Friday, December 22, 2017

Hope and Opportunity: A Journey from Residential Care to Community Based Service

By Luka D’Amato

Reminding students to keep hope, "Hope School" is painted in colors
on the side of one classroom.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2017/Luka D'Amato

Break Bonggong, Kandal Province, December 2017 – It is a normal day in Kandal Province. Yet, excitement emanates from Hope School’s campus. The community based care centre is modest, but the heart and care poured into it brings it to life.

The walls of the main building and classrooms are decorated with the kids’ art and painted on with inspirational words. Looking around the grounds, recycled water bottles, painted to resemble flowers, hang along the fences and in the trees.

Ms. Un Samphors, local director of Mom’s Against Poverty, the NGO running the community centre, talks passionately about an environmental workshop, one of the sustainable programmes they are initiating. The environmental workshop is just one example of how Hope School is utilizing their resources and energy to add beauty to the lives of children, while teaching them valuable lessons and preparing them for their adult lives.

Water bottles are cut and painted to resemble flowers,
adding beauty while teaching a lesson in sustainability and crafts.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2017/Luka D'Amato

Despite their dedication to providing a welcoming, safe environment, Hope School is much more than an education outreach programme. Designed for disadvantaged children, it has transformed into a community centre with the aim of reuniting families and providing children of all ages with the support they need to better their lives and become productive members of society.

The organization helps kids go to school by providing school supplies, uniforms, and lunch and dinner. They also help the children obtain a more comprehensive education by paying fees for additional classes not covered by the public school, like English courses. They help students who have been left behind catch up with their coursework and offer vocational classes—teaching students everything from computer skills and English, to sewing and music.

One Participant of a vocational training program practices traditional sewing,
learning a trade that se can utilizing in her future.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2017/Luka D'Amato

“We want to give the kids new skills, both the boys and girls. When they go back to society, they will be the main people that can help others and their families,” said Samphors, “It is more than just [preparing them for] jobs – it is expressing their emotions, a release.”

Before Hope School’s creation, the organization operated as a residential care institution (RCI), providing long-term care, including housing children and adolescents. However, most of the children living under their roof had families they could live with. After learning more about the damaging effects that institutionalization has on kids, Samphors decided to transition to a community-based service model.

“I went to other places that had transitioned. I thought to myself ‘great, why don’t I do this?’ After getting more information, and knowing we would have help with making the change, we began to do it,” Samphors said.

A teacher at Hope School uses computers to help teach her students.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2017/Luka D'Amato

Yet, this was only the beginning of their journey. Facing many obstacles, they struggled to transition. Their first roadblock was their donors; they would never be able to operate if they could not ensure that they would stay funded.

“Eventually, after talking to our donors, they trusted us to make the change. . . Now, we have more money and more activities for the kids,” Samphors said.

Another major difficulty was reuniting the children with their families. Many disadvantaged Cambodians believe that their children will have greater access to education and an increased quality of life if living in an RCI. However, many do not understand the negative effects that institutionalization can have on children.

“We had difficulty convincing the parents or relatives of the kids to make the change. Often, they did not understand, or did not care,” said Un.

To overcome this challenge, Hope School turned to other organizations supporting the national effort to reduce RCIs and reunite families. With technical support from UNICEF, the government, and other NGOs working within the Partnership Program for the Protection of Children (3PC), they informed families on the importance of their children living with them.
Yet, convincing parents was not their only barrier. “Some kids were reluctant to go home because of issues they had at home. This meant I had to bring people together to discuss these issues with them,” said Sat Sithy, Chief of the Child Welfare Bureau from the Provincial Department of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation (DoSVY), in Kandal province.

With the provincial government and UNICEF’s support, they gained the tools and knowledge to transition to a more beneficial, productive and sustainable model. In their new approach to alternative care, they would reconnect children with their families—or find them foster parents, stop housing children, and then refocus their resources to provide more aid and opportunities to the children through expanding areas like vocational training. “It took two years to change. It was not easy,” said Un. Despite the difficulty, “Parents feel better and better. At the beginning it was stressful, but we found ideas to make it better. We follow up every week and visit the houses. It is busy, but it is getting easier. We think more and more, and it is getting better,” she continued.

One of the families who was reunited with help from Hope School.
The family continues to receive support through regular checkups,
financial aid and access to other services provided by Hope School.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2017/Luka D'Amato

Adapting ultimately proved to be the right decision. Rather than loosing funding, Hope School has more funding and resources, improving their ability to help the children in their care. After reuniting families and no longer providing residential care, Hope School also has more space to think about how to help the children. With their new creative energy and greater resources, Hope School provides more services, extending their ability to prepare children for success. Samphors is particularly proud of a new aquaponics program that they are preparing to teach, which will expand opportunities for students.

While initially taking a lot of energy and resources, Hope School and the children it helps care for are better off. Both the government and Hope School have gained valuable knowledge in reintegrating families and implementing a more fruitful approach to care.
“Because of our technical experience, we can overcome these challenges, like engaging support from communities. . . Now, we are ready to address these issues,” Sat said. Sat is proud of the experience they gained and expressed his desire to help other organizations make the change as well.

Phouk Sary, a government social worker supported by UNICEF, is assigned to children at Hope School, in his visits, he has observed that many of the initial problems facing Hope School’s transition had been solved.

“The kids seem happier now that they can go home. No one is reluctant to go back to their families,” said Sary. “They maintained the quality of services and education after the transition,” he added.

Hope School has reunited families through a variety of techniques, including providing financial support and helping parents find jobs. “I feel more comfortable living with my mother. I feel like I can have the warm care that I need,” said one child at Hope School.

Samphors tells the story of a group of boys who grew up living in the slums, picking through trash to survive. She talks about their anger, frustration, and difficulties in attending school. Thanks to aid from Hope School, the young men learned to play music at an art school. They formed a metal band, and with help from a teacher at Hope School, have been learning how to promote their music through social media. Now, they make music videos and play several gigs every week. The band practices in Hope School’s improvised recording studio, where students can play instruments.

Members of Doch Chkae and a teacher at Hope School stand together.
The band who has worked hard to better their lives,
finding opportunities at Hope School.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2017/Luka D'Amato

The boys look like members of a heavy metal band, but the image Samphors gave of their anger seems to have faded. They are smiling—excited to show off their music. Hope School provides more than a place to eat, do homework, and receive vocational training, they offer positive channels for emotional expression and development.

What is most striking about Hope School’s story is their success in not just providing community support, but being a community. Since transitioning from an RCI to a community-based service facility, Hope School has gained the resources, expertise, and space to care for both the collective and individual needs of the children and their families. What the children need is family care alongside support mechanisms; like education, vocational training and hope for a brighter future—all things Hope School can now provide.

Bottles add structure to the building and showcase a sustainable initiative.
This area left uncovered by concrete adds light
and fresh air to the classroom, while keeping it cool. 
© UNICEF Cambodia/2017/Luka D'Amato

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