Thursday, March 17, 2016

Introducing Srey Neang - CCT's first ever volunteer from Cambodia!

CCT and ARI are ecstatic to introduce you all to our first volunteer from Cambodia! Srey Neang is an incredible young woman with a beautiful story. She comes to Chiang Mai from Siem Reap, where she started begging on the streets at the age of 9 before encountering one of our new partner organizations, The Green Gecko Project. 

This NGO supports over 70 children who previously lived on the streets of Siem Reap. They are providing security, education, opportunities and lots of compassion, so that participants can achieve their full potential in their adult lives. Intrigued to find out more? Check out this conversation volunteers Cat and Shellie had with Srey Neang this week…

Shellie: So how did you get involved with Green Gecko?

Srey Neang: You know Green Gecko started from us begging on the street, for some people it created a lot of pain. Some people are selling stuff, some are sleeping on the street. But Tanya, an Australian woman, came to Cambodia for the 1st time and we used to beg from her. We would carry around our sister or brother, begging for a meal. But the baby is not eating the meal because we just sell it back to get the money...

So Tanya also bought meals for the first time, but the beggars know the owner inside the restaurant and sell it back. And so Tanya asked, “so the kids are not eating the meals that I buy, you sell it back to get money?” 

So the next time she bought the rice, and brought all the street kids to the restaurant and paid for all the food that they ate. And the next time she tried to get all the kids to study English at a school in Cambodia, and she bought the rice for us at lunch time. And next time she saw us still begging and she tried to rent a place for the kids to enjoy activities, we go half a day and go back home. 

Some kids go back to begging still the same. So she rented a second school, bigger than the first, and we went there to study. And some kids that live far from Siem Reap, she rented a place where they can sleep there, and then they can go home to visit their families. And for me, I had a rent house so I didn’t have to sleep there. I go for learning, and then go back home. 

At night time I still go back to begging, and she saw the kids begging again, so she tried to let kids have a job. They could choose to sell books or postcards, and she made something like a tuk tuk that we could push around and sell to tourists. She tried to stop the begging because the police tried to catch the begging kids, but with selling books we were just earning a little bit, and a lot stopped selling books and went back to begging again. 

But Tanya, she continued to try and find a better place, and the last one that she found was the one we are at now. It is a beautiful, big place and we all go there and study and we have a lot of volunteers go visit and be volunteers there, and all the kids that started from the beginning stay there Monday to Saturday, and Saturday at night time they go home to visit their families for one night and come back on Sunday. 

And that’s why we stopped begging, because Mom (Tanya) organized for families to have 5 kilos of rice, and she also helped with the rent house 20 dollars a month for all the families. And the kids saw that their families are getting food and can also pay for the house, so they stopped begging and started focusing on studies. Our NGO has English, Khmer, and other activities like living values, logic, computer, on Thursdays Bokator (Khmer martial arts), and then music, art, dancing and other fun things on Friday.

We also have Gecko Action. We already have everything like love, food, and now we share back to other kids. We raise money by collecting the rubbish in town and selling something to help old women or old men that have no kids to look after them, and kids that can not go to school, and kids that study in university but can not catch up.

Srey Neang: Green Gecko has meaning – Gecko is the animal that comes out at night time, right? And we are like the geckos – we come out at the night time begging. Green Gecko is the place where dreams come true for the kids, whatever they want to do, it will come true.

Cat: Did you have any dreams when you were 9?

Srey Neang: Yeah, I dreamed to be an interior designer. But when we’re small, we keep changing our dreams. You know, first a teacher, then interior designer. But when we grow we see everything around us, and we know what we are going to do. I want to help Cambodian people, and do art therapy. So, Mom is going to send me to a short course on art therapy before I go to university.

Shellie: Okay, so your dream now is art therapy!

Srey Neang: (laughs) Yeah, but it’s really hard because Cambodia doesn’t have a course or a school for me to study this. There are ones in Australia and Malaysia. At Green Gecko, they are trying to find a school for me, so they’ve applied somewhere in Australia and Malaysia…if they don’t reply back, we will find a volunteer from another country to come to teach me.
Shellie: That’s really cool!

Srey Neang: Yeah, and if I learn it, Green Gecko will open up another place to let kids see what career they want!

Cat: Are there kids at Green Gecko that arrive when they’re older?

Srey Neang: Yeah, but some kids are not good at studying, but they’re good at other things. Some are good at school, but they want to stop studying because of their families. But Mom tries to tell them to help their families now a little bit and earn a little bit. But if you finish university and you have a good job and more money, you can help your family more. In Cambodia, we have those times in grade 9 and grade 12. I tried to stop grade 9, but people told me I should do this and this and should try to study.

Cat: Why did you want to stop?

