Educating 120 street-working children in Cambodia

 
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Our Senior Teacher, Chenda, with the children
Our Senior Teacher, Chenda, with the children

Special Child, Special Teachers

I would like to give praise to the teachers of the Pre-school Program at LKC 1. 

Two of the three teachers have been with us for almost four years and the third teacher was promoted from the cook/cleaner position.  The two longest-serving teachers do not have any university training in child development or early childhood education.  They have been learning from me over the years, as this is my area of expertise.   They have also attended workshops and trainings. 

To see how quickly the teachers have learned and implemented these foreign concepts of working with young children has been amazing.  We operate with a play-based curriculum and encourage child-directed play.  This philosophy of working with children is even questioned in the West, in the USA.  In Cambodia this approach to early childhood education is relatively new.  In some ways it goes against traditional Cambodian cultural practices and thoughts about children.  However, a wealth of research supports this as an effective way to help children in being ready to learn upon entering school. 

Albeit hesitantly, the teachers began using this method of working with the young children and after a few months they began to see positive behaviorial change in the children.  The children were more cooperative, had better self-control, and were gaining confidence in their abilities.   The teachers then began to fully embrace the methods.  They have since sourced their own materials and designed their own activities that support the children’s play and learning.   The teachers encourage whole heartedly the children to direct their own play.  The teachers have been able to discipline the children firmly but with compassion and understanding.  This is done in a way that doesn’t punish or shame the child but teaches so the children learn and practice appropriate behavior. 

All that is stated above is in itself amazing and commendable.  However the teachers deserve even more praise and admiration for their work in the last school year.  At the beginning of the school year we were approached by an NGO that works with children with various disabilities.  They wanted us to consider accepting a child with down-syndrome into our pre-school program.   I was reluctant to do so.  I myself had not much experience working with children with down-syndrome.  The children in the preschool program were living in dire poverty.  Some suffered from abuse or neglect, some lived in single-parent homes, and many lacked adequate food and shelter.   So the teachers already were dealing with many challenges.  I thought perhaps it was unfair and nonproductive to overwhelm them with a special needs child when they have not had experience working with any previously.

After some research regarding how to work with a child with d-s and several discussions weighing the pros and cons, we decided to accept the child into our program.  He is a lovely child who is a bit chronologically older than the other children and had never experienced a pre-school setting.  Of course he did prove to be challenging at first.  It took a lot of hard work and caring by the teachers, but after some time the child along with the other children was able to sit for circle time, sing songs and listen to story books being read.  He eventually participated in the arts and craft activities and made friends with his classmates.  The teachers never complained but would ask for information and guidance when they were challenged by his behavior. 

I get choked up while writing this because clearly this child won the hearts of the teachers.  The teachers stepped up to the challenge, quelled my fears and exceeded my expectations.  The parents were so happy to see their child having fun and making friends.  What a wonderful learning experience for him.  It was as well a great learning experience for the teachers, his classmates and indeed me. 

I can’t thank these special teachers enough.  They are truly amazing.

Rachana with LKC kids
Rachana with LKC kids

     My name is Rachana. I am 23 years old, and I will graduate from university with a Bachelor’s Degree in June. I come from a poor family from the Cambodian countryside. There are twelve children in my family. When I was growing up with my big family without a father who passed away, even when I was young, I have known how difficult it was for me. So I want to help other people in the community, especially kids, who come from a similar situation as mine.

     I decided if I want to help I would need to have an education.  I worked very hard to finish high school. I was persistent in convincing an NGO to take me into their center and help with my funding for university. When I entered university I moved to Siem Reap where I found out about Lotus Kids Club. I volunteered for a little while, and then I was hired full-time as a Teacher Assistant.  For almost a year I worked as a Teacher Assistant then I was promoted to be a Junior Teacher.  After two years working as a Junior Teacher I was promoted to be the Assistant Project Manager. I will graduate with an accounting degree, but I most enjoy working with children and families.  I feel competent doing this work and will hopefully gain a Masters degree related to this field of study.

     Lotus Kids Club is where Mr. Steve works as the Technical Advisor.  He is full of experience in working with children.  He trained all the teachers on how to work with young children, and I found it interesting and really wanted to know more about childhood development.  I have learned a lot from him.  I have been working very hard and try to do all my best from what I have learned from him.

     It is always very challenging at the beginning of the school year for us teachers in the Preschool Program. Some kids are crying, scared and don’t know the rules.  Also half of the kids are Vietnamese and don’t have a good command of the Cambodian language.  They can’t communicate with teachers, can’t brush their teeth, wash their hands or even how to sit in the chairs and listen. Everything was new for them.  So the teachers have to teach them everything, but it is the best time for children to learn.  A few weeks later they start to learn. They know about the rules, can wash their hands and brush their teeth by themself, play together with friends and teachers. No kids are crying and no kids want to go home. They are learning and having fun.

