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Ngov Chhiv on transforming dreamers into doers and ideas into achievements

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Children’s Kitchen founder and manager Ngov Chhiv during an interview with The Post. Hean Rangsey

Ngov Chhiv on transforming dreamers into doers and ideas into achievements

Children's Kitchen provides free breakfast and lunch to poor and homeless children, some of whom work as scavengers, street vendors or beggars rather than attending school.

This charitable non-profit organisation is dedicated to serving one of the most vulnerable populations in Cambodia. They are located at #153 St 155 at St 13 in Sangkat BKK III of Chamkarmon district in Phnom Penh.

In addition to providing meals, the organisation also helps children get back in school and continue their educations.

Ngov Chhiv, 75, is the founder and manager of Children’s Kitchen. The Post interviewed him recently about his organisation and what inspired him to dedicate his life to helping others as well as the charity’s goals for the future.

When did you first establish the Children’s Kitchen?

We began operating on February 1, 2010, with the aim of providing poor children with adequate nutrition and access to schools and education just like children from more prosperous families.

My French friend Yves Jacquin and I both had a clear understanding that even the poorest children working as scavengers have dreams of their own so we started Children’s Kitchen as a means of helping achieve them.

[Jacquin] came to visit me at home one day and he saw two scavengers ransacking the garbage set out in front of the house. We spoke to them and invited them inside to get something to eat and we asked them all about their family situations and education.

This simple conversation with these kids about their lives had a big impact on both of us and we talked about how we could help and from that came the Children’s Kitchen.

At first, we thought we could possibly help 100 children and so we opened with a plan to run it for three months because we didn’t have much money available. Then later – with the help of Cambodian donors and foreign donors – the kitchen has been able to keep growing until now.

What’s your overall goal? How much can these meals really help?

Our goal is for the children to be well fed and to be able to read and write. Food must come first, before practically everything, and if you don’t believe me then try going without it for very long and you’ll see what a priority it then becomes for you, too.

In addition to feeding the kids we also take into consideration how we can further the children’s education. We send some of them to schools near their homes. We keep records of all of the children and try to track the path of their education so that we can not only send them to school but keep them in school by meeting with parents and school administrators and finding a way to keep them enrolled.

Most of the children who come here for meals end up going to back to school. Before they meet us they are still collecting cans or begging to help feed themselves and their families, but once they come to our organisation we do everything we can to get them back to school by tracking them and meeting their parents and advising them to pay attention to their children’s educations.

How do you determine which children need your help?

We accept all poor children, regardless of race or religion. Every day, between 200 and 250 children come to eat here. Since the establishment of the children’s kitchen, we have distributed food to more than 800,000 children and we know this because we keep daily records.

We have also distributed study materials and student uniforms to over 500 children on a regular basis so they can go to school.

Does your organisation contribute to the fight against human trafficking and brokers who regularly exploit child labour? Is that an issue you encounter regularly in your work?

The children who come here aren’t necessarily labelled as being our kids or under our protection. Most people won’t realise that we’re helping them. However, we teach our kids to come to us and tell us if anyone approaches them with an offer like that or who they feel is up to no good. And our managers are well-trained to spot that activity and supervise the children in that regard and they won’t hesitate to act when it comes up.

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Children’s Kitchen doing what it does best – feeding hungry kids at their HQ in Phnom Penh. Hean Rangsey

But the brokers themselves are cowards. And worse than that, but at minimum definitely they are cowards and they wouldn’t dare to pick a fight with our organisation openly because they know we will come after them.

For example, say we have a group of five children who always come together on certain days and we know they are friends or family. If one turns up missing we won’t rest until we get the full story out of his friends or his family or the people in his neighbourhood if we have to go door to door, we’ll do it.

We already monitor these kids health, education and family lives so if we suspect one of them may be in danger then we’ll not hesitate to find a way to monitor that aspect of their lives too if that’s what it takes.

Speaking of families, we also have a monthly meeting with the children’s parents to encourage them and advise them to send their children to school as their number one priority and we distribute assistance to them such as sacks of rice or snacks they can reward their kids with when they do their schoolwork.

How has the pandemic affected the children’s kitchen? There have been many reports over the past two years from Cambodian NGOs whose funding has declined dramatically. Are you facing the same issues?

The short answer? Yes. We worry about our donors and their ability to continue helping us constantly. Because it’s not like these very generous and kind people don’t want to help anymore if they stop donating.

If they stop donating, it’s usually because they can’t anymore because they’ve lost all their money due to the economy. We are not only sad to lose donors – we’re sad that these wonderful people who gave so much for our kids have lost their prosperity and stability, especially when they are in their old age. This is a global pandemic with global economic damage.

How did Children’s Kitchen develop such a good relationship with donors and how did you build that level of trust with them?

First, I’d like to say thank you to all of the donors and benefactors and volunteers and community members who have placed their trust in Children’s Kitchen over the years and helped us in so many ways to provide assistance to Cambodian kids who really need it.

And I’d like to make a request of them: Please continue their assistance to us as best they can and provide anything from water to milk to rice to meat. Whatever you can give. Because donations are down across the board for nearly every charity on the planet, including ours, and at the same time we’ve got more kids than ever who really need our services.

Our organisation is here to help. Our donors want to help, and they will help as much as they can. So I know we can find a way to help them if we all work together despite the tough times we’re facing.

What future plans or goals do you have for Children’s Kitchen?

Honestly, for the past decade, I’ve been very happy with simply being able to feed all these kids and knowing that they aren’t going hungry at school or lying in bed at night unable to sleep because of empty stomachs. Having enough to eat every day is so basic to our lives and to our needs that it is a noble pursuit and necessary mission wherever there are children going hungry.

What’s even more exciting to me beyond that is that the children who used to come and eat here have graduated now and many have jobs they are able to support themselves with such as electricians, hospitality and tourism workers or even just in construction, which is hard work but it’s also honest work and they take pride in the skills they learn building these towers and I’m proud of them too whatever their work happens to be if it is good honest work.

So along those lines, in the future, if possible, we want to expand the organisation and open one or two more locations to not only provide meals but perhaps develop a programme or partner with another institution to help with job skills or finding work.

These children can’t help being born poor, but with a little help from the rest of us they can be given opportunities so that they don’t have to stay poor, raise poor kids, grow old poor or die poor.

Everyone in the world can’t be a millionaire, but I think everyone in the world can be afforded the dignity of having work to do and enough to eat and a roof over their heads at night and electric lights so their kids can study. Small things, but as I said earlier, go without them and let me know how small those problems from lacking them turn out to be.

We can do that, we can make those simple but safe living conditions the reality in Cambodia for all Cambodians – but only if we all make the effort – it will only happen if we try to make it happen.

Consider this your invitation! Start today.

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