Yvette's experiences in Phnom Penh, November 2010
Hard edged skyscrapers disappear in the clouds as Michael & I leave Hong Kong, capitalist shrine of the Far East with its air conditioned walkways, designer boutiques and soul-less consumer culture - and it is with relief that we land in the low rise bustle of a chaotic Phnom Penh. The air is intense and humid - and for the next few days it engulfs us - along with fetid smells, visceral landscapes and small people demanding an emotional connection.
The powerhouse behind the Cambodian Children's Fund (CCF) is Scott Neeson, Edinburgh born, Australian bred, Hollywood executive who relinquished his status and wealth to found the organisation. It has transformed the lives of over 700 children who live around the squalid Steung Meanchey municipal garbage dump. Scott is unassuming, hates personal publicity and works 20 hours out of every 24. He has developed the charity through his professionalism, sheer determination and a genuine commitment to the community.
We are met by Patrick McKinlay, also from Edinburgh, an ex military man who drifted into Phnom Penh to help for a while and two years later is still there. Patrick professes to be merely tough and practical - but his heart has been melted by the joyous kids in their care.
We head straight for the CCF Community Centre where the locals are about to arrive for their regular evening meal - and are greeted by swarms of tiny, leaping kids - grubby, barefoot but eager and beautiful - every last one a small bundle of delight. These are the day care kids; 3-6 years old, who seek refuge from the dump and all its ghastly misery. Scott begins the tales - of everyday hardship, abuse and transformation. He knows each child, every name, the background, the rescue - and produces photographs, as if proof were necessary, to illustrate the process - from bruises and malnutrition to health and contentment in the safe haven CCF provides. I glance across at Michael wrapped in children, holding aloft one little boy with a dirty, mal-fitting false leg. He had an infection from the dump - and his mother tried to save him by DIY surgery…
When the tuk-tuk arrives, disgorging what seems like hundreds of school kids from a vehicle the size of a mini - in neat navy & white uniforms - the Centre springs into action. Rows of tiny tots queue outside the medical centre for their nutritious formula whilst CCF women workers start serving a free, balanced, healthy meal to the kids and adults who pay. It's routine work but its yielding dividends.
The 3000+ community which lives on or around the dump in what Scott euphemistically calls 'villages' is changing - and it's only six years since Scott stumbled across it on holiday from the promotion of the latest blockbuster in LA. Now there are 300+ local staff and a raft of positive interventions.
CCF is a charity but for CCF philanthropy does not mean hand outs - it means sustainable development - individual and community wide. Scott himself hands out vouchers to needy families to purchase subsidized rice- but only on condition that their children attend school daily. No school, no rice. And unsurprisingly attendance is 99.5%. Probably better than Eton! Education is the escape route out of neglect and what these children desperately want.
Scott did not spare our sensibilities - he took us on his evening tour of the dump 'villages'. Tarpaulin slung (CCF provided) battered huts on stilts are crushed into alleyways running with foul, stinking excrement. Some naked, tiny kids jump on sacks of rubbish - playing as only kids can, in an environment which unless changed, is destined to kill them. We pick our way past large families, standing, waiting, watching - except one man who is blind, rocking in his 'doorway'. Many women follow Scott asking for the life saving blue rice vouchers - he listens, assesses the need, donates or declines. It's hard to see their eyes, dimmed by indignity, diminished by poverty.
We stop at a shack and are invited in - it's dark by now and barely visible in the gloom is a woman standing quietly by a platform which serves as bed, table, store for the whole family. Under a large mosquito net is a tiny, 13 day old baby boy - surrounded by a collection of obviously precious articles: a bar of soap, talcum powder, tiny clothes, a rice sack; the Welcome Home Baby Kit supplied by CCF to sustain the new born through its first crucial weeks. Scott tells us the baby almost died but due to their Maternal Care Programme which pays for medical care, he will 'probably make it'. This is a triumph - such simple actions have reduced infant mortality significantly.
On we crunch, over glass, tin and garbage, past skinny chickens and skinnier children, through rows and rows of shanty huts; no let up, no respite. For us, a way out to a shower in a comfortable hotel - for the Steung Meanchey people no running water, no work, no hope - except for CCF.