     For me I felt very happy when the kids learn, listen, communicate, cooperate, play and also feel a part of Lotus Kids Club. I think I am doing a good thing.  Just do what you want to do even small things can make people smile and make a difference.

Rachana
Rachana's passion is to teach and inspire
Photo by Sylvia Tran, Volunteer Extraordinaire
Photo by Sylvia Tran, Volunteer Extraordinaire

Lotus Kids’ Club has had some volunteers over the few years we have been in operation. We appreciate all of those volunteers who have graciously given their time and efforts towards helping LKC grow and improve. And we are incredibly lucky now to have a volunteer who has thrown herself completely into LKC mind, body and soul—Sylvia T.

My first contact with Sylvia was through email with her expressing interest in volunteering for us to complete her graduate studies for a Masters in Public Service. Sometimes I am reluctant to take on volunteers as it could be more work than it is worth. Especially if it is for a short time and initially she was scheduled to be with us for 3 months or so. It has taken some volunteers a month to adjust to the time, weather and cultural changes, and some never do. So we arranged a Skype call to sort out details and see if it was a good fit for the both of us.

My first impression was ‘Hmmm this is one bubbly, excited young woman on this video Skype call.’ I don’t usually do so well with bubbly. But she asked questions that showed she was bright, organized and motivated. We really needed someone to help us better organize our Afternoon Program, which is a drop-in program for kids 3 years and older. With that age range it has always been a challenge. Her task would be to help us in this area. We both decided it could work, and her excitement about her coming was contagious.

Sylvia came, she saw, she conquered the Lotus Kids Club. She was indeed a bit bubbly in person but not at all the annoying bubbly type. Maybe it’s better to describe Sylvia as upbeat with great energy, enthusiasm, a great sense of humor and a quick learner. She made sure she understood our needs, took her time in formulating a plan of action, communicated that clearly and jumped feet-first into the work. She quickly won over the entire LKC staff and readily embraced the language and culture of Cambodia, embarrassing me as she picked up the language at a much faster rate than I did after my 4+ years here. Not sure I’ve forgiven her for that yet.

She did indeed help us improve the delivery of our Afternoon Program services. But Sylvia came to love LKC and Siem Reap and was not finished with us yet. She signed up for another 4 months and then decided she wasn’t returning to the US till nearly her graduation, an additional 4 months away. She’ll be with us for close to a year. So for the almost seven months now that she has been with us she has taken on a wider workload, completing several tasks and working on others.

She has helped with staff professional development, streamlined and made efficient our micro-loan efforts, helped with the implementation of English and computer learning. Been influential in helping our families access vocational training and with job placements. She has helped our Social Workers better define their roles and been instrumental in teaching all staff about data collection.   She has built partnerships with other local NGOs and helped with fundraising. Sylvia has also contributed her own money to expanding our physical space which includes a new library space.

She has done more than what I’ve stated, and there are the intangibles that are difficult to articulate. I know she has freed me up to focus better on many of my tasks. On top of all that she takes great photos including the one for our Global Giving page of the child reading a book and one that was a finalist in the Global Giving Photo Contest of one of our kids brushing his teeth. Yes, we are very lucky this bubbly young woman called us to volunteer. I have a feeling we won’t be seeing the last of her when she returns to her home in the States. We’ll be even luckier if I’m right.

I have mostly spoken about the Pre-school Program at Lotus Kids Club. Our Afternoon Community Program is thriving also. It is a very challenging program as it is a drop-in program for children of all ages. So you can imagine the struggles we have had in providing activities of interest for the varied ages. And to be truthful my expertise lies with pre-school age kids. Over the years I have fortunately done some work with older children. I have learned a lot at LKC. And it can be, surprisingly to me, quite satisfying and fun.

The youth that attend LKC are enthusiastic and hungry for knowledge and new experiences. We want to make the program interesting and create an environment for them that will encourage discovery and learning. We want to expose them to a world they have yet to have discovered. How cool it is to hear exclamations as a youngster looks through a microscope for the first time and see the intricacies of a butterfly’s wing and exclaims “Wow”! Most of our teachers in fact have never looked through a microscope to see the amazing wonders of nature. It’s a wow moment when a child balances a gyroscope on a pencil tip and then learns it can be done on a tight string also.

We were donated these books with stunning photos of nature and animals. Many wows are exclaimed as the youth pour over the photos. I believe new worlds open up for them when they see the most amazing photos of the frozen northern and southern tips of the world, especially having never seen actual snow. Seeing animals and plants they could never have imagined is thrilling. We want to introduce them to games and activities that will stretch their imaginations, inspire creativity and encourage critical thinking. We want them to realize that there are opportunities in many fields of study in the world for them. We hope they see that it is possible to follow their interests and that they have choices. Once they understand this they will have dreams and goals that will more likely lead them to a fulfilling life. They will see and experience more ‘wow moments’ throughout their lives.

