In early 2016, I joined the Board of Cambodian Kids Can, a small charity empowering young women in Cambodia through education. The first step was a phone interview with long-term board member, Melani who was visiting the program in Cambodia at the time. Despite the delay in our phone connection and the roosters crowing in the background, Melani’s unconditional love for and unwavering protection of the girls was clear. Over the past 18 months, it’s been such a pleasure getting to know the fiercely loyal and infectiously warmhearted woman behind the voice on the other end of that phone call. From hosting board meetings, to renting out her spare room to raise money, to visiting Cambodia every year, Melani’s dedication is contagious.
“I was in my early 30s and I had hit a crossroads. I was working really long hours at my job and it seemed to be all about making money for the shareholders. So, I quit without having another role to go to, wondering what life was really all about.
But then, over brunch one morning, my very good friend Di told me about her work in Cambodia– and that was the start of my involvement with Cambodian Kids Can.
For four years, Di had been using all her leave from work to lecture at a local university in Prey Veng, a town in the southeast of the country that’s vulnerable to natural disasters, where more than half the population live in poverty.
Over the years, Di had developed strong relationships with the locals and one day, a monk approached her to express concern that disadvantaged girls in the village were falling through the cracks.
While at-risk boys were able to live at the monastery where they received donations from the public, girls with no family just fell to the bottom of the heap.
So, at the monk’s suggestion, Di set up Mekhala House, a home for girls who had been abandoned, girls who didn’t have parents or whose parents were too sick to look after them. In this nurturing home environment, the girls were also supported to pursue formal education and life skills training, from primary school right through to university.
I immediately offered to help her set up the Australian entity. I joined the Board soon after and haven’t left since.
I had been to Cambodia to do the tourist thing some years earlier, visited other poverty stricken countries and been exposed to a lot of poverty growing up in Malaysia, but I always felt one step removed from it. Getting involved with Cambodian Kids Can was more about supporting girls, something very close to my heart.
I hadn’t had any previous exposure to the charity sector, but, I’d always had a desire to help in some way. I grew up in Malaysia and I know how lucky I was to have been able to come to Australia and build a life and career.
I’ve always been aware that I’m successful not because I’m smarter than anyone else, but because of the opportunities I’ve had– and I wanted to give other girls the opportunity to build their lives and futures.
I visited Mekhala House for the first time in 2006 and it was very emotional. There were about 12 girls there at that stage and I didn’t anticipate how much I would fall in love with them. Meeting them and realising the difference we were making in their lives changed me. I returned home unable to spend any money on myself because I now knew that the $100 I might spend on a new pair of shoes could put a young girl through school and help her break out of the cycle of poverty.
In the beginning, I didn’t really want to know the girl’s stories. It was too emotional. I remember during one visit, the girls decided to do a show and tell– showing their scars, and telling the stories behind them. It was so confronting I had to ask them to stop.
The girls we support come from backgrounds of disadvantage which means they are often forced out of school and into hard labour or sexual slavery, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
Some of their stories are so horrific. But, it gives me a real appreciation of just how strong they are. Despite what they’ve been through, they still have this incredible zest for life and they can still laugh. They amaze me.
One of the first stories I heard was about a girl who had lost her parents to AIDS. At 10 years old, she went to work at a meat shop with her aunt. She would wake up at 2am, clean the shop, chop the meat. While her cousins went to school she basically became a slave and her aunt would beat her and wouldn’t feed her properly. Later, two of her brothers passed away in separate road accidents. She actually had to identify the body of one brother because there were no other living relatives. She was just 13. Her brother’s body was almost unrecognisable and now she has to live with that image. She used to have nightmares and wake up screaming.
But, fast forward to today and this phenomenal young woman is kind, caring and a leader in our little community. She has been through all of this trauma but when a new kids comes in, she takes them under her wing and when someone visits, she’s the girl everyone remembers because she’s so bubbly.
Mekhala House has a radius of 30km around Prey Veng because we don’t want to take kids away from their community. In fact, we want them to maintain local links and return as change makers and local leaders.
Our other program, Mekhala Learning Centre, opened in 2009 after a very interesting consultation process. We involved teachers, school kids, local leaders and government officials, asking them to draw pictures of the things that were concerning them, things important to them and things they thought were needed for the community to grow.
What came out of it was that they wanted their kids to get computer and English language skills to improve their future employment prospects and bring money into the local community. While both were taught at school, English wasn’t taught at a high level, and computer studies was taught out of textbooks with no access to laptops.
As a result, we opened Mekhala Learning Centre, where local community members can access a free library, the internet, skills based workshops and short courses.
In the future, I hope we can expand the reach of our existing projects to support more people in the local region. Raising money has always been the hardest challenge and there have been days I want to chuck it all in and quit, but I can’t when I think about the girls.
In a way, the girls and I grew up together. All the stress, angst and time spent bugging my friends to come to fundraisers will be worth it if these girls end up having better choices in life.”