Protecting Street Children in Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Lisa Genasci —  May 30, 2010 — Leave a comment

M’Lop Tapang is a remarkable organization. I’m reminded every time I visit. When I’m in Sihanoukville, I’m also reminded why I do my job. To be able to witness the incredible growth and impact of an organization like MT is truly a privilege. It gives me hope that we can help chip away at poverty and improve the lives of some of the world’s most challenged kids.

MT now works with 2,500 street and slum kids in the community, keeping them safe from abuse, getting drop-outs back into school, providing educational support to all, regular meals, healthcare, counseling and vocational training. There are night shelters for those without homes.

The committed staff works with the community, police and judiciary to make sure local authorities understand the challenges kids face working or living on the streets and educating them about pedophilia, which sadly is rife in Cambodia. As a result, the instances of kid abuse in the community have fallen and when pedophiles are caught they are much more likely to be kept in jail rather than being allowed to bribe their way to freedom.

As the M’Lop, or Umbrella tree, provides shade , M’Lop Tapang provides similar protection to Sihanoukville’s most vulnerable children.

I’m always struck by the surprising joy at MT, reflecting the resilience of the children, many of whom have suffered abuse, looked after an extremely sick or dying parent, or supported a whole family collecting cans or begging. There has not been much of what we would consider a childhood in these young lives – until M’Lop Tapang. The happiness, the determination to learn, is palpable walking around the centre, full of classrooms of attentive and enthusiastic kids. This is their place.

Most children participate in the arts and sports programs, which help foster the evident self-confidence in this lucky crew of kids. The arts of course also help them express themselves and learn new skills.

The arts program  includes amazing citywide carnivals and educational shows. This week, for example, MT kids, led by the amazingly dedicated Bob Passion and his Cambodian team, will be putting on a show for the Sihanoukville community on traffic safety. Other topics have been child safety, hygiene, recycling among many others.

MT kids also play team sports and the football team, well-attired in clean uniforms, travels to games. And believe me, they play to win!

The outreach program is large and amazing, with teams of social workers spending close time in the town’s poorest communities, taking education and healthcare to kids who can’t make it to MT’s day centre. They support children and their families through problems that, unresolved, hinder school attendance.

The baby program at the main M’Lop Tapang centre allows girls who otherwise might have to stay home to look after siblings, to bring them to MT, where they are cared for by a dedicated staff. The program also represents a safe place for very young children who have no other or inadequate care during the day at home.

Maggie Eno, a former British/Irish nurse, and Khmer friends began M’Lop Tapang in 2003 after watching local people and foreign tourists prey on children on the beach. What began as an initiative to feed six children under a large M’Lop tree and talk to them about safety quickly blossomed into  a wider program for about 250 by the time we met MT in 2006.

It has so inspiring to watch Maggie and her team, now led by Sarin, develop MT’s programs, broaden the services provided to street children and grow into the successful organization it has become.

In 2007 we built a new centre for MT and this year that was almost doubled in size to respond to growing need. The new wing houses more classrooms and an expanded clinic. Hong Kong medical Practice, Owens & Trodd has been great in providing on-going support and counsel to the MT medical team.

The MT staff now numbers 150 and are almost exclusively Khmer with the departure of MT’s American nurse, Hannah and also American Kate, who had helped with reporting, newsletters as well as other development work.

Francesco Caruso, who worked with Maggie near the beginning of MT has run the ADMCF children at risk programs from Hong Kong over the past few years. He helps raise funds for MT and others, as well as providing ongoing strategic support.

The rapid and solid growth of MT has involved so much dedication on the part of the hardworking staff as well as the  financial support from a diverse funding base that has allowed that to happen: DFID, several foreign embassies in Cambodia, Sovereign Art Foundation, Deutsche Bank Asia Foundation, the R.P. Haugland Foundation, Planet Wheeler, International Childcare Trust, to name just a few.

Visiting with Maggie in Sihanoukville we talked about the next phase of MT’s development being about building in greater sustainability where that is possible. Already, each of the vocational training programs are small businesses.

Working with Gustave from Phnom Penh-based Friends International, an excellent social enterprise, MT plans to develop over the next year a vocational training restaurant inspired by Friends’ own in the Capital. Friends, or Mith Samlanh, which is the local organization, is able to generate significant revenues from its excellent restaurants – Friends and Romdeng. Restaurant earnings help support the entire organization, which like MT was established to support street children.

It is great to see the two NGOs working in partnership, learning from each other.  They also have collaborated on the Child Safe program, which builds community knowledge around the need to protect.  MT implements that initiative in Sihanoukville.

MT has just expanded its own centre kitchen to allow space to begin training youth and develop food preparation skills. The next step, closer to the year’s end, will be a restaurant.

With a significant tourist population visiting the town’s many beautiful beaches and few good eating spots, the restaurant should be a success.

Other options are also being considered that, like the restaurant, might generate revenues to support MT programs and help lift the annual fundraising burden.

We are always keen to hear of any development, social enterprise models that have been tried successfully in similar contexts.

Lisa Genasci

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CEO of Hong Kong-based ADM Capital Foundation

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