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Review for Cambodian Children's Fund, Santa Monica, CA, USA

Rating: 5 stars  

My husband and 2 sons (ages 15 and 18) recently visited CCF as part of an 8 month trip around the world. Following is my blogpost which highlights how the experience literally changed our lives.

Our definition of poverty became personal when we started our 72 hour immersion into the operations of Cambodian Children's Fund (CCF), a not-for-profit organization that was started 8 years ago by a man named Scott Neeson who, after seeing the slums of Phnom Penh, couldn't turn away from the children whose lives revolved around picking through garbage dumps to earn money for food. He traded in his millionaire lifestyle, yacht and Porsche and moved from Australia to help educate and provide health care to this forgotten and overlooked community. By offering rice in exchange for a child's daily attendance and providing the full complement of community services, CCF is changing the lives 1500 children and their families. Even toddlers who are in abusive homes can find a safe haven for the day while "earning" their family a daily portion of rice.

Our visit started with a tour of the community center and nursery. It was as if we were coated in honey and the children were bees. At one point James was carrying 3 children with one climbing up his back and 2 more grabbing each leg. Brian and his camera were a hub of activity and even Dom found himself picking up one child after the next, melting at their big brown eyes and cringing as Scott gave brief summaries of their family situation. These kids are starved for attention and affection; they just want to be held. We basked in the love they wanted to share and took comfort in CCF's support systems such as the "Granny network", health center, free maternity clinic, soup kitchen and counseling services.

We learned that many of the families served by CCF have no choice but to send their kids out to the dumps to scavenge for anything that can be monetized. Many are the victims of loan sharks who fund family health care when someone gets sick at up to 20% interest per month. The math is easy to understand. You sell everything you own to care for a sick parent or child; you then go into debt for $500; interest charges alone are $100 per month and each family member can make only about $2/day. They understand that education is their ticket out, but even the free public schools come at a price. Teachers are so underpaid that they require a "tip" of 50cents/day for a child to sit in the classroom. Test papers cost $2 and if you pay for "extra tutoring", you can get the test questions a day in advance!

Leaving the community center we went on to visit a few of the original CCF'S installations which are now residential centers which provide educational classes (such as English, Computer Training, cooking and life skills) to supplement the public school teachings, as well as provide housing for those children who are orphaned or from abusive homes. Needless to say, Brian and James were rock stars walking into the all girls facility, with a very attentive fan club. Everyone's highlight was when they played an impromptu basketball game with the girls who averaged at least a foot and a half less in height! No one would believe that this group of young ladies had lived through the unfathonable traumas that they have experienced. CCF has helped them find their voice, given them self confidence, made them search for their purpose, and nurtured the compassion they bring to their peers and visitors alike.

But our immersion in reality didn't hit home until we accompanied Scott on his nightly walk through the "villages". Every night between 5:30 and 8pm Scott visits families of CCF's students addressing any problems or concerns, identifying new children who could benefit from the CCF umbrella, and handing out portrait photos to his students. Combining his passion for photography with his belief that every child needs a memory of where they came from to stay grounded in where they are going, these precious photos are proudly displayed on the walls of the shacks that we entered. "Homes" constructed out of scraps of metal and wood that are half the size of my dressing room and house 11 people. Neither our visit to Rio's favelas or our witnessing of poverty on the streets of India could prepare us for the emotions surging through us as we navigated through rubbish, mud and piles of garbage - only to again be surrounded by curious children, gracious adults, and familiar faces from earlier in the day. They are grateful for any recognition or assistance.

Walking through the slums, James befriended a 10 year old boy, Sokhim, who was clutching a picture of himself after winning 2 awards at CCF - most improved student and best student in the class. The picture was given to him 2 weeks prior and he was still carrying it, as Scott explained, as it is the only thing he can call his own. Sokhim held tightly to James' hand and practiced his English vocabulary as James' heart opened wide, wanting to encourage and protect the most fragile soul any of us had ever met. It was clear at dinner that night that James had already made his own commitment to helping mentor this child.

The next day and a half were spent speaking English to different age groups of students, participating in their cooking and painting classes, playing more basketball, watching a karate class (for which CCF has won a number team championships), and visiting the two vocational training sites for older students - the bakery and garment sewing facilities. James had already decided that he wanted to sponsor Sokhim and we as a family felt we wanted to sponsor one of the girls at the first residential facility we visited. We asked Scott to identify a few of the older candidates whose sponsorship had lapsed for whatever reason. We thought it would be easier to communicate with an older girl and many sponsors are typically drawn to the younger kids. He showed us pictures of 2 girls, Chantrea age 15 and Many age 17, and gave us a brief background. How could we pick? Dom turned to me and said, pretend you are shopping; pick both. Sponsorship means that we agree to essentially become pen pals with the student, providing a stable, English speaking adult presence in their lives. They ask that we write an email at least once a month to each and pay $100/month for the student's meals, uniform, healthcare, and educational programs.

We are now the proud sponsors of 3 Cambodian children and already they have made such a positive impact on our family. Our visit ended with all of us meeting for the first time, exchanging a few questions & answers, me crying, and lots of hugs and pictures. It has now been a week since we left and we have already exchanged our first emails with the girls. Sokhim's will take a little longer since his have to go through the translator. My heart noticeably beat louder as I read their first stories and questions, and I felt so alive crafting my response and thinking of future stories to share. I am so grateful that Melissa Bradley, founder of our travel consultant company Indagare, connected us with Scott and CCF. It is a charity that delivers more than it promises.

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