As the light fades, we come upon a small slab of concrete with a tin roof, open sides, a chalk board and rows of tables - it's a satellite school. Here kids who are not sponsored, or still have to work, are given lessons in English, Khmer, Maths and local culture by a CCF teacher. Scott points out two girls, aged 12 and 10, timid but smiling - it's their first day at school. The children are attentive and eager - singing us a song, happy, rapt - it is an oasis.
As we turn to leave, avoiding the running sewage, we face a couple of hundred villagers - come to scrutinize the visitors. There is no threat, just bemusement. What help can we offer? It's daunting. We trail back to the 4by4 like the Pied Piper - and I lose it; my senses bombarded. I can't take anymore. I have to get away. I cry great silent tears of shame. I am so sad and angry and frustrated.
Michael & I spend half the night in whispered conversation - what will tomorrow hold?
It holds light and sun and charm and hope…
We tour the neighbourhood with Patrick as our guide - encountering Scott like a magician at each of the five residential schools - they are tall, colourful old buildings - filled with class upon class of diligent students. Art, maths, word puzzles, history, computers, music, classic Khmer dance, English and the weekly visit by the Buddhist priest - the day starts at 5.30am and often ends at 8pm with homework. There is a nurse at each school, attentive staff. The daily stream of essential work is propelled forward by the many decent Cambodian staff - including a bevy of facility managers (all female) CCF has recruited. The children are washed, fed and clothed and fed again; their emotional needs addressed sensitively too. It's a delight to see their enthusiasm - no moans, no fights, just real endeavour. It's a wonderful relief.
The children have been rescued and as long as CCF can keep raising the $2 million a year it all takes, they won't have to face a life on the edge. But that's a big ask…
We visit the free-to-all medical centre - scrubbed and impressive with an empathetic local doctor, caring, with little help, for over a thousand patients a month. He is quietly spoken, but confides he would love a scanner to check the pregnant mothers, and antibiotics for the treatment of pneumonia and persistent infections, 80% of which are water related. (CCF provides purified drinking water at all its schools and distributes free 20-litre water bottles to 3500 families, offering a bottle cleaning facility too).
Patrick (who mainly deals with child sponsorship, volunteers, visitors…) is gladdened but worried by the achievements of the clinic as every new patient means more money has to be raised. It's currently $2500 a month and rising. He has secured a vital new dental surgery kit, "…but success in that will land CCF with running expenses of another $1500 a month! More for Scott to find! Anxiety inducing…"
We cross the yard to the nursery, thankfully cool - where the weeniest, fragile babies sleep in tiny hammocks as their mothers crouch beside them. Trained nannies teach hygiene and encourage nurturing amongst families whose existence is brutal. But despite all the love in the world, the roof still leaks in the rainy season…
We are whisked off to lunch in a modern, concrete unit, hidden behind the ramshackle alleys of Phnom Penh. It's the Star Bakery - with a welcome committee of young trainees, in neat white uniforms. Taking older teenagers with little or no education off the dump, and giving them a skill as baker, pastry chef, restaurant manager or waiter - CCF has transformed their lives. These apprentices also produce nutritionally-fortified bread which is distributed to Steung Meanchey families as part of the CCF Community Outreach programme. Their leader/tutor is the ex Head Chef of the Intercontinental Hotel - dedicating himself to his young team and their considerable accomplishments.
We are treated to a delicious meal in their mock up restaurant and discuss the way forward - Scott doesn't want to 'grow' CCF like a business - but replicate it; as a model for other communities. We speak of the commune system in France, of the Millennium Goals1 all but one of which this small charity is meeting when the UN can't seem to.
But back to the future…what the trainees really need is premises for a cafe to offer both a service to their locality and jobs for themselves. More inspired benefactors required…
Scott is anxious in our remaining few hours that we see the new projects he has started since 2009. One is the EnGender Programme. When the municipal dump was closed last year it threw Steung Meanchey into turmoil. For those at the very bottom of the heap, literally, their main source of income, scavenging amongst the detritus of our plastic world, dried up with the demise of the tipper lorries. CCF was fearful that they would lose their most vulnerable students who would be forced to move away with their families to find work… and thrown back into a world of abuse, domestic violence and addiction. So Scott opened a factory to train the mothers as seamstresses.
