Project BREAKIN: Retreat

Blog 2                    June 30, 2010                     Tiny Toones Week 3

Blog updates have still been just as difficult to fit in as they were the first two weeks.  Therefore I am going to try to once again fit a week in one blog.

Last Saturday was our staff/mentor/volunteer retreat.  The planning was very difficult for a number of reasons.  The retreat had been initially planned as a 3-4 day weekend trip.  The idea was pitched by Konrad, our Tiny Toones contact and fundraising coordinator, who unfortunately ended his post a few weeks before our arrival.  At this time we began switching contacts to Michael, the head administrator.  Unfortunately communication was not clear on all three ends.  We understood it as Tiny Toones planning the retreat in terms of target goals and contacts for speakers and team leaders where we would then do the selecting and interviewing.  Tiny Toones staff however did not communicate this during the transitioning of positions.

In the end we were able to plan a solid one day retreat of team building and a gender session to address the problems at the center.  Tiny Toones is a very male dominated place where the majority of staff are men and the majority of the volunteers are women.  A lot of times there is a bias as well as uncertainty regarding what the girls (as in mentors and students) can do and if it is ok to be done in front of the boys.  Much of this has to do with Cambodia’s culture, but at the center no one wishes to adhere to subjecting one gender to more scrutiny or causing more problems.  In any case, the majority of the young staff/mentors/volunteers were interested in having a gender session.  The organization One World volunteered to facilitate the team building sessions and the gender session was facilitated by BABSEA’s program manager Sotheary.

The retreat went well in terms of training and down time.  There was positive feedback from everyone regarding the team building, even though there were some problems when it came to interpreting what the One World volunteers wanted everyone to do.  Many people reported learning a lot from the gender session, and it was most definitely a success with the girls.  A few of the female staff and volunteers continued to speak and ask questions of Sotheary after the session and some expressed interest in having more workshops focusing solely on gender issues.

All of us were incredibly happy that we managed to pull off the retreat in three days of planning and only wish we were able to plan the full 3-4 day retreat as we’d hoped.

Although the retreat did not go exactly as we had planned, we are however instituting the weekly workshops/classes as we had hoped.  A lot of the younger staff, like the breakdance or music teachers, are not as proficient in khmer as they should be.  In some cases it’s because they were deportees and in others because the Cambodian education system and financial stability failed them.  Because of this we have tweaked our project to allow for 2 classes a week of intensive language courses to continue for a year.  At the moment, everyone is working on gauging the literary levels of the mentors who will be involved. 

This week we are focusing on interviews with the staff and dancers.  As it turns out a couple of the dance teachers don’t actually live within the capital.  Some of them are from the provinces hours away.  For many this means rarely seeing their family and having to stay at the center.  However, they all seem to not be wanting because Tiny Toones itself acts as a family, particularly the group of people who all sleep at the center.  It is a very tight knit community where in every member looks up to Kay Kay as a father figure, an employer, or a guide.  The more time I spend watching Kay Kay interact with the dancers and the kids, the more clear this becomes.

Students Helping Students

Today, I visited the Dream Project at the University of Washington and saw one example of how an institution of higher education can positively impact the community it resides in. Macalester could do a better job of addressing some of the issues faced by the Twin Cities and doing so could give us the credibility to make contributions on a broader, global level. Such efforts not only strengthen our own academic environment, but also give ourselves the resolve to offer our ideal of global citizenship to the rest of the world knowing we have not left those living closest to us behind. The Dream Project does this in a very special, yet simple way, partnering college students with high school students in an effort to brighten their future by making higher education a reality.

Dream Project consists of college students visiting local high schools once a week and mentoring them through the college application process. This simple idea has required dedication and effort from many, and as a result has grown significantly here in Seattle. It started small and simple, and has expanded to about 300 student mentors at the University of Washington and is beginning to reach out to students of all grades at an increasing number of high schools in and around Seattle. It conveys the important message to students that they can carry themselves beyond high school with their education. Repressive schools, impatient adults, and undesirable home environments have historically prevented this message from getting across, but the Dream Project has stepped in to implement it in secondary education. It has already greatly impacted the lives of individual students and the schools they attend, and will continue to grow and have an even larger impact in the future.

