Tola's Story: Giving Back
As a child, Tola lived and worked on the Steung Meanchey garbage dump, and never thought she would leave. Thanks to CCF, she went to university and is now staff at CCF working to give back to her community
Standing barefoot on rotting rubbish, dressed in a dirty white shirt and grubby red shorts, with a hat to shield her from the worst of the glaring sun, a girl called Tola is caught in a moment in time.
More than 17 years later, Tola has this image of herself stored on her mobile phone. It reminds her not only of how far she has come since then but helps her never forget where she came from, keeping her rooted in her community.
“I look at the picture and I remember what my life was like back then,” says Tola.
‘It seems like a long time ago but I remember it all.”
The still image is from video filming at the notorious Steung Meanchey garbage dump, then the largest and most notorious landfill site in Southeast Asia, and where the most impoverished in Cambodia ended up.
I always dreamed of going to school but thought I would never have the chance
It was a dangerous and chaotic place for an adult to be, let alone a child.
But this is where Tola and her six siblings worked and lived, with their parents, surviving by scavenging through the putrid rubbish underfoot, eating rotten fruit and other food found in the waste.
Their clothes were also rummaged from the dump, discarded by others more fortunate.
Tola was eight years old at the time and had never been to school.
“None of us were in school, we were all scavengers,” says Tola.
“The whole family picked up trash for a living. I always dreamed of going to school but thought I would never have the chance. I thought this was how my life was always going to be.”
It was working on the garbage dump that ironically would save Tola: it was here that she was found by Scott Neeson, CCF’s Founder, and the course of her life - and her destiny - changed.
CCF is a big motivator for me, to help our community
Now 25, Tola is a university graduate and a mother to a lively toddler girl, who will never experience the poverty and despair that she once did, and is giving back to CCF as a member of the Sponsorship Team.
Her days are spent working with and helping children, who were once in the same position as her, and whose lives are being turned around as hers was.
“CCF is a big motivator for me, to help our community,” says Tola. “It is very important for me and I love to do it.”
It’s hard to equate Tola from today, a confident, educated young woman full of ambition for the future, with the little girl from all those years ago who feared she would never escape from the garbage dump.
What hasn’t changed is the most beautiful, radiant smile that she had as a child.
That smile would light up her young face, shining brightly amid - and despite of - the most horrendous, unimaginable conditions around her on Cambodia’s mountain of rubbish that was her daily life.
Tola’s parents had moved their family from the countryside to Phnom Penh, hoping for a better life than the toil of farming the land. Like many destitute families, they ended up in Steung Meanchey, forced to scavenge to survive.
Tola worked from 5am to 6pm every day, knee-deep in smelly trash, shifting underfoot, with her parents and younger siblings. The older ones would push a cart around the area to pick up rubbish.
Trawling through the mounds of decomposing rubbish - including toxic hospital waste which was dumped at the landfill - Tola’s days were spent picking through other people’s detritus to earn money for her family.
Despite their efforts, they would often only earn $1.50 to $2.00 a day, barely enough to feed a family of nine.
“It was so difficult for us, we could never earn enough to support our family,” says Tola.
“I remember that I used to pick up fruit, watermelon or banana, to eat from the dumpsite. My family also had nowhere to live, so we just built a small shelter, like a tent, and when the rain came, we all got wet.
“I had to work all the time. I didn’t have a chance to attend school, I had never been to school.”
It was hazardous work for a little girl with large garbage trucks rumbling across the rubbish to offload waste. Other garbage pickers recount stories of children and adults being injured or killed under wheels or tracks.
Little Tola, malnourished so small for her age, became adept at dodging the trucks.
“It was very dangerous for us,” says Tola. “I was very small and there were a lot of trucks, so I had to run back and forth, to keep safe.”
A video filmed on the dumpsite captures Tola, holding her picking stick, a tiny figure with rubbish piled all around and a fire smoldering behind. She smiles shyly at the camera - that beautiful heart-wrenching smile - with her luminous big brown eyes.
At the time, Scott Neeson called Tola “one of the heartbreak” ones.
This was in reference to her mother’s reluctance to let Tola stop working on the dumpsite and go to school with CCF.
“She [Tola] spent two months at the school and then she [the mother] took her back because she was losing income,” says Scott.
Many families living in poverty have to make the same choice between sending their children to school and having food on the table.
This is why CCF works to remove the barriers to the classroom, with a belief that education has the power to end poverty and provide all children with access to learning.
