The four-wheel drive slows to crawl many times along the rutted, rugged road that leads to the isolated, dirt poor village some 55 kilometres from the Hope Community Centre. The rainy season still has not begun, and you wouldn’t want to be driving along here when it kicks in.
On board is Hope social worker Hong Thida, squeezed in next to a friendly, local, middle-aged woman representing the Commune Committee for Women and Children (CCWC) who climbed aboard along the way as did a man of similar age from the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation (MoSVY).
After 45 minutes driving through the still-dry rice fields and past scrawny Khmer cows, we sight ahead a hand-tractor with a battered, bizarrely elongated chassis bogged down in the mud blocking the track, so it’s time to get out and help the two farmers push. And push. Mud splatters everywhere and covers our sandals, but after 100 metres or so the tractor is chugging away down a side lane and the trip continues. It’s not the first time such things have happened on the road bringing help to young Han Sanrin: on other occasions it’s been Hope’s cargo-laden 4WD that’s needed dislodging.
This first section of the day’s journey is dedicated to just one child and his family, but Hope social worker Thida visits the boy and his grandmother here every month come rain or shine. It requires a lot of staff hours and resources, but Hope has committed itself to its mission of helping the most-needy reintegrate into their families and communities. And one look at Han Sanrin tells you he is very needy.
In 2014 as part of Hope’s reorientation to in-family care he reintegrated with his family, at first with his parents but later with his grandmother.
Incredibly small for his 15 years as a result of a medical condition, Hem lives with his grandmother in the village. His parents are alive but living in Thailand, and his father has remarried there. During his seven years living at the Centre Hem was a friendly, polite boy who liked making friends, a slow learner who nevertheless tried hard to understand.
As the CCWC and MoSVY representatives sit quietly in the background in the lean-to outside the house, social worker Thida questions Han Sanrin and his grandmother about his school attendance in Grade 2. It’s regular and punctual each afternoon when the teacher is there (schooling is split into morning and afternoon shifts in Cambodia) and Han likes attending, but the rainy season is expected soon and all bets are off. Even in the dry season teacher attendance can be irregular.
Teachers’ salaries are low in Cambodia, funds are scarce, it’s hard to get people to teach in the remote poorer villages and many who do it rely on rice farming to supplement their income.
So when the rains start, school often stops. But this afternoon Han will be off to school in the new but still basic schoolroom about half a kilometre away, making hay while the sun shines. He says he likes maths best, but making friends at school also comes high up the list.
Thida keeps gently prodding away about Han’s schooling, health, hygiene practices, his medical condition and illnesses, all the time taking notes and giving advice. Part of the reason the two Cambodian officials are silently present each month is to monitor that Hope is itself living up to its promise to provide ongoing support to young people like Han in all aspects of their welfare.
Thida learns that Hem has developed a bloody ear through itching and gives basic advice about what to do to protect the ear. She checks whether he is taking his medication twice a day, and encourages him to bathe three times a day due to his condition. Even simple maters such as keeping nails cut and hygienic are on the checklist. Hope transports Han to Battambang Public Hospital once a month to receive specialist health checks, medicines and medical supplements to boost his growth. It gives him the stamina to help grandma and uncle around the farm when free, looking after the cows, pumping water from the well for cooking and washing his own clothes.
Sitting at the table, grandma’s smile is serene as she looks on at her grandson. She’s over the moon that Han is back. “I’m working hard so that Han can continue to go to school,” she says. She’s also incredibly grateful for the monthly material support Hope brings on these visits.
Now comes the business end of the visit. Grandmother applies her thumbprint in red ink authorising the social worker’s documents and Hope delivers the goods. There’s a sackful of rice, a multitude of mini-cartons of soya milk to help build Hem up, staples like cooking oil, garlic and soya sauce, and hygiene products such as toothpaste and soap. Just as importantly, Hope gives Hem and his grandmother a monthly cash payment to buy vegetables for healthy nutrition and to help cover ordinary living expenses.
As we drive on to the next stop through parched rice fields waiting for the rain that’s six weeks late already and stubbornly refusing to fall – the seasons have been changing here dramatically over the last two years – it’s not easy to forget this tiny, friendly Grade 2 15-year-old who keeps giving it all he’s got and hopes to be a policeman one day.
After an hour we pull up outside the house where another 15 year old, Suon Southary, is back living with her godfather and godmother. They had cared for her after her parents passed away in her infancy, but in 2009, in the days when Hope was an orphanage (and one which turned no child away), the godparents hit financial trouble and were forced to bring Suon to live there, before she reintegrated with them in 2014.
At Hope, Suon was noted as a friendly, well-adjusted girl with a passion for sewing, one of the career skills on offer. But getting a good education was and is equally important to the her, so when Hope offered her a sewing machine four years ago she said “not yet”, as she wanted to concentrate on her education first. However, she did request that once she had gone as far as she could at school – and the 7th Grader now hopes to continue as far as Grade 12 if possible – that she would like to attend a Friends International-associated sewing training centre in Siem Reap, with which Hope has an apprenticeship placement agreement.
There are many family-taught women sewing piecework on home machines in and around Battambang, but Suon wants to become a professional seamstress who can make a career sewing quality garments on a commercial scale. She says her ultimate aim is to start up her own sewing business (which Hope would help establish), and that she would use the Hope sewing machine to practice sewing for family and customers.
Hope social worker Thida, who now begins the same process of gentle questioning she used with Han and his grandmother, says Suon has a clear plan for her life. She’s a keen attendee at the local state school where her favourite subject is the Khmer language, but she’s also been studying English at a private school, paid for by Hope. English has become a vital skill for young Cambodians to succeed.
Suon is healthy and strong, growing fast year by year. Hong says Suon’s godparents, who have a young child of their own, get on extremely well with Suon and treat her as if she were one of the family. As with all the children it has reintegrated, Hope provides and repairs a bicycle for Suon to attend school, visit friends and buy food from the market. A bicycle is vital to many poor students who would otherwise drop out of school due to lack of transport.
Now, the questions from Hong answered, and the officials from the two agencies satisfied, Suon’s godmother applies the red ink thumbprint and Hope delivers the supplies and cash support for the month before leaving for the last visit of the day.
It’s the sort of thing Hope’s six social workers do day in and day out in all weather – and we think it’s making a difference.