What I saw astounded me – people literally living in garbage. Little children ran around barefoot in between bags of garbage, broken bottles, shards of metal roofs, tattered scraps of plastic, burnt truck tires, and the rats and snakes that competed for the treasures. They didn’t go to school and didn’t have any access to medical care. Most of them had never even left the garbage dump slums even to go to the capitol city only 10km away. But despite the hell-on-earth conditions and misery, I found everyone to be friendly, accommodating, and bursting with life. No one asked me for a dollar. Everyone welcomed me in to what homes they had and smiled. I’d never felt more at home in such a terrible place. (Check out my last blog and video about it.)
Children need to work in most of Cambodia so the family can have enough money to eat. It’s just the way it is. They’re out on the streets selling bracelets or begging from the tourists, collecting bottles and cans, or, in this case, picking through the trash. In the provinces, they work the rice fields or pick mangos. So with one less pair of hands from the family labor force, everyone might go hungry or they might not be able to keep shelter. Even with both parents working day and night, there might only be $25 a month to live on. That’s not a typo, either.
It wasn’t fancy, believe me, but these kids weren’t even used to being indoors. At first, they were wild children, going to the bathroom all over the place and making a big mess. But they were taught hygiene, proper bathroom etiquette, and not to fight with each other or be disrespectful. It was hard to earn their trust but over time the changes were evident and the children blossomed.
There only other alternative was to stay outside in the dangerous garbage dump, where the kids basically raised themselves as the parents worked night and day. A common sight in this part of the world is a 4-year old girl taking care of her 1-year old baby brother or sister, all day out on the streets. So if nothing else, it was a positive, safe place for the kids to spend time with adult care.
We took the tuk tuk out to the trash town (say that ten times fast!) and were greeted by a handful of mothers and scores from children, who ran from every nook and cranny of the dump when we pulled up. As the ladies talked, the children eyed me shyly, except for a brave few who ran up and bear hugged my legs right away. I started a round of high-fives and goofy antics and pretty soon the kids were all won over.
After half an hour in the blazing sun, the second tuk tuk showed up and we all got aboard. In all we had 18 children and 3 adults to squeeze into two little tuk tuks! But somehow we managed, though I was afraid children would go flying out if we took a sharp turn along the way.
One little dude in my tuk tuk was super serious, though not unhappy, but sitting with his shirt tucked in and a look of reserved judgment on his 5-year old face like he was a bank manager and I was pitching him on a million dollar startup investment. Keo explained that he was called The Security Guard, the most shy of all her children. When he first came to her center years ago, he was so homesick that he stood by the door and cried all day for his momma! For days he stood so close to the exit that it looked like he was guarding that front door, so they nicknamed him the “Security Guard!” hahahaha I love it.
So when the teachers there asked the kids what they wanted to be when they grew up, they all answered, “teachers.” Why? That was the one and only occupation they’d ever been exposed to in their lives other than people who worked the trash. Except one boy, who said he wanted to be an attorney. That shocked the teachers because it was such an ambitious profession that required higher education. But before they could commend him for dreaming impossibly big, he explained that he only knew about attorneys because his father was in prison.
The children ate happily but I was shocked to see that most of them couldn’t even finish 1/3 of their small plates of just rice. Their stomachs were so small from eating tiny scraps, never full meals and rarely meat or protein sources, that even a handful of rice filled them up. But they did love watching the Cartoon Channel on the restaurant’s television, staring transfixed just like any child in America!
I paid for lunch, mercifully only $49, and we headed out to walk the rest of the way to the market.
We were quite an odd site – 18 little kids from the trash dumps, filthy, faces covered with rashes and grime, tattered clothes and some of them with no shoes, walking barefoot on the hot city streets, but all beaming ear to ear with smiles. And then one big, sweating farang (foreigner) following up the line. The Cambodian mothers we passed smiled and patted me on the back and the tuk tuk drivers laughed and called me Papa and said I must be strong for having 18 children.
Before they ran off again we corralled them long enough to take a few photos. They said goodbye and hugged me and asked when I’d be back. I thought I even saw the Security Guard smile! I didn’t have the heart to tell them that the uniforms was just a start but we still didn’t have enough funds to pay for their schooling, and were far away from being able to open the community center again. And there were scores of other little kids who didn’t get uniforms or crayons and wouldn’t ever get to go to school, unless someone helps.
You guys ARE helping! Just by posting the photos of the kids from Stung Meanchey on Facebook, I’ve had a bunch of you send in donations and offer your support. We’re getting close to being able to ensure that at least these 18 kids will be able to go to school, at least for this year. But we’d love to reopen the community center for them and do something bigger. I’ve even been in touch with a representative from Coca Cola who’s considering a donation because they saw the photos.
I hate always asking people for money and I know times are tough all around. But even skipping your Starbucks today and donating the money, instead can mean one of these kids gets to go to school for a month. So hit me up if you want to get involved. If not, that's ok, too. But even better, you can help by helping sharing the story of these amazing kids.
So, from the children of Stung Meanchey, THANK YOU for caring!