It was 2004. Tania Palmer left her idyllic home of Byron Bay, Australia to Siem Reap, Cambodia, after responding to an article about children in need. A 'natural parenting' business owner, Tania already had a soft spot for children and a desire to improve the lives of kids around the world. However, in Cambodia, she specifically saw the tragic plight of many children forced to the streets to beg, often carrying their younger brothers and sisters to increase the sympathy of tourists passing by. Some slept under tarps by the river or in very poor housing. Child trafficking and a litany of physical and mental health problems were among some of the inevitable outcomes in store for the children without someone's intervention. Unknown to her at the time, Tania's heart would be permanently touched, and her return to Australia would be short lived. After a brief time back in Australia, not feeling right in her own skin, knowing the plight of all of these kids she had seen... she soon returned to Cambodia.
At first, Tania began by simply providing meals to the street kids. However, food for five children quickly became 30, and Tania began thinking about getting the kids into school. As formal schools all refused to admit the street kids, Tania instead rented a space and hired a teacher to provide make-shift education. At a later time she saw the landlord of the rented building screaming at the children, and this proved to be a pivotal turning point. This extended trip would turn into something much longer as it was clear to her that the children needed ongoing protection and help.
Fast forward 14 years. Tania, together with her husband Rem and a dedicated Green Gecko Project NGO team have provided 124 children with housing, food, health care, high quality education in Khmer private schools, work experience, and now for some who have graduated high-school - a university education. Some of these former street kids are now pursuing law, dentistry and business degrees.
Many residential NGOs struggle to ensure their children are effectively reintegrated back into their local communities with the skills needed to thrive. And indeed, UNICEF is increasingly pressuring NGOs to be more fully integrated with the community. Education, while crucial, is only part of the equation. Work experience provides increased assurance that Geckos will have the skills, work ethic and experience they will need to obtain effective employment after they graduate.
Many of the Green Gecko children expressed a desire to give back to their local communities, and even form their own NGOs in the future and so Gecko Action was born. One of the many challenges afflicting Cambodia is the lack of government provided rubbish collection. While private companies are hired by the wealthy or those businesses catering to tourists, much of the country's garbage simply ends up in rivers, ditches, streets and yards. The Green Gecko Project organisation tackles this problem from a couple of angles. Gecko Action kids support trash clean-ups by volunteering time to collect garbage around the community and ensure it is disposed of properly. Also the Green Gecko Project spun off a separate social enterprise as well, called "Rehash Trash".
Rehash Trash was formed as many of the Green Gecko children's parents were unemployed, in need of social support and empowerment. Rehash Trash collects plastic bags, washes them and creates beautiful handcrafted products from the re-used materials. Their products are found in local hotels, as well as sold in the local Made in Cambodia Market and their own store front. Importantly, the women involved in the program are learning English, receive counselling and are growing in their own self-confidence due to their income and interaction with tourists, teaching visitors their skills. Very positive results have been seen within the women's families due to their empowerment through this program.
Tania is also unable to say no to helping out other local social causes. Her boundless enthusiasm and support has been thrown behind other spin-off community outreach initiatives, such as TNAI SAMRAP SREY (TSS). TSS is a community outreach program that supports Khmer girls and young women with feminine health education and provides reusable feminine hygiene products to girls who otherwise would miss whole weeks at school or work. TSS has distributed thousands of ‘Days for Girls’ hygiene kits to Cambodian females under the slogan "Every Girl. Everywhere. Period", with the wonderful support of many Australian ‘Days for Girls’ chapters.