It was Christmas Day 2010 when the orphans first captured Nakita Kitson’s heart. Nakita watched as the kids, homed in a partially open shed in a Cambodian slum village, revelled in a volleyball match, wide smiles shining from scrawny faces as they bounded about in the dirt.
Nakita pictured her family in Perth Western Australia, sitting down to their Christmas feast and compared it to the scene before her. She imagined the money spent during the festive season in Australia, the tables groaning under the weight of presents, food and drink in homes across the country.
And she took in the surrounding Cambodian village of Andong – a slum in which there were few jobs, where helplessness dulled the eyes of many adults, where virtually the only way to stay alive was scavenging through rubbish heaps. The disparity took Nakita’s breath away. She knew she had to do something.
But Andong is a hard case to solve, its deep-rooted problems sown in its very infancy when, in 2006, Cambodian officials forced riverside dwellers from their homes in Phnom Penh to Andong to make way for development. Nakita says the slum dwellers were forced onto trucks, and dropped off in a field with the promise of houses to be provided by the government. There were no houses, no power, no sewerage, no drainage, no rubbish collection. The promised houses never arrived, yet the slum of Andong sprang up as people waited, and continue to wait, for the government to come good on its promise.
Too far from Phnom Penh for people to travel to work, the villagers descended from poor to desperate. And among the most desperate were the children, some of them housed in an orphanage with no running water or electricity, not necessarily because their parents had died, but because they couldn’t afford to keep them.
Nakita and a Dutch friend Tirza Voss thought they may be able to help by working with the orphanage operators. But it soon became clear that these people were in their own desperate fight against poverty, pulling out kids from the school and pocketing the money for themselves. Some of the kids left the orphanage of their own accord, choosing a life on the streets ahead of the orphanage.
It was these kids Nakita and Josie set their sights on helping first.
… the slum dwellers were forced onto trucks, and dropped off in a field with the promise of houses …
But how? The direst need was simply a roof over their heads. So, in 2012, Nakita, Tirza and a kiwi friend Marijke Timmers, who’d also worked with the orphanage, formed Stellar Children’s Trust as a registered charity and secured a house in Phnom Penh. Nakita took time off her work as a high school English teacher to spend five months in the house, helping select and train staff and welcome the street kids to safety.
Some 12 kids from four families moved in to the residential house. The Stellar team seeks to ensure siblings remain together. They take the children back to the village to visit remaining family, and they encourage families visit the centre whenever suits.
Each of the school-aged kids in the home attends an international school and receives private tutoring. “We want them to become the leaders in their communities,” Nakita says. “We want them to go to university to set themselves up to break the cycle and leave the village, and support others to do so.” A team of four carers stay at the residential house to oversee the kids day and night.
“We want them to become the leaders in their communities.”
Among the first arrivals at the house was four-year-old Srey Kourch, who was growing up on the streets. She was so severely malnourished that her skin bled and infected sores covered her body. She hadn’t learned to speak, she didn’t seem to engage emotionally. “She couldn’t talk, she screamed a lot,” Nakita recalls. “It seemed obvious that she’d had to fight for everything. She had no emotional development at all. She was in a pretty bad way.”
Also among the families were the four kids of a mother who’d died the year before, their father suffering late-stage AIDS. The family’s 15-year-old girl Srey Neat warmed the hearts of Nakita and the Stellar Childcare team with her selfless attitude – her tendency to look after her three siblings, to put herself last.
Today, with help from the Stellar Children’s now 10-strong team, a now seven-year-old Kourch is unrecognisable from the waif who arrived three years ago. She’s still full of mischief but she adores school and is mighty proud of her English skills. And the older Srey Neat, with guidance from the Stellar team, now as a job at the swanky and prestigious Kate Korpi Salon, a hair salon with gleaming surfaces and made up faces – a far cry from her slum home.
She was so severely malnourished that her skin bled and infected sores covered her body.
Breaking the poverty cycle
But Nakita was conscious that housing these kids was a bandaid solution. What about the 1300 school-aged kids back in Andong who didn’t go to school because there were insufficient classrooms, or they simply couldn’t afford to go? What hope did they have of escaping the poverty cycle?
Nakita applied for a grant to Sangora Foundation to help more Andong kids into schooling. “As a teacher I’m very big on education as a way out for that community,” she says. “But in Cambodia in general 50 percent of kids go to primary school and 30 percent go to high school. In Andong 20 percent go to primary school and 10 percent go to high school – it’s a notoriously bad village in that regard.”
Successful in the grant application, Nakita strode into Andong’s existing school fired up with ideas on attracting more children. But when she entered a single classroom with 160 kids packed into one room she knew simply attracting more kids was not the answer. “I just thought oh no, how am I going to put any more kids into this school?” she says. “I’m going to have to give the grant money back.”
But, after speaking with the grant donors, Nakita revised her plans. With the funding, Stellar Children’s Trust helped split up the existing classroom to enable some division of students, they resourced the library and supplied each student and teacher with basic resources. They also set about negotiating the hire of other classroom spaces elsewhere in the village. And now they’ve embarked on a fundraising campaign to pay for the construction of 10 new classrooms at the school. They need $300,000 by 2017. “If we can do that we will have places for all the primary school-aged kids in the village,” Nakita says.
In the meantime, Stellar Children’s Trust is focusing on Andong kids aged five to seven, providing 200 school places, as well as supplying all materials and food. “The heartbreaking thing is that there are all the older kids that we can’t help,” she says. “At the moment all we can do it refer them to other NGOs who specialise in industry training.”
“As a teacher I’m very big on education as a way out for that community.”
While Stellar Children’s Trust continues to raise funds for the classroom rebuild, Nakita is also focusing on ways to teach Andong’s teachers. To become a teacher in Cambodia requires nothing more than high school graduation, and learning is mostly by rote.
Nakita has also rallied up a troupe of 20 family and friends to return to Cambodia early next year for a building project. They’ll work on shoring up a row of three houses while their residents await new housing, and they plan to kit out an area in a classroom to enable parents to conduct income-generating work such as sewing while their children are at school.
Nakita says the Stellar team now comprises an amazing suite of locals who run the charity in Cambodia, leaving Nakita, Tirza and Marijke to concentrate on fundraising, strategic planning and mentoring staff. She says a little money goes a long way in Cambodia. And yet it’s still not enough. “It’s hard. It’s really hard sometimes,” she says. “Last time I was there, there was a boy we are about to move into the residential centre because his mum has late stage AIDS. She’s a rubbish collector and this six year old had been sleeping in the back of her rubbish cart. It’s heartbreaking. But you just have to focus on what you can do.”
While Nakita sometimes despairs for the plight of Andong’s people, and struggles maintaining a full-time job at home in Australia, as well as organising fundraising and visits to Cambodia, she says she’ll never give it up.
“I couldn’t walk away from it now,” she says. “I couldn’t walk away from those kids. They are like family.”
“I couldn’t walk away from those kids. They are like family.”
You can support Stellar Children’s Trust’s fundraising efforts by making a donation. Visit the website at www.stellarcco.org for details. The charity has no administrative costs so every cent goes directly to those in need in Cambodia. Just $10 can kickstart a child’s education.