Some of the ranking members running Dream Project have attended national conferences on college access, where its model has become renowned. The Dream Project model is in the process of expanding to schools across the nation now, including Colorado State, Emory, and Temple University. In all, universities in eleven different states intend to acquire their own Dream Project program.

At Macalester, we have the potential to benefit local schools and have no reason not to utilize our dynamic abilities to make it happen. We currently lack the will to commit and put forth the effort to involve ourselves in the outcomes of local schools. Establishing this commitment would also strengthen our commitment to global citizenship by showing our desire to make an impact on all levels. Schools rest at the foundation of life and society. Since we know we have the ability, we all stand to gain by making efforts to support and improve the outcomes at local schools.

Day 7 Tiny Toones & Project BREAKIN

Blog Week 2       Tiny Toones Day 7            6/23/10

Up until now our first week had been too busy for us to sit down and properly write a blog.  Our days started early and ended late.  It’s practically impossible to sleep in if you live in Phnom Penh.  The bread sellers are out shouting their goods by 4:30 am and the cats and frogs scream from sun down to sun up.  Most mornings, I’m awake between 5:00 and 6:00 by the sound of kids playing and the local bread vendor. 

Usually, we start walking to Tiny Toones by 8:30.  The walk itself is an adventure.  Despite street signs, lights, and road lines, everyone seems to have their own driving etiquette. U-turns, wrong side driving, and over extended lanes are the norm on the streets of Phnom Penh.  Walking to Tiny Toones everyday takes skill in knowing when to cross and when to stop in the middle of the road like a deer caught in head lights.  Needless to say, I have not gained this skill yet.

Before I came I knew what Tiny Toones was about and what was offered, but I didn’t actually know how Tiny Toones was structured or how they balanced creative education with traditional formal education.  Because of Tiny Toones’ coeducation program of formal education and creative education, the average day at Tiny Toones extends well into the evening.  I have yet to understand the gist of the whole schedule but throughout the day until 4:00 pm English, Khmer, Art, and Computer classes are held for afternoon and morning classes.  After 4:00 are the girl DJ sessions, B Girl, and B Boy classes.  Spending a full day there is exhausting and still very exhilarating.

It’s amazing how infamous Tiny Toones has actually become.  There’s someone coming in everyday to watch the dancing or to buy merchandise.  On Tiny Toones day 4, we actually saw a full class of Australians come by the bus to see what Tiny Toones was all about.  Currently, they’re preparing for a Singapore tour and in August a tour in Italy.  We were asked to do a short video that the sponsors of their Italian tour requested.  Essentially, we would have been free to do anything we wanted, but with the message at the end saying in Khmer and Italian, “Depends on us”.  Unfortunately  with our time frame we would not be able to shoot and do the editing within the month that we are here.

Going to the center everyday this past week and a half has been just as exciting as the first.  The little kids in the morning won’t let you get past the door without a high five, a hug, or a fist bump (in true mini hip hop fashion).  They tend to call us “cher” dropping the “tea” off of “teacher”.  They all enjoy learning and especially enjoy English classes with any of the Tiny Toones volunteers.  However, do not try introducing them to a new game.  The children, although very open to learning, are very set in their own games and would rather teach you to play their games.  Of course, not a single one of them includes standing still at all.

A lot of the young children who attend the literary classes tend to wear the same clothes everyday.  Obviously it’s from a lack of funds that cause them to do this.  However, the kids themselves don’t mind and do not show any indication of sadness or discomfort because of their socioeconomic standing.  All of them come into Tiny Toones everyday with a smile, and most leave with one too.  There are a few youngsters who tend to cry at least 3 to 4 times in a day.  One of them, the son of an English teacher, is aptly named baby.

This overdue blog will need to be continued later.  It’s time for breakfast and then another day at the center.

Day 7

A lot has happened since we first arrived in Cambodia and established a connection with Tiny Toones.  With my first step in the center, I realized what an impact this organization has made to the children in Phnom Penh.  There were at least a fifty kids running, jumping and playing around.  The children had just got out of class and it was recess time.  I realized that at this place they could forget about the problems of drug abuse, violence, and poverty at home and focus on trying to experience a happy healthy childhood.  Since then, we have had plenty of interactions with the small children and have come to realize how accepting they are toward outsiders and how eager they are to learn; attitudes that were build through tiny toones.  In our first week we were asked to lead one of the kindergarten classes.  This was a whole new experience to me personally, since i do not speak the language and must interact with them on a much more visual level.  It was very difficult getting their attention and made me learn to respect the volunteers at the center who step in to fill jobs like that every day.

