Rising from orphanages to villages with community-based development

Rising from orphanages to villages with community-based development

Feeding a starving child from a glossy brochure is an easy sell, but supporting a village goes a lot further. Imogen Champagne takes you through Sunrise Cambodia’s new direction with community-based aid.

Doing what’s best for the children of Cambodia means knowing when their needs change, and adapting to them.

When Sunrise began, the country was barely ten years out of a period of mass-murder that decimated the Khmer. A quarter of the population was dead. The main targets of Pol Pot’s extreme totalitarian regime were the educated and urban population: doctors, lawyers, teachers, even chefs. All of a nation’s academics, educators and change-makers were gone. A decade after Pol Pot, Sunrise was a small orphanage in Kandal, just outside of Phnom Penh. Under the wing of Mum to Many, Geraldine Cox, war orphans were brought up with safety, food, education and kindness in a Sunrise Cambodia orphanage.

But now, Cambodia is healing. And Sunrise is moving away from full-time residential care to a more family and community-based approach towards aid and sustainable development.

The positives of a community-based approach

Caring for a child is the most rewarding gift in the world, but to help a community – now that’s kindness multiplied – Geraldine Cox

International charities often have a strong focus on helping individual children, and it’s easy to see why. When you donate regularly to an orphaned child, you have a direct effect on an individual. You can see exactly who your money is going to and how it’s helping. Letters are often exchanged and it can be quite a personal journey.

But supporting a child and their village, or getting behind a whole Cambodian community has a much bigger impact. Community-based development projects install the infrastructure that will allow all orphaned children to reintegrate into their broader community, rather than remain in institutionalised care for longer than they need to. It also sets up thriving communities that will never be in a position of vulnerability again.

A study commissioned by the Better Care Network and Save The Children shows that the majority of children are better off in family supported care networks than in full time residential care. We don’t have orphanages in Australia anymore. There are some good reasons for this. There is also a lot of evidence to suggest that rising voluntourism in international orphanages is actually responsible for an increase in the number of orphanages.

To put it bluntly: orphanages are increasing in number at a faster rate than orphans to meet the needs of voluntourists wanting to “make a difference”. Yikes! That’s why we have strict policies when it comes to volunteering, to help stop voluntourism. This is common in Cambodia, where UNICEF estimates that up to 75% of children are not actually orphans. That’s thousands of children who may have healthier, happier alternatives available to them with a bit of extra support to make sure the village is safe and a healthy place to raise a child.

In terms of how far your dollars go, it’s much more cost-effective to support a village as a whole than a single child in institutionalised care, and the effects resonate throughout the whole community. Your money goes four times further!

It costs $4000 a year to support a child in full time residential care. It costs less than a quarter of that to support that same child living in a village context and the benefits flow on to whole community. When you install a fresh water pump in a village, you give unlimited fresh water to everyone there. When you employ local Cambodians to build a house, you give safe shelter to an entire family, plus a job supply to the region, sending money directly back into the local economy and increasing economic development. When you give a child a bike, you get that kid to school, every day. That bike won’t run out. That bike won’t stop its’ donations half-way to school. That bike will be supporting that kid from year one, all the way through to university, give or take a few height adjustments and some maintenance.

Getting kids to school has a huge impact on the wider community according to Kevin Tutt, Chairman of Sunrise Cambodia and ex headmaster of Adelaide’s prestigious Prince Alfred College.

“The effects of working with families and villages over individual children are sustainable over the long-term. It’s something that we focus on because it’s the only way forward,” said Kevin.

Moving from orphanages to sustainable villages

Moving from the orphanage model to a family and community-based model that isn’t self-perpetuating hasn’t been an easy task, but it’s an essential part of the sustainable development model that Sunrise is committed to. Cambodian staff spend a lot of time tracking down the families of trafficked or abandoned children and repatriating them home, or to a safe alternative. This involves extensive interviews and sessions with the families to make sure that the child is being returned to a safe and secure home, or community-based alternative. We then follow up this repatriation by offering the community and family support. This support is a safety net, so they can regroup and rebuild without the fear of failure. Then when they’re ready they will head out on their own to thrive.

The old orphanage of Kandal is an awesome example of this. One of the buildings there used to house kids who needed a roof over their heads, education and food. Now, many of these kids have been repatriated back to communities and families who have the means to support them. Instead of just shutting up shop on an empty building, Sunrise has turned it into a much-needed health clinic. Fully staffed by Cambodian doctors and nurses, the new health clinic treats 350 patients a month. These patients come from the surrounding villages where there are no health services: a simple tooth abscess or a case of appendicitis could have meant death.

Sunrise supports the clinic financially for now thanks to generous Australian donors, but the plan for the future is that the community will take over the running of the clinic and affordable healthcare will be the norm in those communities in the generations to come. These kind of projects pave the way for sustainable and empowered communities that will eventually grow to stand on their own two feet. That’s when we know the job in Cambodia is done.

The more things change…

Repatriating every single one of the children in the residential care homes back to loving families would be a dream come true, but unfortunately it will never be a reality. Geraldine Cox AM is pretty serious about keeping these kids safe and sometime full-time residential care is the only alternative to returning a vulnerable child to a violent home.

community-based development helped this boy trafficked from thailand
Staying in residential care is a good option for kids while we search for their families.

The boy in the picture above was trafficked from Thailand when he was five. He’s been with Sunrise for a year but so far there’s been no luck finding his family. In the meantime, he’ll stay in residential care with Geraldine and get an education, good food, and lots of love while he waits. When his mum is found, Sunrise will offer him, his family, and the community, as much support as possible.

Geraldine tells the story of a little girl living in residential care at Sunrise.

“She has severe disabilities after suffering from meningitis. She is pretty, overly affectionate, and would be raped to death if she didn’t live here with us.”

And she is not the only one who needs constant supervision. Children living with HIV and serious disabilities often do not have the support and health facilities they need to thrive within rural villages. And that’s where Sunrise residential care continues to offer what is essentially the only solution for these kids to survive, while building up the infrastructure necessary for them to some day thrive in the wider community. More than 150 children live in residential care, keeping them safe from the risk of being trafficked and their health further deteriorating. They are cared for by our local Cambodian health, care, and educational professionals.

Residential care is not the solution, but it’s the best solution to care for these at-risk kids when there is no safe place for them to go. When a time comes when they are no longer at risk, they will be repatriated into communities that are well-equipped to support them thanks to sustainable community-based development.

To find out about how you can empower a village with your donation, click HERE.

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