Srey Neang: Because of our families, we need to help them. And sometimes we see our fathers work hard and he gets older and older, and if something happens to him, what are we going to do? We try to stop studying to get a job, but Mom says “you can not stop now, you’re nearly at the end! If you start from the beginning and you stop before the end, you’re going to be upset in the future.” I keep going, but in grade 12 my father got sick and I couldn’t continue with my studies and I tried to stop. And my brother just told me, “We’re nearly finished, sis. You can not stop. I know that you want to help our family, but if we finish grade 12 it will be better than if we stop right now.” I tried to keep thinking this, but I saw it was really hard with my father. And Mom said, “Continue studying, I will help your families.” And then she just paid some money for my father so I could keep studying and finish grade 12 and I could go to university. I am still thankful, and now my father is much better!

Shellie: What do you dream of doing with art therapy in Cambodia, since it is such a new thing? 

Cat: Would you want to work with Green Gecko?

Srey Neang: Yeah, I think if I finish my studies in art therapy, first I think I will find a job in another career first and will make some money, and will ask Mom to open the school in Cambodia with Green Gecko.

Cat: You guys do school and activities. Are the activities ever creative and artistic?

Srey Neang: Yes, some!

Cat: Are those your favorite?

Srey Neang: (laughs) Yes! On Friday we have many different activities like cooking, dancing, music, computers, and art. I have 2 hours. For 1 hour we can do one activity, and the next hour you can choose another one. But for 2 hours I chose art, because I really enjoy it! I’m not good at dance or music, I mean I can, but I’m more interested in art.

Shellie: Do you like painting the most?

Srey Neang: Yeah, I really enjoy watercolor the most. I really feel (leans back, humming in peaceful delight!)

Cat: Did you ever experience that calm feeling from creating art when you were begging?

Srey Neang: No, I didn’t feel anything like that. But I felt hurt because we couldn’t have good times with our families like the rich people. Because when you’re begging you just see this around and you feel jealous. But when we are at Green Gecko, we feel that we are lucky and now we feel another way. I feel that when we share our lives with others, we feel much better.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Bringing "Hakuna Matata" to Chiang Mai

At the end of my six months of the theatre outreach internship with Chiang Mai Drama Centre and Art Relief International, I had the honor of taking part in the special Lion King musical theatre workshop for kids. When I was growing up the Lion King was my absolute favorite Disney movie. Even today, the story deeply resonates with me; when I hear the musical score, I can feel the powerful emotions of the music running through my veins. So when Natalie, the founder and director of CMDC, asked me to create the choreography, teach the songs and dances to the kids, and create some costume pieces, I was beyond enthusiastic about it.

After much anticipation and planning, the first day of the Lion King workshops finally came, and adorable children aged 5 -10 arrived to Lanna International School full of energy; ready to tackle everything we threw at them. As they learned the first song and dance, “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”, they were incredibly attentive and ready to learn African dance moves. We finished off the afternoon by reading through the script and assigning parts. At the end of Monday, Natalie and I felt like it would be a challenge to have everything learned and completed on time, but we leaned in with anticipation of the coming days.

By Wednesday, these incredible children learned 3 songs and dances, blocked almost the entire script (with some students already having memorized their lines), and we began seeing more character development. The students were creating brilliant set pieces like jungle bugs, flowers, birds, and elephant graveyard bones. Even though 4-hour days are definitely challenging for kids this age, they continuously blew us away with their energy and attentiveness. At this point, it was evident that the kids would be able to blow the performance out of the water!

Time flew and it was already the day of the performance. There was a good vibe in morning, and the kids were nervous and excited to show their new-found skills to their parents. The music started and all of our animal characters entered to the “Circle of Life”; just as I expected, they performed brilliantly! They remembered to smile big during the songs, all of their dance steps, and dialogue. On top of this, some of the students were even able to improv, stay in character and keep going even when things didn’t happen according to plan (like Timon and Pumba hilariously missing their high-5 a couple times before getting it right).

At the end of the week, I felt ridiculously proud of the kids for working hard, putting in a lot of effort, and focusing on a common goal at such a young age. Personally, I felt accomplished and successful in seeing my ideas come to fruition. What I have learned from Natalie while working at the CMDC is that everyone can learn how to be a team member, while growing in confidence by having a bold voice and showing others what they are capable of. It is amazing to see young kids learning how to be committed, flexible and able to adapt to challenge. These are key qualities and skills for life that they can carry into school, friendships, and future jobs.

As it is with so many folks that travel to this captivating place, Chiang Mai has captured my heart and I now plan on staying here longer than I thought I would! Of course, this makes me incredibly happy, as I know that I do not yet have to say goodbye to all of the young individuals who have made my life so much brighter. I am more than thrilled to see what the future holds with the shining youth of Chiang Mai.

Peace and love,