Most schools in Cambodia demand daily “fees” from students to attend class, even though state schools are meant to be free. Underpaid teachers struggle with few resources. Little is learnt in these crowded classrooms. For children from slums, many have to work after school, with no time for studying.
But a good education opens up a child’s future. It’s more than just better job opportunities. An education means children can make smarter choices. They’re less likely to get tricked into trafficking, and they’ll be better parents, breaking the cycle of poverty in Cambodia.
Our Education Programs have been extremely successful and at the end of 2010 we had more than 500 children enrolled in our educational programs. We work closely with the dozen schools our children attend across Phnom Penh to help them integrate socially and keep up academically.
We find vocational training and other nontraditional education for the children who are too old or struggle academically at school.
Under our Education programs, we have the Get Ready programs for teenage girls and boys, School Support, Afterschool Tuition, Kindergarten, Smartypants Scholarships and Turtle Track classes, as well as English classes, Football, Gymnastics, Traditional Dance, Breakdancing and Choir.
Find more about our Programs and their costs per child with our RK Programs.
Getting children into school is surprisingly easy. It’s keeping them there that takes work! We help get children registered, then negotiate school “fees” to be paid directly each month to the school so the children aren’t frightened or ashamed to go to class.
Every September, there’s a flurry of activity as we organise over a thousand school uniforms
plus books, bags, stationery and everything else needed to pack hundreds of children off to school.
Each month, we co-ordinate with the schools to record attendance and grades so we can keep an eye on struggling students and provide counselling and meet with families.
We run afterschool classes for Grades One, Two and Three so the children have a solid
Older children can opt for a fun class like Breakdancing or English class to keep them coming back to Riverkids and close to their friends.
Kindergartens are rare in Cambodia, and unheard of in the slums of Phnom Penh. The kindergartens at Alexandra, Compassion and Kilomet-Six offer a well-rounded Cambodian language curriculum that builds creativity, cooperation and confidence in the children aged five to eight years old who come for class and snacks each day.
The children learn the basics of reading and writing in Khmer, as well as playing games, drawing and colouring, making puppets, fingerpainting and all the little joys of kindergarten under the careful eyes of our trained Kindergarten teachers and assistants.
For families, Kindergarten means a safe place to take care of their children instead of forcing an older sibling to skip school to look after them.
Riverkids has seen more than 60 of our little guys and girls go on to state school, and they are doing much better than their peers thanks to their early preparation!
Get Ready Girls
Our Get Ready program prepares teenage girls between 11 and 21 years old who are highly at risk for trafficking and exploitation through intensive training to return to school, start vocational training or apprentice at safe jobs.
The program runs for three to 12 months, and covers Khmer language and basic math lessons, social and work skills, as well as breakfast and lunch.
Each program is small, with just 12 to 15 girls so they can support each other. Their families receive aid to replace the teenagers’ lost income from working on the streets at night so the teens can concentrate on class instead of being pressured to drop out.
For some girls, it’s only a few months and they’re full of confidence and ready to return to
school. Other girls need intensive counselling and training before they dare to imagine a different future to being sold.
We’ve seen more than 60 girls graduate from Get Ready with an 85 percent success rate.
Get Ready Boys
Teenage boys are tough to reach. People see them as problems, not children in crisis and there are far fewer programs than for teenage girls.
The Get Ready program was adapted for teenage boys when we realised that the older brothers of our students were working in gangs, on drugs or selling sex on the streets because they had no hope after dropping out of school.
Like the Get Ready for Girls, our Boys program bridges the gap between at-risk teenage boys who are not ready for formal work training or employment. It gives them a chance to go back to school or to find safe employment.
We’ve placed our Get Ready for Boys graduates in apprenticeships and training at motorbike, air-conditioning, phone repair and tailoring shops.
With patience and support, our angry gangster teens have become good brothers and sons. They’ve given up drugs for school, left gangs for football teams, and found their own better futures.
The Smartypants Scholarships are awarded to the top three percent of students at Riverkids. Our first batch of scholars consisting of 12 boys and girls benefitted in the 2010/2011 academic year.
They are both academically gifted and hardworking students. The scholarship funds a year’s school fees at a private school with high academic standards in Phnom Penh, schoolbooks, bags, stationery and uniforms.
Because the scholarship costs are relatively high compared to state school, we decided to limit them so we could send more children to state schools.
With stronger academic tuition, including English language, these 12 children have the opportunity to achieve higher grades and a path out of the slums into university.