By supporting Tola’s family, Tola was eventually allowed to join CCF permanently. It was 2005 and the early days of CCF, with around 40-50 children at the time. It would soon become apparent that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of vulnerable and neglected children who needed help.
With CCF, I had a chance to study, my dream came true.
Tola was one of the lucky ones; she would never go back to collecting rubbish again.
“I just remember being so happy,” says Tola.
“With CCF, I had a chance to study, my dream came true. I had a safe place to stay, healthy food to eat and friends. It was so different to living at the dumpsite.”
Her family’s situation also improved with assistance from CCF, with no one having to scavenge to survive again.
Deprived of an education, Tola made up for all those missed years, learning how to read and write in Khmer, and speak English, developing into one of CCF’s star students, excelling academically and outside the classroom as a young leader.
CCF also gave her the chance to travel: the U.S, Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong to attend CCF fundraising events and visit her sponsors, who provided constant encouragement and mentorship.
Everything is much better. Life is very different.
Becoming the first in her family to attend university, Tola graduated from the University of Cambodia with a major in English Literature.
It was a remarkable achievement, validation of the faith CCF had shown in her ability, and proof that the little girl from the dump just needed an opportunity to fulfil her potential.
Tola was selected to join CCF’s staff in the Education Team, ensuring that young children receive the right of an education as someone once did for her.
After marriage, she left to join her husband in the countryside shortly before their first child was born, and became a full-time mum.
Tola has recently returned to Phnom Penh with her daughter, Dirika, aged two, while her husband has remained in the province for work as a furniture maker and taxi driver.
She joined CCF as staff again, this time in the Sponsorship Department, and lives with her parents, a brother and sister, in a house through CCF’s World Housing Program.
Her father now works for the village authority and her mother earns a living making rubbish sacks from recycled materials.
From their home, they can still see the remains of the Steung Meanchey garbage dump, which closed in 2009, where they once all worked.
“Everything is much better for them, very far from before,” says Tola. “Life is very different.”
Motherhood has given Tola a fresh perspective on life, a new level of contentment, and her daughter was one of the factors for her return to Phnom Penh.
“My daughter is going to attend school very soon and it is very important for me that she has an education,” says Tola.
I was a garbage picker when I was young and I don’t want her to be like me, so I really care about her education as well as about her living situation
“The thing that I am most proud of is getting an education because I never imagined that I could have a chance to graduate from university like other kids.
“Of course I want my daughter to go to university and if I have the ability to support her to study abroad, I will do that. I want her to experience new things. I want the best for her.”
Another motivation was to start earning again, strive for financial independence, to support her parents and family.
“Before my family was very poor, life was very difficult, and now, with support from CCF, they are much better. With a job, I can help to support them as well.
“My motivation too is myself. If I want anything to be better, I have to make myself stronger first, so I think the best motivation is also me.”
I don’t want my life to be like before, so I have to keep trying and keep working on my ability and knowledge to have a better life.
Giving back is clearly a huge driving force for Tola; giving back to her family, to CCF, to her community, society and her country.
With this, she is fulfilling CCF’s vision of creating tomorrow’s leaders, a generation of young Cambodians who are instigators of change in their communities and beyond, whose children will never experience the poverty that they and their parents and grandparents did.
“I want to say thank you so much to Pa Scott and for what he has done for me and for my family, as well as for our community, kids and people, to get us out of poverty and see a really beautiful world,” says Tola.
“I have nothing to pay him back aside from trying to work hard and smart and be a role model, to be a good person who has a positive impact on our society.
“I can help give back to my community by working for CCF, I am very proud of this.”
One of her long-term goals is to establish a small school in the countryside to bring the gift of education to children who might not otherwise have a chance to study. “The same as CCF is doing,” is how Tola puts it.
Asked how her life might have turned out without CCF, she doesn’t hesitate with her reply.
“I would still be picking up the garbage at a dumpsite or around Phnom Penh. I would not have a chance to attend school and I would not be able to get a good job.
“Actually I can’t imagine what my life would be like without CCF. It’s a hard question to answer.”
The past - and that image showing an eight-year-old Tola on the dumpsite - are the inspiration to succeed and make the best life for her daughter and herself.
“I always think about my past experience and compare it to the present and I can see that I have changed a lot of things,” says Tola.
“But I don’t want my life to be like before, so I have to keep trying and keep working on my ability and knowledge to have a better life.
“I don’t want my life to be like that ever again.”