User login

Friends in Need

By: EAS Staff Posted: January-01-2006 in
EAS Staff

Think of Friends and chances are you think of street kids and a great restaurant. But as founder Sebastien Marot explains, there's a whole lot more to Friends.

Sebastien Marot started Friends in 1994 when he was traveling through Cambodia. A French citizen on his way to Japan, an encounter with the street kids of Phnom Penh changed his direction in life and eventually, many of theirs too.

"I was staying in a guesthouse near Central Market. One night when walking home I noticed kids sleeping on the streets near the market. A big 4WD drove straight past these kids and the obvious difference between rich and poor really affected me. I started giving food to street kids, thinking that I was helping them. I soon met two other people who were also giving them food. We soon realized that between us the kids were getting six to eight meals a day and naturally had no desire to leave the streets to go to school. They were too well fed!"

Sebastien realized that he had a choice. Stay and do something for these kids, or go to Japan. He decided to stay.

Today the project he started back in 1994, called Mith Samlanh (Friends in Khmer) supports over 2000 kids a day and has over 250 local Cambodian staff. The success of the organization has led governments and other organizations in other countries to approach Friends to set up services for street children across the world. The international arm of Friends now runs projects in Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Honduras and is soon to start in Hong Kong, as well as a project in Siem Reap. These projects are all based on the Mith Samlanh philosophy, which recently was the only NGO in Cambodia to be awarded the CCC Best Practice Award.

These are quite amazing feats considering that Sebastien started Friends using his own savings. After two years, he nearly had to give it all up when he finally ran out of money, before a donation from AusAID came through and saved the project. He has received death threats from pedophiles that he helped convict, he's been awarded an Order of Australia and this year flew to Oxford to receive a Skoll award for Social Entrepreneurship. In 2000 realizing that to ensure sustainability, the organization needed to make its own money. With the help of an Austrian chef, Friends the Restaurant opened and has been providing hospitality training to former street youth since then.

Of course, Friends is best known for its restaurant, but there is a whole lot more to it than that.

There are an estimated 20,000 children living and working on the streets in Phnom Penh. From its center in the heart of Phnom Penh, Friends provides education, vocational training, medical support, counseling, meals and shelter to 1000 of these kids every single day. Through its team of Cambodian staff, they support another 1000 on the streets, providing basic health care, education, and support to substance abusing children (some are as young as 6 years old) and assist children and their families to access HIV treatment. 400 students attend the primary school at the center, with another 600 older youth taking part in the 10 vocational training courses run by Friends. Working with the families of these children, Friends help them to find sustainable sources of income so their children don't need to work on the streets to support their families. It's a huge challenge, but since its inception the project has helped around 24 000 children move away from the dangerous life on the streets.

In 2006, when Friends was faced with being evicted from its center in Phnom Penh, when the owner decided to sell, the organization was faced with some tough decisions. And Sebastien was faced with seeing his dream and 13 years of hard work, fall apart.

"It was one of my lowest points in all my time here. We were an organization for street kids and it looked like we were going to have to move away from those streets because the real estate boom in the city meant that as an NGO, we couldn't afford another location that could house all the services we provide in a location that was easy for the kids to access. It was devastating."

Not one to give up easily, and with the backing of all his staff, the kids and some very supportive friends and donors, Sebastien and the team at Mith Samlanh made a brave decision to try and purchase the center themselves. The price for the 5,000 square meter location was close to $3million. People thought they were crazy.

"To say it was a difficult decision is not true -it was an easy decision. We knew that we had to stay close to the city to continue to help street kids. We knew we could do it without sacrificing any of our programs or services to the kids". But not everyone in the community saw it that way.

"We were criticized for deciding to buy land. People thought we were wasting money. Many thought we were paying $3 million just for the restaurant, not realizing that the restaurant is actually just a small part of the whole center. Other people thought it meant that we had loads of money to spend. Unfortunately we don't!"

These criticisms were fortunately rare. Sebastien was soon amazed at the support Mith Samlanh did receive. Generous donations and a loan from ANZ Royal allowed Mith Samlanh to eventually buy the property. Most encouraging was the support of the students and staff.

"When things were looking very shaky and we thought we might not be able to gather enough funds for a deposit, the staff at Mith Samlanh all offered to loan their salaries for a month to help us raise enough money for the deposit. The students at Friends the Restaurant and Romdeng donated all the tips they received to purchase the center. Parents of staff loaned us money so that we could make the purchase. It was truly astonishing. "

While the purchase means that Mith Samlanh can stay in its center, it also meant Friends now has a massive debt, close to 2 million dollars.

"All the proceeds from our businesses now go towards paying the loan for the center. While we have the security of knowing that we have a center that is ours, we have to now find money to run our projects and repay our loan. There seems to be a perception that because we are a large organization and we have a successful restaurant, that we must be ok. The truth is however that right now, we are struggling."

Sebastien is still encouraged by the support the organization receives internationally. Currently there is a team of young travelers driving overland from Germany to Cambodia to raise money for the center. American actress Leslie Hope has made a documentary about the children at Mith Samlanh, called What I See When I Close My Eyes, which has just premiered in the USA.

But despite this and the organization being 30 per cent self sustaining, Friends has a fairly major goal that it is trying to achieve this year. As part of its agreement with the lending bank, it has to make a payment of $500,000 by December 5th.

Sebastien is optimistic, but not entirely relaxed. " It's a huge amount of money. We need support. "

Of course not one to focus on only one thing at a time, Sebastien is planning the next phase of Mith Samlanh. "The best thing about owning our own center means that now we can really make it into a great place for street kids. The building is nearly 60 years old and in desperate need of repair. We want to repay this loan so that we can provide even better services and even brighter futures for street kids and vulnerable children in Phnom Penh. "


Whats on! See our help pages - add your own events

This location does not have any events. Why not add one here!