We offer free Afterschool Tuition for all our children in grades one to three, to give them help with homework that they can’t get at home. When our children reach grade four, we welcome them into English, Computer, Arts and Sports classes to widen their horizons and encourage them to excel.
But for some of our children, school just isn’t easy. Learning disabilities and years of missed school can leave them far behind their peers. Turtle Track is a small friendly classroom with a patient teacher who will work with the lowest 20 percent of our students. Regular tuition in small groups will help them catch up and stay in school.
Just like Aesop’s turtle, these children can reach the end of the race — they just need extra encouragement along the way.
A health crisis like a road accident or chronic health problems like HI V and tuberculosis can spiral a family into debt and trafficking. Malnourishment and ill health means children fall behind at school, crippling their futures.
Riverkids works on basic healthcare, especially cost-effective preventive care like immunisations and testing, and better nutrition through multi-vitamins, extra meals and training.
Thanks to a wide network of health partners, we’ve been able to find free or subsidized healthcare for families with HI V, tuberculosis, physical disabilities, mental illness and other severe health issues.
Riverkids provides free medical care to all children in our programs, and assistance to adults in their families according to a sliding scale.
Part of our work is accompanying children and families to help them get medical care. For poor Cambodians, a visit to the doctor might mean a “fee” just to get seen. Hospitals rarely provide basics like towels and water, so Riverkids makes sure that a family member can accompany the child by paying for meals, transport, medicine and missed work.
Under our Health programs, we have Baby Bellies, Preventive Care, Community Nursing, Foodboxes, Pregnancy Care, and Health Workshops.
Babies and children undergo amazing physical growth before the age of six. That’s when nutrition is vital for their brains and bodies to develop normally. We screen our children under six for underweight and malnourished children. Some are hungry because dire poverty forces their mothers to stretch a can of milk powder for a month by watering it down. Others are neglected because of abuse or struggle to gain weight due to illnesses like cerebral palsy or diarrhoea.
Our nurse evaluates each child and works with the baby’s family to improve the baby’s care with extra nutrition and training on health and parenting.
For less than $1 a day, we’ve seen tiny tired babies turn into chubby cheerful children in a few months. For little ones, that can mean more food for a breastfeeding mother or extra cans of milk powder, while toddlers thrive on extra eggs and fresh fruit.
Being a nurse at Riverkids means a lot of walking. Hard lives mean our families rarely think to ask for help, so when children miss school, we need to go to their homes and find out why.
Our senior nurse takes special care to ask around for pregnant and new mothers, knowing what a huge difference prenatal care can make for a healthy delivery.
Preventive care for children means regular dental check-ups, extra vitamins for malnourished children, and organising immunisations. Working closely with our teachers, we’ve been able to improve the health of hundreds of children.
We can provide basic first aid and care such as wound dressing and medical supplies both on-site in our nurse’s room, and when we visit families.
Visiting a family at home is an opportunity to share better health practices and identify hidden health problems. It builds trust and helps us keep children healthy and safe.
Social Work is the thread that binds all our other programs together. Our social workers find children and families at risk, and match them to the programs that will help them the most.
The social workers are out and about most days, walking through the slums to visit families and chat with neighbours. They slip off their shoes and crawl inside a shack to listen quietly as a battered woman pours out her heart and asks for help.
Our social workers have to be detectives. Child trafficking is illegal and abuse is hidden in shame. With patience and care, our social workers need to piece together what’s really happening in a family. Otherwise, well-intentioned help can make things worse.
With more than 600 children and families enrolled in our program in 2011, there’s a lot of paperwork to keep organised and our social workers rely on detailed casefiles and care plans to make sure that none of our children slip through the cracks.
Under our Social Work programs, we have Social Work, Casefiles, Weekly Boarding, Foster Care and the Baby Room.
A bright airy room at Alexandra is full of toddlers and babies being watched over by housemothers who have been trained in childcare and first aid.
They hand out fruit slices and milk bottles in the morning, bathe and change the children and put them down for naps when they’re worn out from playing with each other and all the bigger children who come pouring in to the room during recess to play with and read to the babies.
The Baby Room means our parents can go to work and training without having to pull an older child out of school to watch the baby. Overnight care continues under our Foster Care program at home.
Sometimes, the Baby Room is a short-term help such as when two little ones who spent their days safe with us while their mother worked up the courage to leave her violent husband.
