Cambodia's SuperMom And the Story of Siem Reap's Former Street Children

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.

(TOP LEFT) Children line-up in roll-call at Green Gecko Central, awaiting to board the truck that will bring them to school (BOTTOM LEFT). These grade 5 and 6 kids are of various ages, pending when they started with Green Gecko Project. Some won’t graduate high school until well into their 20s... but it doesn't matter. Their finishing school is the most important, and Green Gecko places high value on education. (RIGHT) One of the Green Gecko kids enjoys a recess break and chance to shoot some hoops between class.
(ABOVE) Homework is important within the Green Gecko Project. After shower time, and putting on their very bright, fun and squeaky clean pyjamas, it's time for homework. But before the books come out, the kids first have ”Traffic Lights”, where a few minutes are spent in quiet meditation to calm their minds for the concentration ahead.
Here, one of the older 'children', now a vocational education student, returns to Green Gecko to speak to the younger kids still in the program at a weekly assembly.
One Sunday in June 2018, it's a scorching 36 degrees, and feels like 41 with humidity. Sundays are chore days for the kids, where homes must be cleaned and yards tidied. Raising a family of 124 isn't easy, let alone one with literally dozens of teenagers. "Mum" (all the kids call her this) is yet to arrive, and although I am there to photograph the day's proceedings, work is off to a slow start. But not for long. Soon Tania's vehicle rolls up to the yard. And when it’s time to get unmotivated teenagers cracking, her powerful voice and fiery energy kick-starts everyone into action. (LEFT) The yard becomes a veritable bee-hive of activity. A group of kids clean up, brush and roll a fallen coconut tree trunk to a better spot for chopping and removal. (RIGHT) A Gecko Kid cools off with a block of ice.
A traditional wooden Cambodian home is clean and simple. It is the daily routine to fold sleeping blankets and pillows which are neatly stacked until the next evening. This Green Gecko kid's chore day resulted in a bit of extra dusting and sweeping, although the house hardly needed it.

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.

(ABOVE): Sokhim, an older Green Gecko teenager (with a heart of gold) will soon graduate high school and begin university. He is here silk-screen printing t-shirts at a local social enterprise/cooperative that is an offshoot from the main Green Gecko Project NGO. Other young adults (Bottom) get experience working at a high-end mechanic shop and day care. Other's work experience includes health care clinics, an architecture firm, and various hospitality placements.

Under the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, some estimates state that over 3 million Cambodians were targeted and killed by the communist regime. Educated people, singers and dancers, and even Bokator Masters (Cambodian martial arts) were systemically killed with the intent to destroy all forms of Cambodia's culture to pave the wave for new social norms. Many NGOs attempt to support the restoration of these historical art forms. At the Green Gecko Project, both boys and girls (a rarity) are trained in Bokator martial arts. And many of their games imitate traditional Cambodian games passed on generation after generation from when the Khmer Empire was a dominate world power.

Two Green Gecko teenagers practise their Bokator moves early one morning in a near-by field.
Two younger Geckos play an ancient Khmer game, where one of the two must either A) grab the branch and run away with it across a line drawn in the sand without being tagged, or B) wait for their opponent to grab the branch and tag them before they escape. Laugher ensues.

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.

Turning garbage into beautiful locally crafted works of art. (ABOVE) Plastic bags are collected and thoroughly washed. They are then turned into vibrant crafts (BELOW), like this stunning area rug. Women earn a good wage, and are able to build more fulfilling, happier lives at home.

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.

Two feminine health education workshops organised by Kunthea (A Gecko ‘kid’ who now runs TSS) in a remote village outside of SIem Reap. The TSS educators ran lessons on reproductive and feminie health and distributed over 50 feminine hygiene kits to the school students.

Tania Palmer’s impact on Siem Reap, Cambodia cannot be understated. Little did she realise how her life would change after her first trip to the country. 14 years have passed since she first started distributing rice and meat to local children begging on the streets. After her more permanent move to Cambodia, Tania met a local man, Rem, her Tuk Tuk driver and they joined forces, soon married, and in the years to follow 'adopted' a family of 124 children whose lives have been improved and touched in ways beyond description. Tania's endless heart and energy will continue to leave a legacy and lasting impact on these children and the local community.

Tania Palmer with her husband Rem (left) and Boram (centre), one of the first street kids supported by Tania. Boram has since successfully graduated University in Phnom Penh, Cambodia where he finished first in his class in Business Administration. Boram was recently supporting the Green Gecko Project as an Operations Manager, but was in demand from the local business community where he is soon to start his independent career as just one of the Green Gecko Project's many success stories.

Contact: Instagram: lenwiensphotography or www.leonardwiens.com

Donate to Cambodia's Green Gecko Project: https://www.greengeckoproject.org/flex/green-gecko-project-how-to-make-a-donation-to-the-geckos/126/1

Created By
Leonard Wiens

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