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From Spinning Chairs to Rollercoaster Rides

By: Expat Advisory Posted: January-01-2006 in
Expat Advisory

The smiles on the young Khmer faces were as wide and arching as Phnom Penh's Japanese Bridge. Although initially surprised by the arrival of a busload of Americans, the Cambodian students were now well and truly in their element. They graciously accepted gifts, posed for photographs and played games with their newfound friends.

An unknowing onlooker might disregard the whole thing as a few rich tourists, high on charity, on a feel-good 'daytrip to the poor school'. Such notions would be well wide of the mark, however. These were no ordinary tourists. The warm and playful expressions displayed on the faces of these university students hid an inner determination which is rarely found in people as young as these. They had come to make a difference. And they had the finances to back it up.

The story of how 17 psychology students from USA came to be in Phnom Penh's garbage dump with $26,000 starts back in June 2007, when Lynn University, Florida, through AEA (Academic Experiences Abroad) organized an educational trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. The academic theme of that trip focused on 'Buddhism and meditation'. One of the prearranged day tours while in Cambodia was a trip to VCAO (Vulnerable Children's Assistance Organization), an NGOrun school at Steung Meanchey rubbish dump. Built in 2001, this small teaching facility provides pre-school and nonformal education to 270 poor local children living on or near the landfill site.

At this sprawling 6.8 hectare dump, approximately 250- 300 families sift through the 1000 tonnes of festering garbage dumped daily to collect aluminum cans, cardboard, plastic, rubber and glass for recycling. A keen eye and a hooked metal spike is all that is required, and as a result, no age barriers exist. Both the very young and the very old are expected to pull their weight. Of the children who recycle on the dump, an estimated 50-60 work during daylight hours, while 30-40 work at night. The rewards for the dump workers are scant indeed, as one person typically earns between $2.50 and $3.50 per day, depending on how long they work.

The American undergraduates were shocked at what they saw. The fact that families were dependant on their young children's labors was particularly distressing. Some of the children looked very young - too young to have to bear such life burdens. Most were dirty and undernourished. All were shoe-less, shirt-less and schoolbook-less.

"I was overwhelmed that people could actually live like that. It broke my heart to see," says Danielle Bissett, 22-yearold student and head fundraiser. Her one abiding memory is of children spinning on an old office chair. "They were playing on it like it was a rollercoaster in Disney World.

They had the biggest smiles," she recalls. "It just made me realize how good we have it at home and how people take it for granted."

Danielle felt compelled to help. And that is exactly what she did. On the very first day of the following term, she approached her university lecturer with a fundraising proposal. Her idea was immediately welcomed and before long, the whole psychology department, from students to professors, all wanted to get involved.

Next, she contacted VCAO and enquired about funding their 'food for study' program at the dumpsite. This is a simple but effective project where students are presented with 1 kilogram of rice for every two hours of study they complete. Such actions benefit all parties involved. The young people living near the dump get an education, while the parents are rewarded for sending their children to school. To sponsor this scheme for one year would require $15,000.

The college students then focused their attentions on raising the necessary money. They set to this task with youthful vigor and named the project 'Rice for Life'. A variety of fundraising events were organized such as bake sales, charity dinners, car washes and selling t-shirts with the logo 'This t-shirt just fed one child in Cambodia'. Remarkably, two students even managed to raise $1000 by making and selling small bracelets. The bulk of the finances raised, however, came as a result of the students writing letters to family members and businesses. Private, and some very substantial, donations soon poured in.

Within a year, the original monetary target was reached and exceeded, by far. Over the course of those twelve months, the project's aim shifted somewhat too, after VCAO found another sponsor to fund the Steung Meanchey 'food for study' program. However the organization had another program that had been lying dormant and unfunded for the last three years. This scheme provides vocational training for the older girls who live in the dump community. With such training, it is hoped the young women can find reasonably well-paid employment and therefore avoid the social pitfalls that females from poor backgrounds often fall into i.e. prostitution, trafficking and exploitation.

Chea Pyden, the Executive Director of VCAO, explains, "If we allow the young women to join the vocational skills training, they have no time to work in the dumpsite and collect material." He also pointed out that in the long run it would benefit the girls more than the 'food for study' schemes.

"Instead of being just a relief program, it now becomes more sustainable because it is a way to generate income for the families. With the money they earn from their skills they can support their children or younger brothers and sisters. They can buy food for them and send them to school."

Fast forward twelve months from their initial trip and the students have returned to finish what they started. In June of this year, Lynn University, again with the help of AEA, organized a second educational Asian trip. This time the focus was on 'mental health and trauma' and the destinations Cambodia and Thailand.

As part of the Phnom Penh leg of the journey, they returned to the Steung Meanchey school facility to meet the children and to corroborate the funding and project details. As a good-will gesture they stocked up on close to $1000 worth of provisions to share amongst the young Khmer students. The large sacks of food, clothing, studying materials and 70 pairs of different sized rubber boots caused feverish excitement amongst the wide-eyed Cambodian pupils.

The real reason for the visit was less visible, but far more important. After negotiations, Lynn University agreed to fund the training of 20 local girls in the skills of hairdressing and sewing for a three-month trial period. After this period, the scheme will be re-evaluated to ensure that the students have been attending classes and that they have been making progress. Providing that such objectives are met, more funding will then be allocated. If successful, it is anticipated that the scheme will run for two years and eventually cater for 40 students.

Although not yet finalized, the university also plans to set up research programs, offer trauma counseling and organize future undergraduate trips to monitor the primary school pupils' development. The learning possibilities, for both the Khmer and American students, are limitless.

"Emotionally I broke down after we left the dump last year", recalls Danielle. "I was just so happy to be back and to be with the kids," she later admits when describing her latest visit. She is however fully aware that this is only the beginning of a long process, "It feels really good, but I also feel that it is not over because we only did such a little part right now. We still have some work to do."

Chea Pyden of VCAO is also aware that more work lies ahead, but expressed his delight at securing the funding. "I feel extremely happy. I know the girls on the dump are very excited too. Whenever they get the chance, they always enjoy studying. Now they have a chance and they can change their lives."

When asked about his hope for the future of the 'dump children', Robert Seifer, Associate Professor of Psychology at Lynn University replied frankly. "I hope some of those young women will be trained in a career and will be able to leave the garbage dump behind."

Such opinions were echoed by the softly spoken, but steely-eyed Danielle Bissett. It was this young woman's initial idea that has taken her and her fellow classmates on an amazing rollercoaster ride. Not the fancy Disney World rollercoasters that they had been used to, but a rickety old Phnom Penh office chair ride. Rough, real and very rewarding. Words and pics: Conor Wall

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