Our weekly shelter is a vital refuge for children experiencing severe abuse at home or a family crisis such as a seriously ill parent.
The children stay Mondays to Saturdays under the care of our housemothers, with weekends at home with their families or foster families. They’re able to stay at school and see family and friends with minimum disruption during a difficult time. Most of our weekly boarders stay for less than a month, reuniting with their families after the crisis has passed.
Teenage girls share a room, while younger children are divided by gender in other rooms. Weekly Boarding for teenage boys will open soon at Blum.
For abused children, legal removal is difficult in Cambodia without documented severe injuries or the family’s agreement. Temporary weekly care offers some protection and gives us time to counsel the family without risking the child’s safety.
Our social workers are our eyes and ears. Playing a critical frontline role, they work directly with children and families. We have two teams: Crisis and Support.
Our Crisis team focuses on high-risk families who are deeply troubled and need urgent help now. From frequent home visits, to organising counselling and care, the social workers aim to stop the crisis before a child is trafficked or abused.
In cases such as child rape, our job is to help the family find aftercare and restoration, helping them navigate the police and hospitals and looking to heal their damaged families.
Our Support team monitors all our families, tracking potential problems and referring them to the Crisis team before they escalate. The Support team has to work closely with every other department at Riverkids to make sure programs work smoothly together. The work is intense and difficult, requiring compassion and calm against horrifying acts of abuse.
We make a promise to every child that enters our programs: we won’t give up on you. That means when a family moves away from the slums or a child gets in trouble with the police, we don’t stop helping.
It can mean travelling to the new area where they live, finding a partner NGO to help them, and sometimes simply keeping their place in the program open until they can come back from the provinces. For our older students, it means organising transport to the high school or training program they’re enrolled in so they don’t give up and drop out.
We have around 40 to 50 children currently in our Little Birds program. Most of them are living too far from our sites to attend programs there, so instead we enroll them in their nearby school and our social workers go to visit them regularly. When there’s a crisis, we’re only a phone call away to help.
A group of mothers from the community and some of the teenage girls in Bright Girls, a small co-op, chatted cheerfully as they fulfilled another order for a fair trade shop in Australia. Nearby, another group of women crowd around sewing machines, listening intently to their trainer.
Most of our families are very poor. Without a stable income or savings, every crisis becomes desperate. School and healthcare for children are luxuries.
Finding safe jobs and vocational training for troubled adults with no skills is challenging, especially in Phnom Penh where job competition is fierce.
Many of them struggle with a regular schedule and strict workplace rules. The lure of “easy money” from dangerous jobs like sex work and drug dealing is hard to fight.
Our Work & Income team works holistically on social skills and family care as well as financial training. Preparation is critical for microloans and training. A woman about to start a six-month hairdressing course needs to know she can feed her children and that she has support from friends and family — or she is much more likely to give up.
Under our Work & Income programs, we now have Business and Finance Training, Community Loans, Helping Hands Clubs, Direct Credit Aid and the Bootstraps Program.
Many of our families can’t get credit because they don’t have ID papers, any assets or regular income. That drives them to neighbourhood moneylenders who charge up to 1,200 percent interest. A $50 debt in an emergency can balloon to more than $500 in a year, driving a family to sell their children.
We have developed three types of community loans to meet the needs of our families: business, training and emergency loans.
Our emergency loans are for crises like urgent surgery or to buy out debts at exorbitant rates. Buying out bad debts before they turn into enormous sums stops them from selling a child.
Our business and training loans have helped some families lift their families out of desperate poverty.
These loans, with a simple 10 percent annual rate and frequent small repayments, come with close supervision and screening. Support and encouragement from our staff to a struggling family is as critical as the loan.
Our Bootstraps scholarships help women commit to vocational training by sponsoring training fees and income replacement so they can concentrate on their training and new jobs.
We’ve seen more than 60 women already graduated into safe jobs in hairdressing, housekeeping, cooking and sewing. We have a waiting list of women eager for a second chance.
It’s always easier to face the future with friends. The women from Bootstraps are drawn from our Helping Hands clubs. We now have two clubs for young women aged 16 and up who are involved in the sex trade, one club for those with children and one for single sex workers.
Gently supported by volunteers and social workers, the Helping Hands Clubs bring them together to talk and bond. Outings to fun places like the waterpark or behind-the-scenes at a restaurant give them a chance to be ordinary young women and see new opportunities.
Thanks to the friendships they’ve formed, they have the support they need to succeed in Bootstraps.