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Unique approach to youths at risk


IT has a cartoon name, a former break-dancing jailed teenage street-gang member as its founder, runs on a budget about the size of a company CEO’s annual salary, and helps nurture, mentor, inspire and educate more than 3,500 of the most underprivileged youth in the Kingdom each year.

Unique is an overused and oft misused word but Tiny Toones, by any definition, is unique; unique as an NGO, that acronym which can conjure up big money, overseas involvement, high salaries and commitment and results that at times don’t hit the high spots.

It is the antithesis of that conception, bringing dozens and dozens of children, from as young as three to 23, by tuk-tuk and an old van to its rambling multi-storey home premises in Phnom Penh each day, working with an unrealistic budget of about US$100,000 a year, teaching Khmer and English, providing classrooms, a computer lab, music recording studio and floor areas to dance, improvise and be creative.

It is a special place to build the confidence, self esteem, trust and life skills for the deeply underprivileged and disadvantaged kids, many of whom come from broken families, have siblings that are active drug users or parents who are sex workers.

Outside its work extends to a number of out-reach centres helping and working with children and families often trying to survive a life amid the ghettos, the drugs, the gangs and the poverty.

Tiny Toones. A small NGO in the scheme of Cambodia’s almost top-heavy multi-layered international and local organisations which only gained its status last year. But it is far from a shrinking violet and therein somewhat ironically is one of its main problems.

As it says of itself it is “Cambodia’s first hip-hop school using creative education to empower at-risk youth” and that has seen the emergence of talented breakdancers and young hip-hop gurus, dancing, recording music and getting known to a wide audience both locally and through overseas invitation.

Therein lays the crunch.

“People see Tiny Toones as cool, successful, performing on stage, in shows, doing recordings. But we are not money rich and that is not the real picture,” said its Polish fundraising and communications manager Ula Piller.

“In reality we really only have funding until June this year. We need sustainable funding to plan ahead for two or three years. We did a detailed strategic plan last year – the year NGO status granted – but we are worried to expand without that funding.

“I personally believe very much in corporate social responsibility. We need support from organisations, companies, foundations. Dance and music is a tool. Tiny Toones is about teaching life skills, to empower at-risk youth to release their full potential and become positive leaders of tomorrow.”

It could be said that dance is a means to an end, using its creativity and pulling power to achieve a much wider goal  and the raison d’être of the Tiny Toones organisation, started back in 2005 by Tuy Sobil, known to everyone as KK, a Cambodian, born in a Thai refugee camp to parents escaping the Khmer Rouge.

Deported from America in 2004 he arrived in Cambodia to a country he had never stepped foot in before and a language he could barely speak. But it was his country. Word spread that he was a talented break-dancer when he was younger and he was approached by some youths to be their dance teacher but turned them down.

Yet he soon learned that the children lacked positive role models and were very at risk of choosing a lifestyle of hardship and might follow a path he once did which led to drugs, crime and prison.

Fearful they might make the mistakes he had, he opened up his home to serve as a youth centre with breakdancing as the main activity.

KK funded much of the early program himself spending a large part of his own wages to help the kids as well as virtually every spare moment – evenings, weekends, holidays – mentoring his students.

The health and educational training he received in a US prison became the foundation of the Tiny Toones curriculum which itself led to overseas organisational, financial and development support.

In early 2007 international NGO Bridges Across Borders – Southeast Asia inspired by KK’s vision, sponsored Tiny Toones as a project with grants, organising fundraising and introducing donors to the program.

In 2008 with support from the US McKnight Foundation, the East Asiatic Company Charitable Fund of Copenhagen and the Arts Network Asia of Singapore, KK was able to devote himself full time to Tiny Toones and move to its current location on Street 410 in the capital.

Last year Tiny Toones had international funding from four organisations including Freedom to Create Singapore which also funds similar projects and the Global Fund for Children although, as Ula Piller pointed out, the $8000 a year from the latter is less than a month’s costs for TT and that while she talks of a minimum $100,000 a year needed the real 2011 budget is $150,000.

Where and how do the children come to Tiny Toones? Word of mouth in the community, says KK.

“We have four tuk-tuks and a van to pick up the kids. We work with their families; many are kids of sex workers or drug addicts. We want them to look to the future to look at being doctors, lawyers, not just garment workers. The schoolkids need trust, they must start expressing themselves, gain in confidence,” said KK.

The kids now doing the dance and music shows – the public face of Tiny Toones – started working with KK right at his beginnings in Phnom Penh six years ago.

“I want them to be role models themselves as teachers to the younger ones, peer mentors of the little ones and hope that will be a continuing process,” said KK.

The majority of TT participants are among the most marginalised and discriminated youth of Cambodian society, dropping out of school and Tiny Toones has daily classes and education activities which allow youth to develop their English, Khmer and computer literacy, numeracy and communication skills.

But is not just the one centre but much more and staffs five outreach centres, some in partnership with Women’s Network for Unity and many situated in the raw areas and ghettoes of the capital working among the children and orphans and families where livings are eked out by sex work, gangs roam and drugs are common place.

Tiny Toones has both a vision and a mission and is acting on them every day of the week, continuing and expanding as a very young NGO what was put in place by a very special man in KK, and driving to help Cambodian youth realise their full potential through educational and creative opportunities and help them pursue their own dreams.



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