No place like home

One of the Hope Community Centre’s most charismatic house mothers when Hope was a residential care centre, Mrs Vy was an intriguing mix: always smiling, strict yet liberal with the children under her care, someone who loved to sew and cook, giggle and joke, cheeky, naughty, impish and fair. The kids respected her tell-it-like-it-is approach – and they loved her.

Five members of the Khorn family lived with Mrs Vy in the same bungalow during her time as house mother: the four sisters Da, Thea, Soriya and Tha, and the youngest, their brother Samnang. When Hope was completing its transition from a residential care centre to a Non Residential Care and Outreach program in 2014, the question of how to care for the Khorn siblings came up. Hope’s belief that it is best where possible to keep families together was being put to the test, but a solution was at hand.

It’s rare to get one person to take on four siblings, but Mrs Vy was keen. She had lived at the centre for eight years, loved the children as if they were her own and importantly, Hope knew she was an excellent carer.

To give the transition a trial run, Hope allowed the children to have overnights at Mrs Vy’s ramshackle house over several months, installing two bedrooms downstairs and a kitchen out the back. The Khorn kids gave the new living arrangement the thumbs up, and meanwhile were joined by Song Serey, a young girl in need of a home.

Because Mrs Vy’s home is close to the Centre, Hope’s social workers often drop in at more than the usual monthly intervals. Hope pays Mrs Vy a salary and covers all the kids’ food, clothing and living expenses, school uniforms and schoolbooks, electricity and water bills. The eldest girls Thea and Soriya attend Hope’s after-school Community Education classes in the afternoon, and Hope’s teachers liaise with their high schools. And although she no longer works at Hope, Mrs Vy knows she can drop into the Centre’s staff meetings every Tuesday to have a chat with old friends and give an update on her family.

As the legal NGO guardian of the Khorn children until the last turns 18 (the youngest boy is seven), Hope will be supporting the family for some time to come. In fact the Group Home-Based Care program Hope runs for Mrs Vy and the Khorn family is now unique within the centre, and tailored to their family circumstances.

Some years ago the Cambodian government legislated to reduce orphanage numbers and to preference home-based and foster care, in line with the international consensus that children were far better off in such environments than in institutional residential care.

The government allowed non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to follow their own path to achieve this desired outcome, and Hope as a residential care centre opted overwhelmingly for an Outreach approach which reintegrated children into their extended families, tracing and placing the children with their relations. Hope and government agencies now follow up by sending out social workers monthly to materially support and monitor the welfare of these children.

In a few cases however where reintegration with families or relations was not possible and other options were available, Hope adopted the Home-Based Care approach – the approach that is working well with Mrs Vy and the Khorn kids.

Mrs Vy gives us a warm welcome when we arrive late Monday morning, the three sisters, eight-year old brother Samnang and Song Serey gathered around her. She says living at home in a family environment is a huge improvement for the children on the residential care days, and the children are much happier.

“Living here, the children help with the cooking, clothes washing and wash the dishes,” she says. “Even with five children it’s easy to organise them, and they all listen to me. It was a bit harder at the Centre. I love them as if they were my own.”

Mrs Vy has taught the children to cook for themselves, and getting them off to school is no problem for this solo mother.

“It’s easy. They all know the time to get up and to leave for school, they can dress themselves, get their schoolbooks ready, prepare some food and then head off to school.”

Sixteen-year-old Thea, the eldest Khorn daughter now living with Mrs Vy, attends state secondary school in the morning with younger sister Soriya and happily heads over in the afternoon to the Hope Community Centre – the scene of her early upbringing – to study English. She says she’s keen to continue on with it to help build a career.

With Mrs Vy’s love and encouragement and some help from Hope, these sisters – and their little brother – are doing well for themselves.