It's a light, airy and productive environment. The women make bags - colourful totes, yoga carriers, corporate convention bags, backpacks and computer cases to order. They are paid fairly; receive free healthcare, a rice allowance - in a nurturing atmosphere with counselling by a legal advocate to help overcome years of debt, alcoholism and violence. And the future's bright - for their children safe in day care and the building of individual or group businesses based on their training. It only needs someone to order a conference briefcase for a few hundred and they're away…
Before we leave we meet our sponsor child - Srey Nith - five years old, skinny, already tough - she has had a rough time with inadequate parents. Undernourished all her life she clearly needs full time care. Now she'll have it. She grabs at me for a hug and a lift up - light as a feather, Srey Nith clings on…
Our Cambodian experience ends with a treat. In the spacious top room of CCF1 is a small stage and a hoard of children from 8-18 sitting on the floor - as expectant and excited as any audience in any school hall in any country in the world. We are greeted with a garland each and led to a comfortable sofa - where delicious mango and exotic fruits are laid out before us. Then as we wait for Scott to arrive, the questions commence - in sometimes perfect, sometimes faltering English these delightful children ask us "What is your name?" "Where are you from?"…fine… then, "How old are you?" I divert, "How old are you?"…they giggle and smile and want their photos taken and it is sheer pleasure to witness their enjoyment.
Their friend and mentor, Scott finally makes it after a chase through the traffic and the show begins…but as it does, a small, simply exquisite girl takes her place silently between us - cuddling up. Scott leans over and explains her history, as he has for so many of the children throughout our visit. She is eight and was raped by a member of her family and CCF found her and brought her here a few months ago. The fact that she so clearly trusts Scott is testimony to the care and solace they offer. As the lights dim, once more I find myself shedding tears.
We have seen many school concerts over the years - this one is wonderful; full of colour, talent, music, charm, drama and fun. The 'monkey boys' break dance is superb and makes us shriek with laughter…the living proof that joy & sorrow go hand in hand.
We leave Cambodia amidst promises of help, hugs and fond farewells. Srey Nith will not be forgotten…
Every night since our return I have dreamt vivid dreams: of the coolie hat hiding the scarred half-face of the woman who had acid thrown over her in a fit of jealousy; she was ostracised but found by Scott and taken in - and given the most important job in the Community Centre - handing out rice to the women with vouchers.
I dream of trusting eyes with traces of sadness…of thousands of blue scattered papers and smiling faces…
Srey Nith has gone from strength to strength in the past two years… amazing what a small donation per month can do.
Michael is a Patron of CCF UK. Whatever you can give will go straight to these much needed projects. Thank you
$100 - Provides 8 new shelters for garbage dump families.
$300 - Provides a complete "family rescue" package: 3 months of rental assistance, health treatment, rice, training and counselling, and funds to start a small business.
$500 - Provides computers inclusive of headsets and English language learning software for new school children (ages 5 through 8 years).
$1,000 - Provides the major refurbishment of CCF Nursery - new roof, hygiene facilities, shade cloth, soft floors, providing hygiene area to our at-risk news born babies and infants; provide education for new mothers.
$2500 - Set ups up a "satellite food centre" - equipment, rental land and produce to dispense evening nutrition to the most impoverished children in the surrounding district (currently CCF has one centralized food programme and children have to walk miles to get there for a feed)
$5,500 Construction cost of a new satellite school inclusive of fit-out (benches and desk tops)
$12,800 Construction cost of a new satellite school plus two years of running costs, including teachers' salaries etc.
$18,000 - Vaccinates 100 children against major pediatric killers. Cost includes initial blood tests & boosters shots
$50,000 - Provides "family restoration" for an entire village by taking all children out of work and into full time education; clean water supply, subsidized food, job retraining of parents and youth, rebuilding of essential services and health care.
$100,000 - the annual rice cost for the community, serving Steung Mean Chey district which equals 240 tonnes of rice (20 tonnes a month).
$100,000 - the annual cost of CCF's Day Care costs for 80 at risk 3 through 6 year olds.
$120,000 - the annual cost to run the CCF Health Care programme; 14,000 treatments across 8 communities.
1 to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and empower women; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability and develop a Global Partnership for Development.