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.