“I had lunch with one of the mums at the orphanage today”. Sounds like an oxymoronic statement if ever there was one! Except when referring to Sovann Komar, the orphanage in Cambodia where I work. I realised that I had been frequently referencing this NGO without providing most the readers of this blog with a thorough overview of this unique enterprise. So here goes:
Sovann Komar, or Golden Children in Khmer, was co-founded in 2003 by the Khmer director, Sothea Arun, and American philanthropist, Elizabeth Ross Johnson. Together these two remarkable individuals have created a beautiful, loving, safe environment within which fifty six children are growing and thriving.
Sovann Komar comprises of ten families – ten groups of children with a real Khmer couple as their adoptive mother and father. The households range in size from nine children to five and these nuclear families each live in beautiful, spacious, homely houses, arranged in a U shape around the outskirts of the Sovann Komar “village”.
The compound also contains the school, the organisation’s offices, a doctor’s clinic, a restaurant, a performance area, two large grassy play spaces, a playground, and we are in the process of building larger houses for some of the families which are in need of more space as their children grow. As well as looking after the fifty six children who originally came to Sovann Komar, many of the couples have subsequently had their own, biological children. These sons and daughters have been embraced by their older brothers and sister and many very close bonds exist between these children.
Most of the children who are lucky enough to call Sovann Komar their home were orphaned or abandoned at a very young age. Any information about their background has been recorded so these children may learn about their past as and when they wish to. Some of the elder children were taken from state orphanages, notorious for their poor treatment of children and the directors’ reputation for using the children as meal tickets. This is one of the main concerns for volunteers looking to find placements in Cambodia. Due to the large number of NGOs within the country, it can be very difficult to determine which are legitimate, honest, organisations. Luckily for me, I was offered a six month placement with Sovann Komar through Outreach International in 2009 and have never looked back. Not only are the children endearing, loving, open, funny, intelligent, charming, and happy individuals, but they are like this for one reason: the dedicated group of men and women who have worked tirelessly to give these lucky orphans (another oxymoron for you) the best chance at a good life.
Sovann Komar is helping even more children than it initially aimed to, including those outside the village. I now coordinate Sovann Komar Outreach Program for Education or SKOPE. Through this I organise regular trips to poor communities in the surrounding provinces to donate school supplies, clothes, and toys, offer heath and hygiene training, build wells, toilet blocks and housing, and provide medical and dental care. Additionally, Sovann Komar is committed to raising environmental awareness and improving the village’s green status through tree planting, regular litter picks, and releasing fish into water sources both within the grounds of the orphanage itself, and the surrounding community.
Education is one of Sovann Komar’s top priorities for the children. They have received an excellent standard of education from a very young age: they are educated within Sovann Komar until they reach Grade 1 or 2 (depending on the child). They then attend Beltei International School, a highly reputable school system within Phnom Penh. These half days at Beltei are supplemented by additional lessons within Sovann Komar in Khmer, computer studies, and English. The latter is where I come into play. On Thursdays and Fridays I teach six English classes for these children, all of whom I’ve come to know well over the past five years. I feel very lucky that I have been able to return to see how these children have grown, developed, and become the young people of whom Sovann Komar and Cambodia may be proud.
The first three days of my week are spent in Sovann Komar’s onsite school, currently consisting of classes from Nursery up to Grade 4. Over 200 children now attend this school, all of whom come from the surrounding community. The cost of the school is means tested so families pay only what they can afford to ensure their children get a good education. The most disadvantaged families pay nothing, whilst the most wealthy pay merely $40 per month, a tiny amount compared to the charges of most international schools in Cambodia. Most pay $10 to $30 per month and for that bargain, their kids get to experience my excellent teaching … Well they get someone who can pronounce English words correctly, understands the differences between the tenses, and brings sweets to class as bribes to do well in their weekly spellings tests.
I am passionately committed to working for and helping this wonderful organisation. I hope that this blog entry and the pictures goes some way to explaining why I just can’t stay away! This weekend we are heading out to a rural community to donate school supplies. If you would like to contribute in any small way, please leave a comment below or click on this “donate” link. Anything you can give would be greatly appreciated. I myself am off to the market tomorrow to buy some exercise books, and a jumbo box of biros!