A letter from AllKids Country Director Paul Otto
28th July 2020
Dear friends What a strange time we are living through with the coronavirus and subsequent restrictions and regulations. Here at AllKids, it has been a challenge adapting our educational programs to the many directives from government ministries here in Cambodia. Ironically, some of these changes have brought unexpected benefits including improved efficiency and better learning outcomes for the children. It has been a steep learning curve!
On March 16th, the Cambodian Government closed all schools, learning and daycare centres. This occurred only two weeks prior to the annual Khmer New Year holiday so most of our teachers were asked to take accrued annual leave. A week before the scheduled holiday, the Government cancelled the break fearing that allowing workers to travel to their home provinces would increase the spread of the virus. It was announced only last week that the holiday will now occur from 17th to 21st August. It looks likely that public schools will only reopen in November, the usual start of the Cambodian school year so most children will have missed 60% of the school year and possibly have to repeat their current grade.
I was concerned that the children who usually attend our two AllKids day care houses were not receiving proper nutrition and healthcare, so the staff and I set up a food drop program. These kids are highly vulnerable, living in abject poverty and commonly victims of alcoholism and domestic violence. Every week we delivered fresh vegetables, meat and rice to the families of our day care children, a different village each day. Each week I visited the local dumpsite and I was distraught and angry to see many children I’ve known for years, as young as 6 years old, digging through piles of rotting garbage in search of recyclables. However, after three months of visiting, I gradually came to understand why these families have chosen to live in such a dismal environment. There are now around 80 families living on the site and in their quest for self-determination, they have built an odd community in which they have a strong sense of belonging. These people simply don’t fit into normal society.
The staff were given the option of returning to work on April 20th and they all returned, agreeing to abide by strict hygiene and social distance measures. We then began designing and preparing homestudy packs for all 450 kids in 12 different villages. Our teachers delivered the packs weekly and held small group classes at various homes. After two months, we collected all the sheets and calculated each student’s average to use as our June assessment. This information has now been entered into our student data base so we can ensure that each child is studying at their correct level.
In early July, the Cambodian Ministry of Social Affairs allowed us to reopen our two day care houses to our most vulnerable children. I was particularly keen to get the dump kids back into a healthy and positive environment. At the larger Smach Deng Day Care House, we had decided that we could accept 35 children whilst maintaining social distancing and strict hygiene standards. On the day we reopened, a further 20 kids from the dump arrived unannounced throwing our plans into chaos. I wasn’t willing to send any of them back to the dump, so we immediately reopened the Learning Centre to accommodate the extra numbers. Since that day, we have delivered English, Khmer, math, science and art programs for 50 particularly disadvantaged kids attending four hours each day. The majority are from the dump and I am pleased to have them in our daily care rather than spending their days digging through rotting garbage.
At our smaller Kbal Hong day care house, we decided to set up a small learning centre for the local kids. Kbal Hong is a remote community about a 25-minute drive from our base at Smach Deng Village. I didn’t want to risk spreading coronavirus from one community to another, so it seemed sensible to give the 120 children at Kbal Hong, access to educational programs within their own community. We removed a few walls, installed community hand washing facilities and updated the bathrooms to accommodate the students whilst adhering to the World Health Organisation’s guidelines on coronavirus safety. We are currently operating 12 classes daily with a maximum of 10 students per class.
We also opened a small kindergarten program for the pre-school kids in Kbal Hong village which has been very well accepted by the locals. A local resort, Koh Krabey, has helped us create a small organic garden project on the site that encourages and teaches the kids how to grow fresh vegetables. Two young girls have capitalized on the situation by setting up a fruit stall outside the centre’s gates selling guava, green mangoes and pomegranate served with salt and finely chopped chilli. Today the atmosphere at our Kbal Hong centre is vibrant with all the activity within and kids playing football and volleyball outside while they wait for their classes to begin.
In the meantime, we still have another 290 young children still waiting to return to normal programs. With our teachers now engaged for several hours each day with classes for the day care kids and preparing the home study packs, it’s fallen upon the outreach team and me to hold the small classes in the villages. Each morning we spend around four hours running up to 6 small classes outside of private homes. It’s the wet season now so some days are challenging. The Pajero donated by MGA Whittles currently spends more time in 4-wheel drive than 2. However, most days are a pleasure, commonly sitting under a large mango tree teaching these delightful children.
Rather than following the news channels daily, I have made it my rule to open only the World Health Organisation’s daily situation reports which I do at 6 am each morning. At least once a week I hold coronavirus updates for all staff to ensure that they remain vigilant. To date, 2 Cambodia has been extremely lucky with relatively few infections and no recorded deaths. However, I can see by WHO’s statistics that the pandemic has a long way to play out yet.
The public education system in Ream is poor to say the least but I’m really keen to see the kids back at school and to reestablish normal programs for all children at the AllKids Smach Deng Learning Centre. It looks like we’ll be able to reopen our Future School computer laboratory by August and I’m confident that we’ll be able to reopen the entire centre, albeit with restrictions and strong hygiene processes, for all students by the end of August.
Under normal circumstances, September/October is the main annual school holiday period. AllKids staff are busy planning our 2020 careers education program for our students nearing the end of their high school education. The program introduces students to a range of careers available in Sihanouk Province and includes vocational training options. The careers education program will be followed by a very special Young Entrepreneurs program hosted by our friends from Six Senses, Koh Krabey Resort. The program is aimed at high school leavers that are interested in operating their own businesses and will provide practical information as well as fostering innovation.
This period has been reminiscent of the early days of AllKids back in 2012/13 when a young operations manager Hakly and I spent many days on old moto-scooters visiting families all over Ream (nearly 100 square/km) and assessing the need for educational services. I have thoroughly enjoyed getting back out into the villages and reconnecting with the families whom AllKids support.
I look forward to meeting family and friends back in Australia, but it looks like my next visit may be some time off. I am however quite happy (and lucky?) to be in Cambodia. Interestingly the coronavirus seems to have strengthened ties between AllKids and the Ream Community and the staff and I are made very welcome wherever we go. It’s clear that parents want their children to receive the education that they sadly missed out on.
My very sincere thanks for your loyal support that is allowing AllKids to maintain a position of positiveness and strength throughout a very uncertain time. I know that many of you have been adversely affected by the coronavirus and subsequent economic slowdown. I can only hope that at the end of the pandemic, we can all draw on some positive outcomes that will enhance our lives in the future.
Paul Otto AllKids Country Director