In February 2020, prior to the school’s opening, our team carried out a stringent process to identify and enrol over 200 impoverished students into our programs at REACH. Our team of social workers conducted house visits on prospective beneficiaries within the urban poor community surrounding our school. This process was followed by inviting the parents and students to be interviewed further and then officially enrol at the school. The main purpose of the house visits was to assess each families’ living conditions and begin profiling their basic needs. All of the information was confidentially noted by our social workers to create an assessment process which helps us to identify the most urgent cases.
This took more than one month to complete, and during this time, our team were able to gain a greater understanding of the socio-economic challenges faced by the urban poor in Siem Reap. Because of the in-depth and personal enrolment process our Social Workers were made aware of the immense struggle that each and every one of these families faced daily. This was prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent loss of many incomes, which has sadly worsened the situation.
Given the current climate, we weren’t sure when would be an appropriate time to share this documentary with our supporters. As upsetting as it is, we believe that it is important to shed light on the fact that isolating at home in safe environments is a privilege, one that many of our families do not have. We hope that by sharing this information, you will each have a deeper understanding of why we established REACH, and why we have made this commitment to these children and their families.
In order to locate the families that were in the most desperate need, our team worked with the Chief of Commune to identify the families that are categorised in “Poor Group 1” and “Poor Group 2”. Families are grouped in these categories on a case by case basis. Most commonly, the criteria for selection includes squatting, earning little to no income and incredibly poor living conditions.
While we focused on visiting these target groups, our home visits were not limited to this, as there were many cases of undocumented families living on government land that also desperately needed help. Many of these families have migrated from rural areas to be closer to the city of Siem Reap, in the hope of employment opportunities. However, our research found that despite this, over 20% of the fathers of our students are unable to find employment. Out of the fathers that were employed, approximately 25% of them worked in construction which generally brings in a meagre income of only US$2.50 a day. Some of the families that we visited, were squatting under tarpaulin or weathered tents, using makeshift scrap metal and rubbish for housing; many of the structures provide no relief during Cambodia’s drastic monsoon rain and hot and humid seasons.
In 2012, UNICEF conducted an urban poor assessment in Phnom Penh, in an urban area similar to the surroundings of REACH, which identified a staggering 43% of residents were subjected to severe violence and abuse. Within urban poor communities, children and young adults are considered the most at risk to be exploited due to the inadequately low income brought in by parents and/or guardians. Due to desperation, many underage youth begin working in unsafe environments to increase the families income. Exploitation can follow in many ways; young girls being unknowingly sold into the sex industry, trafficked across borders and forced to work underage and underpaid. One particular case that our social workers placed on our urgent case list, was that of an 8-year-old boy, who, after removal from public education, was working on a construction site for 3,000 riel per day to help his family survive. This equates to a mere $0.75c a day for hours upon hours of difficult labour in the unrelenting heat. This demonstrates the importance of understanding the backgrounds of our enrolled students, to put in preventative measures and outreach support for families, to ultimately prevent the students from dropping out of education early.
After identifying the families within the community that required our support our enrolment process moved forward to interviewing the children and classing them into our English, Maths & ethics education program. Our home visit radius was approximately 3.5km, which ensured that the children we serve would be able to attend our school safely. We also evaluated how many of these children were enrolled into the Khmer public school which is located just 350m from REACH. We aim to ensure that all of the students enrolled at REACH, where possible, are also enrolled into public school. We have begun working in close partnership with this school to ensure our students receive an all rounded, high level of education.
Following this, we conducted health checks on each of the students when they came to formally enrol at REACH. Visiting nurse Viv has been volunteering in Cambodia on and off for 7 years, extending her wealth of nursing experience to many Cambodia volunteer programs. To identify any children who may need additional medical care or attention, Viv performed basic eye tests, dental checks, took their weight and BMI alongside heart rates and blood pressure. During the consultation, many parents explained that the children had in fact no medical history, which indicates they have not been to see a doctor before. In addition to the prevalence in malnutrition, 15% of the children had suffered from dengue fever in the past. Dengue is rampant in locations that are lacking in sanitation, in particular areas with stagnant water, which in effect, causes a natural breeding ground and further rates of infection. This is a likely cause of the high rate of infection with our enrolled students due to the impoverished living conditions in the surrounding area.
In understanding our beneficiaries living conditions in conjunction with the resulting health and social effects, REACH will continuously work with the families to address the coinciding problems that they face every day. By educating both the children and their families, we will work to prevent the students of REACH succumbing to exploitative labour for temporary financial alleviation, and instead, instil the value of education that will result in long term benefits for the community.
We have now successfully enrolled over 200 students from 132 impoverished families. Although the current climate has forced a shift in our program structure, our commitment to these families is long term and unwavering. As such, we will continue to be providing monthly crisis care packages during the government mandated closure until it is safe for us to reopen.
Meeting these families and learning about each of their dire conditions was devastating, but we at REACH remind ourselves that this is only the beginning. The journey ahead will be long and arduous, but the end result of driving self-sustaining change within the community, is one we are deeply dedicated to.
We look forward to sharing positive transformations along the way and showing all of our supporters just how life-changing a hand-up and a second chance at life can be.