We have also had a lot of interactions with the older kids at the center, some of which are staff or volunteers at the center.  Many of these kids fill important roles as teachers and mentors to the younger children, helping them resolve conflicts and teaching them in the creative arts.  I found that all of them, once approached, are very supportive of our work at the center and have even acted as teachers to help us in our breakdancing.  Although most of them do not have past a rudimentary elementary school education, they do have commitment and loyalty to the center and treat every student there as a part of the family.

We arrived with a list of goals and $10,000 in order to accomplish these goals.  The first was to improve the classroom equipment, in order to improve the educational experience of the kids at the center.  Many of their books are out dated and they lack basic supplies such as markers and notebooks.  Another goal was to improve the creative arts program at tiny toones through buying new dance equipment.  This would include speaker systems and pads for the dance portion and paint and crayons for the art portion.  The third goal was to improve tiny toones’ transportation by purchasing a van.  This would help the organization extend its outreach to kids further away from the center.  Our last goal was to set up a retreat for the staff and volunteers in order to improve interactions among these members and help tiny toones run more smoothly.

From the moment we touched down in Cambodia we had problems with this outline.  First off, we lost communications with our primary contact, a man called Conrad.  Prior to our trip he had helped shape our outline and recommended certain aspects of the project.  In particular, he had told us he will plan the retreat for the staff and volunteers.  However conrad is no longer working directly for Tiny Toones and is not in the country.  We met with the other management early on: Romi an Australian who had experience working with NGOs in Thailand, and Michael, from DC, who worked for Bridges Across Borders.   Through them and touring tiny toones, we realized that we needed to reallocate some of our money toward more immediate needs.  The organization already had a van to help transport the children, a fact that we were not informed of before our trip.  This meant that approximately $3000 of the grant money and $2000 of our other funds could be allocated toward other projects.  Through our observations and the input of the staff, we realized that tiny toones needed some mass renovation to occur immediately.  There were lots of leaks and instability present in the structures, leading to leaking and rats, which would chew through cables and ruin equipment.  Since the rainy season was coming up, it would be ideal to start renovations even during our first week.  By our first day we had estimates on renovation costs and, in my opinion, a much more worthy way to spend the grant money.

The second day we hit a road bump with the renovation.  KK had gone to speak with the landlord about a three year lease on the land, since tiny toones would like to have a consistent contract before committing to renovations.  From the day KK started renting out a room from the landlord at $40 a month, the landlord had continued to jack up the prices so now tiny toones is paying $700 a month, which is more than double what they should have to pay.  In addition, the landlord abruptly changes the price from month to month, purposely keeping it inconsistent.  Worst of all, the landlord’s mother, who technically owns the property lives in Massachusetts and does not understand the conditions at tiny toones and how much this organization is dedicated toward supporting Cambodian youth.  Instead of feeling any goodwill toward tiny toones’ cause, she continues to cheat them out of hard earned money through raising prices in an illegal manner, which she can only pass off because it is situated in Cambodia.  The landlord told KK (after consulting with his mother) that he would not give them the lease, reluctant to give up the hold he had on tiny toones financial status.  Therefore, our plan to renovate tiny toones was halted.

Another problem we faced with the budget was concerning the retreat.  Initially Conrad told us he had planned out a retreat as well as a month long leadership training program and that we just needed to supply our money and support.  However, with Conrad out of the picture, we realized we needed to alter some of our plans for this portion of the project.  We decided to shorten the retreat to one day and plan it ourselves.

Michael came to us on the third day with a proposal since at this point we did not know what to do with almost half of our budget.  He was planning to set up a scholarship futures fund for the older kids at tiny toones.,  This program will support these kids as they try to make decent futures for themselves in whatever their intrests are, whether they be going to college or finding employment.  The kids would have to send in a resume and fill out an application form in order to be eligible  for the scholarship.  In addition they would have to continue volunteering at the center in order to bring something back.  We have decided to place some of our money into the fund, while Michael has given us reassurance of its legitimacy through matching our donation and agreeing to an annual input of money from tiny toones’ savings account into the scholarship fund.  However, many of the kids cannot read and write Khmer at an advanced high school level.  Therefore we have also decided to fund and support a six month intensive language class which would also become a requirement for eligibility in the scholarship fund.

