Why REACH needs to be more than an English school.
By Tadiwanashe Sibanda
As we enter our fourth and final quarter of the year, there’s been no shortage of reflection amongst the staff as we watch the transformation of our students right before our eyes.
Two and a half years ago, REACH barely had any walls up, and the vast majority of our students had never set foot in an NGO or received any support. 30 months on, with no shortage of ups and downs and mandated closured, we’ve successfully delivered 9 months of undisrupted English classes to our youths.
But as we always say, REACH is much more than an English school.
Cambodia charity work with the goal of providing better opportunities to impoverished children and their families.
The integration of our 10 various programs allows our students of all different capabilities, with all different backgrounds, to find their niche, and thrive at their own pace.
Beyond our English classes, we teach electives in life-skills and ethics, gardening, bike repairs, computer classes, physical education, cycling and promote creativity through dance rehearsals, singing and drawing.
Outside of our curriculum and electives, sit our outreach and health offerings, from nutritious daily school meals to emergency support, monthly rice rations and medical visits for entire families; it’s these offerings which and are key to preventing school dropouts.
A strong stories and a hard journey may hide behind every student.
We know that we have not been around long, but on reflection, the enormous strides and transformations our students have taken, give us great confidence that what we are doing is working.
When inside REACH, it’s very easy to forget the hardships our students have gone through and are going through, when you see them walk in every day with smiles, and an eagerness to learn, to play, to be with their friends.
Each student – each child at REACH has a story.
For you to best understand why we exist, and just how life-changing the past two years have been for our students, we’d like to share with you one student's incredible story of resilience and growth.
Case Study – Vireak
* Name changed for child protection purposes.
Let’s talk about our student, who is part of one of the very first families to enrol at REACH.
Vireak’s story is sobering, to say the least.
Growing up in rural poverty in Varin District, 80kms from Siem Reap city center, Vireak is the third child amongst four siblings, today he is 16 years old. From a young age, he always fondly remembers his mother as a loving, hard-working rice farmer and resilient woman.
Many Cambodians still live with the trauma when war hit the country 40 years ago.
Sadly, Vireak’s memories of his father are far from fond.
From birth, Vireak, his siblings, and his mother were subjected to an abusive and toxic life at the hands of their father. A wanton alcoholic and ex-soldier from the war, the older man had no problem inflicting daily physical and emotional abuse on all those around him.
Living in fear of her husband, Vireak’s mother was silenced and oppressed, she knew the situation was unsafe, but she was too scared to leave him.
She tolerated the abuse and tried to protect her children as often as possible.
At age 6, Vireak was awoken to the sound of yet another argument; his father was spitting verbal abuse at his mother, but this time, he had a weapon. Frightened for his mother's life, Vireak tried to diffuse the situation and bravely protect his mother. Tragically, this only escalated the situation, and Vireak’s father beat him over the head with an axe.
Without money for treatment, Vireak’s mother did not know what to do. The locals in the village believed at that time, that disinfecting the wound with gasoline would be the best way to help Vireak. And so, they treated his wound with gasoline, and waited for it to heal.
Sadly, it didn’t stop there. For the next four years, Vireak and two of his older siblings were subjected to violence at the hands of their father almost every day. For some reason, Vireak’s father never laid a hand on his youngest sister, Vireak would always wonder why.
While living in the rural countryside, enjoying childhood was not an option for Vireak and his siblings. The public school was too far away so their only option to learn was sporadically with the monks at the nearby pagoda. At 10 years of age Vireak would stay home and take care of his little sister, while his eldest siblings would toil each day in the rice fields with their mother.
Domestic violence has a high percentage among impoverished households.
By this stage, his mother was at the brink of emotional and physical exhaustion.
One day, Vireak began showing signs of a serious infection, he was showing rashes and experiencing relentless high temperatures. After several days, his mother realised the situation needed serious attention, so she packed their things and rushed Vireak to the free Kantha Bopha hospital in Siem Reap.
Here he spent more than 10 days recovering from a serious case of meningitis. It was during this time away from her husband that Vireak’s mother found the courage to leave and start a new life.
As soon as Vireak was discharged from hospital, his mother quickly returned to the village, packed up all of her children’s belongings, and escaped with her children and moved to live in Siem Reap.
It was here that she arrived 5 years ago, without a dollar to her name, desperate for work.
