Though it’s more than five years ago, Vimuolea Hang can remember meeting Chantou for the first time.
Vimuolea - known as Vim - was a college student and volunteering at Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF) as part of the SEALNET Volunteering Program (Southeast Asian Service Leadership Network).
She had first volunteered with CCF with her high school in Phnom Penh, where she got to see for the first time how children and families on her doorstep were living in deprived conditions.
This time, her placement was more hands-on with the children in the CCF program.
“I got very close to the children in the span of 10 days or so and one of those children was Chantou,” recalls Vim.
“It was a very short but very meaningful experience. I remember her being very friendly, very diligent and very brave.”
Though her life moved on, Vim did not forget the 12-year-old girl she had met that day.
Seeing her on the page looking for a sponsor, I knew that I had to do it.
Two years later, and back home in Cambodia after finishing her degree, Vim was browsing on the CCF website with thoughts of donating when she happened to find the section on CCF’s Sponsorship Program.
There on the page was a photo of Chantou, who needed a sponsor.
“When I saw Chantou, I was like ‘Wow, is this fate or coincidence?’,” says Vim.
“Seeing her on the page looking for a sponsor, I knew that I had to do it. I decided to sponsor her.”
That was in June 2018. Chantou was 14 years old.
Rediscovering the schoolgirl that she remembered, and reconnecting on a new level altogether, as her sponsor, was an enriching experience.
“I feel like she’s a sister,” says Vim. “There is an affinity to her. Much like a sister, it’s someone’s to take care of, but also I want her to thrive.”
In December last year (2020), Vim sponsored a second CCF child, a girl aged two called Kannitha.
Contributing to the community and society at large….is very important, especially for younger people
Vim, now 26, has a strong sense of public service, a wish to do her duty to contribute to her society and country, and to give back; traits that can be attributed to her family and background.
Her father Dr. Hang Chuon Naron is currently Cambodia’s Minister of Education, Youth and Sports, while Vim is presently employed with the Ministry of Economics and Finance after returning to Cambodia when she finished her Master’s in the U.S.
“I feel that contributing to the community and society at large, through volunteering or financially, is very important, especially for younger people,” says Vim.
“You get a lot more from it when you’re younger in the sense that it’s a time when you’re growing and it can broaden your perspective.”
Her parents are both proud of her commitment to give back and she talks to them about being a sponsor with CCF.
“They are very happy about it and they are very supportive of me doing so,” she says.
Vim first encountered CCF when she was a pupil at International School of Phnom Penh (ISPP) and took part in their program to become involved in the local community.
CCF’s founder Scott Neeson also spoke at her school’s graduation.
“It was very insightful. It’s very rare to find someone who would give up a life of fame to help out communities in need,” recalls Vim.
Volunteering with CCF as a high school student was the first time that Vim remembers being aware that such impoverished communities like Steung Meanchey existed in Cambodia, her own country.
Even though I live here , I think we don’t really know the daily reality of some certain communities
That’s the first time that I realized, when I was exposed to it,” she says.
“I think you see a more nuanced perspective if you go into a community itself and fortunately I had the opportunity to do that.
“It was very shocking and sad, and I feel like people could do a lot more. More people in general could do more to contribute if they had the opportunity to realize this as well.”
Vim volunteered with CCF again and had an intern placement, giving her a deeper understanding of CCF’s programs and the challenges faced by children and families who face daily struggles to just survive.
“Even though I live here , I think we don’t really know the daily reality of some certain communities, and even if we see it, we don’t really know what people are thinking and what the kids are going through,” she says.
“At the end [of volunteering], one of the children cried about how she wanted her family to do better and prosper, and I feel like sometimes people take things for granted and don't appreciate what we have. I wanted to help the children in a way, to contribute.”
Sponsoring a child gave Vim the connection and platform to give back.
Her relationship with Chantou has blossomed in the same way the schoolgirl has flourished under the care and guidance of CCF.
When she joined CCF at the age of seven, Chantou had never been to school. Life was difficult for her parents, who worked as garbage scavengers, and existed from day to day.
Now Chantou, aged 16, is having an education thanks to CCF and the chance of a bright future.
Vim loves the opportunity to interact with Chantou directly through email correspondence, giving her a window into the schoolgirl’s daily life and hopes and dreams.
“I really like that aspect, just getting to know what she is going through, her everyday activities, and how she’s feeling,” says Vim.
“I think it really helps during the pandemic as well, when everyone wants a connection in some form.
“To be honest, her (Chantou’s) emails also helped me a lot. I think I was also going through a hard time adjusting back to being in Cambodia, it was stressful, and so I think her emails touched me a lot too.”
They have also met in person and enjoyed a trip to the market and for a meal together.
In December last year, as she turned 26, Vim decided to volunteer another CCF child as a way to mark her birthday.
Kannitha and her older brother had come into CCF’s care after their parents, both garbage collectors, were unable to care for them and sadly neglected them.
Now aged three, Kannitha is a curious and lively three-year-old in CCF’s Nursery. She loves learning the alphabet, singing songs and running around the playground.
With her brother, she lives with a foster mother as part of a loving family in one of CCF’s World Housing villages.
“She’s still very young and I feel like it can go a long way if I contribute,” says Vim.
She’s yet to meet Kannitha but hopes to do so when the pandemic eases.
As a sponsor, Vim sees herself as a mentor to her two sponsor girls, offering guidance and emotional support. But she stresses that she sees the relationship as mutually beneficial.
“I feel like I get a lot more,” she asserts. “I can see their daily realities, what they are going through, and it really gives me another perspective and I think they also give me emotional support too.”
I know what a difference it can make to the children.
She is quite an advocate for CCF and is keen to share her sponsorship journey, urging anyone considering becoming a CCF child sponsor to take the step.
“I would highly encourage it,” she says. “A couple of my friends have already asked and I always say ‘yes’.
“Because I have experienced what it’s like in the community, I know what a difference it can make to the children.
“Having also interned there [at CCF], I know there is a high level of accountability, so I know things will be put to good use.”