids and serve them milk, noodles and a pastry.

With our pale skin drenched in sweat, we were clearly newcomers, but we immediately felt welcome by the dozens of warm smiles and waves. Very quickly the empty courtyard filled with hundreds of hungry kids lined up for their evening meal. We took our spots helping to wash their hands and pass out milk. Afterwards the kids had free time to talk and play. Children ran up to hug or ask our name and favorite color.

A gregarious 14-year-old boy stopped by to practice his English. Our jaws dropped in amazement during our conversation. He was born into poverty and got a late start at school. Each night he goes home to his family’s single-room hut with no running water or electricity. Despite a number of obstacles, he has the most positive outlook on life of anyone we’ve met. He chooses to be happy by focusing his energy on bettering himself… studying hard, teaching younger students and attending leadership training. He said he dreams of going to university and becoming a lawyer.

We reflected on this conversation later and realized that for the first time ever, a child in this community can have hope. For the first time that lofty goal is completely achievable. Without the CCF, these children would still be toiling in a trash heap day after day. Instead, they have the tools and resources that we in the West often take for granted. These kids can now dream for their future, work hard and put their gifts and talents to use.

 

HOW TO HELP

We’re proud to say we’ve decided to become donors to the CCF once we get back from our trip. The place truly touched us in the difference they are making in a whole community and a whole country.

 

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