With a very low level of literacy and no formal education, Vireak’s mother quickly accepted work as a cleaner of a rich Khmer family. Here she worked 7 days a week; she was given a small room to share with her children, and they were sometimes able to eat the wealthy families left over food. She was paid an exploitative wage of $1.60 per day, just $50 per month.... but to this day, she still perceives this family as kind.
In her eyes, this family gave her a safe place for her children to live, and an opportunity for herself and her kids to start over.
At age 10, Vireak enrolled back into Khmer public school in Siem Reap, having missed countless years of formal education, he was placed in Grade 1 alongside his 7 year old sister. With a noticeable age gap learning amongst students nearly half his size, not long after, the bullying began.
By the time he came to REACH, Vireak was 14 years old. By this stage, understandably, he was withdrawn, timid and erratic.
When he first began with us, it wasn’t a rare occasion to see him storming out of social settings or displaying outbursts of sadness and anger.
In any other educational setting, Vireak’s behaviour early on, might have warranted suspension or even expulsion.
But what Vireak quickly learned, was that unlike most places he’d been, REACH was a safe place, a place in which his teachers were there to support him, a place entirely free from judgement and academic pressure.
He was a natural mechanic and he finally felt he had found something he was good at.
Teaching new skills to our students improve their motivation and self-steem.
Repairing bicycles for his peers gave him purpose and something to be proud of, and from there, his confidence quickly grew.
He began participating in weekly club training ride and was the first to fix a flat tyre whenever they were out on the road. As soon as he felt safe within REACH and amongst his peers, he let his guard down and began throwing himself into every program and experience.
Today, in every assembly, his voice is the one you hear above the others. It’s never difficult to find him in the crowd of students, usually surrounded by them, teaching them the words to each English song.
Our Youth Leader Seangheng fondly recalled when Vireak took to the Karaoke stage on the first night of our Side by Side ride in 2022. He proudly sung a series of his favourite songs, he was so loud and so confident, that he refused to give back the microphone. That night, he was the arguably the most outgoing teenager in sight, he had everyone in fits of laughter and his happiness was infectious...The once bullied and reserved child we’d first met was nowhere to be seen.
Our major fundraising event 'Side by Side' has been a life changing experience for our youths.
His mother often speaks of how much her son has changed – particularly after his 200km journey. She often catches him at home singing the English songs he learns from REACH, she also notes his eagerness to help, to learn and his great sense of self.
He will always be her vulnerable son whom she worries about, but his growth and development in this short time, have manifested a hope within her for a bright future for him. One where he does not have to suffer.
To this day in public school, Vireak is still a victim of bullying, as are many of our REACH student. Whether it’s the fault of what he lacks – intellectually or financially – it requires an indescribable amount of emotional strength to push through.
Within the safety of REACH, Vireak has this strength, and then some.
A graduate of our Role Models Club, he is now a key part of our Youth Pathways Sunday program and enjoys learning Computer and Boxing too.
If you’ve been to REACH, there’s no doubt in our minds that you’ve met Vireak and that he has left a lasting impression on you too. While his story warrants a lot of sympathy, it also brings about feelings of pride and admiration.
Despite having an unimaginable childhood, and carrying with him lifelong trauma, Vireak has built himself up immensely from the moment he started at REACH.
REACH isn’t just an English school.
Our goal is to create a safe space for our students to learn and grow. The realities of poverty don’t allow us to focus solely on academic achievement. For if we focused only on academics, we would be excluding the majority of our kids, who like Vireak, have missed the chance to develop from a young age.
The daily hardships and realities of our students require us to be more than just a school.
Whether it’s by immersing our students in vocational training, teaching them English, joining bikes rides or growing vegetables in the garden – each and every student at REACH is allowed a chance to grow and express themselves in a manner that poverty would normally prohibit.
The recount of Vireak’s journey at REACH so far, is just one the many inspiring and empowering stories of our students.
While we can’t pinpoint the pivotal moment in which Vireak learned self-worth and began to transform, what we can identify, is that our extra-curricular activities and experiences were a platform for his growth.
For more than 200 students, so much has happened in 2.5 years, in this short time, their entire worlds have changed, and they now have access to unconditional support.
Beyond providing REACH's families with their basic needs, we are extremely passionate about our students not only attending school, but also reclaiming their childhood, learning self-worth and above all, having fun...
This is where the Side-by-Side Ride comes in.
We are now seeking sponsorship of our next generation of REACH Riders Club kids onto our 2023 Side by Side charity bike ride.
If you’d like to provide a life-changing experience to kids just like Vireak, please consider sponsoring their place on this 200km in 2 day challenge.