Happy, healthy, playful kids allowed to be kids
Happy, healthy, playful kids allowed to be kids

Lotus Kids’ Club Pre-school Kids Just Playing? I Think Not

Lotus Kids’ Club is a program within Senhoa and the Pre-school Program is part of that. The children at LKC come from one of the most poverty-stricken areas in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Many of these children would not have a chance at attending school, as it is too costly for many parents. Once they graduate from our program they enter primary school with our support. LKC instills in children a ‘ready to learn’ attitude and prepares them for success.

Below is a write-up from a well-respected, award-winning Early Childhood educator from the USA which beautifully describes LKC. She visited LKC in February of this year.

Observation at Lotus Kids Club Preschool, February 10, 2014

Physical environment

The physical environment was beautiful and interesting and offered a wide range of age-appropriate learning activities. A very partial listing of options that day includes: painting, sponge painting, water play, trains, dress up, group games, equipment for climbing, crown making, etc.

I started to categorize these options by what area of child development each supports but the outstanding quality of LKC is a deep (maybe nonverbal) understanding that children’s learning doesn’t segment like that. A child involved in a teacher-facilitated group game is developing her physical body, learning concepts, developing language, and learning to cooperate. A child playing alone at the water table is developing problem solving skills, math concepts, early physics concepts, fine motor coordination, and developing concentration and focus.

The environment was spacious, areas for different types of play were clearly delineated without being rigidly adhered to. Teachers were very much on top of the large amount of housekeeping required to keep a classroom space interesting and play productive.

Excellent use was made of repurposed and home-made materials (two examples are the funnel board and the use of toothbrushes as bubble blowers.) This sort of material is great for developing problem solving and ingenuity (and, although this is less important in your setting, for fighting consumerism).

Finally, and most importantly, the children were accompanied in their day by s smiling, helpful and emotionally available adults. When we smile, the body relaxes and our minds can absorb new information more easily.

Behavior management

Challenging behaviors decrease when children are within an interesting and age-appropriate environment. They decrease even more dramatically when teachers focus on the positive—what we focus on strongly tends to be what we get more of. The LKC teachers had both of these aspects working wonderfully. Some other aspects were also noteworthy. Teachers frequently were providing extra support to enhance participation of a child who was somewhat shy and withdrawn or to calm and focus a child who could be overly boisterous. Nothing was done that would identify to the child and her classmates, “This is a troublemaking kid!” just a look, word, gesture, touch or invitation to sit on a lap, a willingness to join with that child in doing something. When a child was stuck on using and not sharing a particular truck, an invitation to the water table soon had him happily re-engaged. When a child threw her crown on the ground, a teacher’s gentle hand on her shoulder encouraged her to pick it up and get it to the trash. Teachers were very available to the children, frequently squatting to talk with them at eye level. Transitions were very well managed with children doing something (singing, talking, etc.) as opposed to trying to “wait quietly!” An example of this would be at tooth brushing time when one teacher helped children brushing their teeth, another led activities for children who had finished and another talked with children who were still eating.

Overall pacing of the day, as well as pacing of particular segments was a pretty perfect mix of repetition and novelty. Finally teachers simply seemed to have the knack of being in the right place at the right time: moving into a game so that more children would be included or to keep the game interesting by introducing a new element, moving out of a game to notice what the children could integrate, being available for conversation which is the real cornerstone of second (and first) language learning, keeping the environment interesting and organized, noticing and moving close to a child who might soon come undone, etc, etc.

Mindfulness

This leads to what in the USA we are calling mindfulness education for children—it’s the hot “new” thing here and LKC is probably doing it better than any preschool in this country. Science keeps providing evidence that a calm, happy child will learn more effectively than a fearful, worried child and that teachers can help children learn techniques to become more calm and happy. Techniques such as: being aware of your breathing, being appreciative of your food, your friends, other good things in life, focusing concentration on the sounds around you—all things I observed during one brief morning at LKC. Research also shows that doing something like singing together enhances subsequent cooperation within a group—think of how often and how joyously LKC children sing together.

LKC kids love singing along with teachers daily
LKC kids love singing along with teachers daily
LKC kids star in their first musical!
LKC kids star in their first musical!
LKC kids in 1st musical-Savann the Moon Catcher!
LKC kids in 1st musical-Savann the Moon Catcher!
LKC kids star in their first musical!
LKC kids star in their first musical!

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Organization

Senhoa Foundation

Huntington Beach, CA, United States
http://www.senhoafoundation.org

Project Leader

Lisa T.D. Nguyen

Executive Director
Huntington Beach, CA United States

Where is this project located?

Map of Educating 120 street-working children in Cambodia