REACH’s programs have been methodically designed with a solid purpose; to break long-standing, intergenerational poverty cycles.
Although we talk about this goal frequently, it is imperative that we continually evaluate our programs by assessing the impact that they are having on our families. Whilst we can systematically collect data, carry out surveys, and track our findings, it is the organic offering of this information by determined mothers and fathers that tell us the most.
Returning from a recent house visit, our social worker was almost in tears over the conversation she had just had with one of our resilient mothers, Lyna*.
This is Lyna’s story.
2014, rural Thailand. Due to scarce employment opportunities in Cambodia, Lyna and her husband were forced to cross the border into Thailand with nothing but their 2 young children in tow, in the hope of finding work. Undocumented and holding only small change in their pockets, the illegal act of crossing the border posed a risk of imprisonment, but they simply believed they had no other choice.
Growing up whilst the country was absorbing the aftershocks of the civil war, Lyna had no access to basic education past grade 4, dropping out of school and joining the labor force to financially support her family. As an illiterate adult living in poverty, she believed that the societal future for her family had already been mapped out. And so, herself and her husband left the rural countryside and went in search of manual labor work, eventually securing employment on a Thai construction site.
With no passports, their young children were illegal residents, which meant that enrolling in a school was not a viable option. Lyna and her husband knew no one to assist with childcare in Thailand, consequently, the dangerous construction site became their children’s playground. A typical 12-hour day on the construction site for the parents would include hauling cement up buildings, erecting scaffolding, and securing roofing panels by walking unattached, across thin metal poles 20ft above the ground, holding their breath and desperately hoping not to make one wrong step. These arduous working conditions were amplified by the seasonal conditions of monsoon downpours, searing heat, and claustrophobic humidity.
Their bodies ached daily, and the back-breaking labor took its toll on Lyna’s petite 5ft frame. To add to the physical strain, Lyna became pregnant with her third child, and had no choice but to continue with her taxing job during her pregnancy. After years of witnessing his parents’ struggle, when their eldest son reached around 12 years old, he would often help his parents complete their tasks on the site to guarantee that the family would receive their monthly salary of approximately $150.
Exhausted from their 70-hour working weeks, the parents suffered crippling anxiety over the safety of themselves and their now 3 children. Operating heavy machinery from great heights with no protective gear, having had little sleep, and surviving on a bland diet with a lack of nutritional value; their chance of being involved in an accident was very high. Despite their sacrifices, the monetary gain was barely enough to keep their children fed.
This is how Lyna, her husband, and their young children struggled for six long years.
Although Lyna did not have the opportunity to complete school herself, she felt guilty and responsible that her children were illiterate. Both Lyna and her husband recognised that completing their education would give their children more opportunities, and so, they made the decision to return to Cambodia so that their children could re-enroll back in school after 6 years of no formal schooling.
The family returned to Thlok Andoung, Siem Reap in January 2020, where they set up a makeshift shelter on a small piece of land that belonged to one of their relatives. With little more than wooden planks to sleep on and tin roofing for protection, our social workers noted the poor living conditions whilst they were conducting home visits for enrolments and went to interview the family.
Lyna and her husband were delighted that their children would not only be enrolled in public school, but also have a chance to study English at REACH.
It was then, that she knew they had made the right decision to return.
Things were going well for Lyna and her family. Her children were so happy returning to government school, making friends, and being able to act their age, whilst herself and her husband had managed to secure jobs and earn a basic income. However, only 2 months later, the economic repercussions of COVID-19 rendered both parents redundant and all schools were immediately closed.
To complicate things further, Lyna had just found out the news that she was pregnant again and would have one more mouth to feed.
She was then faced with a choice that would determine the future of her family. The Thai construction site had contacted Lyna and asked her family to return. The choice: to return to Thailand with her family to a guaranteed income, and the guarantee that this would be the fate for her children, or to stay, knowing that her children would have the opportunity to be educated and break free from intergenerational poverty…
During this time, REACH’s bicycle club program became a core facilitator to safely maintain our engagement with vulnerable youths during the pandemic. Lyna’s two teenage children were two of the first students to be enrolled in the club. They joined the daily club rides with their friends, cycling through the ancient temples and along bumpy roads in the green countryside- a far cry from life on the construction site.
Showcasing their hardworking and polite natures that had clearly been instilled by their parents, Lyna’s two children were enrolled to become REACH Role Models. They began volunteering their time at REACH in the garden, cooking, rice packing, and fixing bicycles in the repairs shop. In exchange for their volunteer work in Cambodia, at REACH and within the community, as role models, Lyna’s children received emergency stipends which would go towards their extra lessons at school.
Lyna made the decision for her family to stay. She made this decision because she felt like she had a CHOICE. From the continued engagement with her family and the opportunities for her children, she understood that her children would be supported to continue their education.
Her 2 youths were further selected to participate in the Side by Side ride, cycling 200kms in 2 days to raise money for their own community. In addition to the lead up months of club rides, they camped next to a picturesque lake, devoured an all you can eat buffet, sang and danced on the stage during the evening celebrations, before watching fireworks light up the sky as a special acknowledgement for their achievements. On the final day of the event, Lyna was one of the first parents to arrive, proudly waiting to cheer loudly as her two children crossed the finish line.
Lyna’s family received emergency food provisions during the school’s closure which ensured that her children did not go to bed starving. She also had basic medical care, visiting the clinic twice with our social workers to diagnose and treat minor ailments and monitor her new pregnancy. Herself and her family had access to the basic human needs that they had gone so long without.
Lyna’s story is just one example of why we have worked SO hard to stay engaged with our families during this unprecedented time. Had it have not been for their involvement in REACH’s programs, Lyna told our social worker, the outcome would have been very different.
Her two teenage children would become the next generation to secure roofing panels by walking unattached, across thin metal poles 20ft above the ground, holding their breath and desperately hoping not to make one wrong step. Instead, every step they are taking, is a step towards a bright future. Their certificates of achievement from REACH, hang proudly above the cot of their beautiful, newborn sister, symbolising the beginning of positive, sustainable change for Lyna’s family.
*Lyna gave full permission to share her story, but we have changed her name for child protection purposes.