I never find bus rides enjoyable. A crowded vehicle swaying, lurching for long periods of time frequently leads to horrible cases of motion sickness. This is well known to my family and friends.
It will come as quite a surprise, then, that while on a sweltering bus ride to Phnom Penh’s sole water park, I submitted to my student’s chorus of pleas to sing Celine Dion’ chart topper, “My Heart Will Go On.” Microphone in one hand, passing out sick bags and eucalyptus candy with the other, I belted out tone-deaf lyrics to the best of my ability. Luckily, my adoring fans appreciated effort rather than sheer ability.
The main attraction was a small river water-filled pool located at the end of two long slides. The twisting tube slide could’ve rust apart at any minute, and the racing slide must’ve been coated with a solvent certainly illegal in the US. I was afraid the friction from the breakneck speed down said slide would dissolve the seat of the bottom half of my “Khmer bikini” (read: pants). We stayed for over five hours, endlessly sliding and attempting to perfect the “mermaid” swim style.
I had only recently arrived, and immediately I was holding hands down slides with students who still thought my name was “Medicine.” The students are in turn kind, silly, sassy, shy, and wild.
Their energy is never-ending. It was one of the most joyous days I have ever had; it bonded me to the kids Children for Change Cambodia (CCC) serves and to its mission. Ever since our trip to the water park I have believed that CCC’s most important service is the establishment of a space in which to create childhood memories. That day is not just one I will be able to hold on to, that memory will also be there for each student when times get hard.
A chaotic, overwhelming, and often inspiring work environment exists at the end of an alleyway overflowing with trash and beat-up bicycles. Barefoot children in recycled uniforms play tag through the small neighborhood maze, rushing into the organization’s door-free entrance when staff call.
Here I found myself, also barefoot, seated on a blue plastic chair in the cramped office, surrounded by a stream of Khmer and a mountain of files. I was informed that I would be the only intern, and the only non-Khmer speaker, for the first two months.
It provides invaluable life-affirming support for those who lack the stability, financial support, and/or safety necessary to receive an education. It is the only organization serving the two worst slums of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Trapang Chhouk and Trolouk Bek. The rickety, shoulder-grazing plank paths offer views into overcrowded homes, the meth addict’s indistinguishable from the sex workers or the gambling-addicted.
CCC offers emergency housing to students whose physical safety is in extreme danger or who have no place to go, provides them with their largest meal of the day, pays for their government school fees, emotional counseling and mentorship, offers a full range of academic classes, uniforms, and most importantly, nurtures a safe space in which to “be a kid.”
Provision of such a space allows students to create childhood memories that they will carry with them moving forward, a small treasure that is anything but insignificant.
I was often left mentally and emotionally exhausted at the end of work. The day-to-day issues that popped up were incredibly challenging. In the States, we are not directly confronted with other people’s most serious problems, other than the occasional concerns of a family member or close friend.
We are isolated within our own issues. As a result we conceptualize others’ difficult situations in abstract ways and offer up generic solutions and words of bland sympathy. As a population, we lack the skills to deal with the serious situations of those not close to us.
At work, I was met with students’ home situations head on, in ways I never expected. Real, tangible solutions and decisions were required; sympathy and soothing words have no utility. Not only did I have to handle the situation in the moment, but I also had to develop mechanisms to deal with the emotions that stayed with me after the situation has been resolved, even to this day. I am affected by their pain, their worries, their tears, and their joy.
On the first day, a student complained of stomach pain. When he lifted his shirt, a fresh, boiling burn cut diagonally across the length of this abdomen.
I have walked through the rotting plank pathways built over a trash-filled toxic sewage pond to the homes of my students, stepping over boys comatose from meth and $0.75-an-hour prostitutes, whose vacant eyes followed me as I passed by.
A student stays up at night to sell condoms to his mother’s clients.
Neighbors, their throats slit, faces puffy, were hung in the streets outside students’ homes.
This a measly list of situations the CCC students encounter. The problems embedded within their community are multi-faceted, dynamic, and intertwined creating a complex weave of issues in which one cannot be untangled from the rest. These students experience this complexity all at once in their fight to lead the life of a child. As both they and I know, there is no simple solution to their problems.
Serious thought is being given as to whether or not the organization can remain open, even after the extensive and harsh budget cuts made in the last week of November.
In the beginning, I never thought to worry about the organization’s permanence. I quickly learned in the last month how fluctuating financial issues can lead to a small NGO’s easy demise. Development as enacted by small organizations creates momentous, awe-inspiring individual change, but is incredibly unstable and, I now believe, almost unsupportable without the backing of a larger organization with a powerful donor network.
Money does matter, which is something I never wanted to believe before. So much hangs on the transfer of a few dollars. People are donating money to development causes at an unprecedented rate, but most of these donations are singular and go towards organizations with the capacity to market their programs well. When funding is short, it takes valuable time out of the staff’s day in order to rework the budget, finding ways to pinch pennies in an organization already operating on a shoestring. When funding is short, we have to eliminate the option of emergency housing, sending kids back to unstable environments.
Securing funding is one of the two roles in small NGOs that I now believe can be filled by a foreigner. The other role is providing services that cannot be provided by local staff, such as English language services or specialized training. Development work must be done on the ground.
Day to day changes are so great that it is nearly impossible for operators halfway around the world to respond effectively. Overseas management and policy creation is unwieldy, which is why CCC recently decided to shift most decision-making powers to on-site Khmer staff.
Most grants require forms to be filled out in English and are offered by Western organizations and governments. I have come to realize that this is the most effective set-up for a NGO: a locally hired staff, complete with executive directors and managers, an international board for fundraising and general reference, and internationally hired staff to provide specific training and language services. This formula maximizes program impact, and increases an organization’s stability.
I would highly encourage anyone interested in international development work to invest their time and money in organizations with local leadership, discernable local impact, and that require international interns and volunteers to have a specialized skill set (and who are not required to pay for their stay).
The ramifications of closing the organization are catastrophic and unthinkable. Since CCC pays for the students’ government school fees on top of offering classes at the center, the end of the organization would mean the kids would have no way to go to school.
They would lose their safe place, forcing them to spend extended time around abusive family members, gang members, drug dealers, and sex workers, greatly increasing their chance of emulating any of the above. Not finding a way to keep CCC open would haunt me for the rest of my life.
I offered skills that were not held by current staff and ran programs that would have otherwise stagnated. It was difficult, confronting, and every emotion in between. It is bone-shakingly disturbing that I am leaving without firm knowledge of my student’s, and CCC’s, future. My experience reaffirmed my belief in the power of people with passion, and in the value of small, dynamic NGOs.