In accordance with the rest of the grant money, we have asked the teachers and bought necessary supplies for each of them.  This includes art, English, Khmer, dance and music.  In addition, we also bought desks and chairs for the management staff.  This part of our project is going fairly close to as initially planned.

While at tiny toones we came across two other volunteers, Jessica and Rosa, who work for a non-profit organization called one world.  One world’s goal is to “inspire an appreciation of world cultures by educating youth though participation in a diversity of art forms from around the world” (http://www.oneworldnonprofit.org/)  These two volunteers have felt that tiny toones has not opened up to them in their work with the center.  Several of their activities have been rejected by tiny toones due to the mass of work going on and upcoming performances both in Singapore and Italy.  The conflict with the landlord which has led to a possible moving of tiny toones to a new location has also caused stress and the one world volunteers to be pushed to the side.  We approached Jessica and Rosa about leading a workshop during the day retreat we were organizing, and they are very eager to be a part of this project.  They have agreed to lead a teamwork and leadership workshop for two hours during out retreat on Saturday.  We have also contacted a Khmer expert to lead a workshop on gender roles in Cambodia and tiny toones specifically in the hopes of more gender equality and less segregation of the girls and boys within the center.  Yesterday we looked for a location to hold this retreat and found a very nice spot with a large enough area to hold the 40 staff and volunteers participating.  However, many of the participants feel that it is too expensive for this project so we are going out again today to look for a new location.  I personally believe that this location is ideal as the retreat would be more successful in a nicer location that can be distinguished distinctly from their everyday lives and therefore stay in their memory.

Our goals for this project are to support tiny toones where they feel necessary.  Our budget has been pretty flexible to accommodate unforeseen needs, such as keyboards and mice for the computers.  However, the management staff at tiny toones (Romi and Michael) have been treating our money as their own, ordering us to buy certain things not covered in our budget and pushing us to focus most of our money toward the management staff rather than the teachers.  For instance, they push for laptops for the manages while the desktops for the students are close to breaking and consistently freeze up.  They almost take our money and support for granted.  In addition, they tend to consult only among themselves for the larger decisions regarding tiny toones.  Many of the other staff are capable and have been working there much longer than these two, who frankly are foreigners.  I believe they need to foster a more cooperative group atmosphere within the organization, especially since they will only have positions at the center temporarily.

We have also been keeping video blogs of our project and will try to find a way to post them here.

College Students Can Benefit their Younger Peers

Today, I visited the Dream Project at the University of Washington and saw one example of how an institution of higher education can positively impact the community it resides in. Macalester could do a better job of addressing some of the issues faced by the Twin Cities and doing so could give us the credibility to make contributions on a broader, global level. Such efforts not only strengthen our own academic environment, but also give ourselves the resolve to offer our ideal of global citizenship to the rest of the world knowing we have not left those living closest to us behind. The Dream Project does this in a very special, yet simple way, partnering college students with high school students in an effort to brighten their future by making higher education a reality.

Dream Project consists of college students visiting local high schools once a week and mentoring them through the college application process. This simple idea has required dedication and effort from many, and as a result has grown significantly here in Seattle. It started small and simple, and has expanded to about 300 student mentors at the University of Washington and is beginning to reach out to students of all grades at an increasing number of high schools in and around Seattle. It conveys the important message to students that they can carry themselves beyond high school with their education. Repressive schools, impatient adults, and undesirable home environments have historically prevented this message from getting across, but the Dream Project has stepped in to implement it in secondary education. It has already greatly impacted the lives of individual students and the schools they attend, and will continue to grow and have an even larger impact in the future.

Some of the ranking members running Dream Project have attended national conferences on college access, where its model has become renowned. The Dream Project model is in the process of expanding to schools across the nation now, including Colorado State, Emory, and Temple University. In all, universities in eleven different states intend to acquire their own Dream Project program.

At Macalester, we have the potential to benefit local schools and have no reason not to utilize our dynamic abilities to make it happen. We currently lack the will to commit and put forth the effort to involve ourselves in the outcomes of local schools. Establishing this commitment would also strengthen our commitment to global citizenship by showing our desire to make an impact on all levels. Schools rest at the foundation of life and society. Since we know we have the ability, we all stand to gain by making efforts to support and improve the outcomes at local schools.