The mummers of the crowd and the clinking of spoons on plates almost sounds like a chorus of music, but it is hard not to be moved by the sight of over 80 boys and girls enjoying a meal at the New Smile of Hope Children Association, founded by a Cambodian man, Pan Sophal.
They are abandoned kids that were found in the streets, orphans or children from helpless underprivileged families. They are brought here and supported until they graduate from university, find jobs and are able to support themselves.
Chin Ny, a 21-year-old, told The Post with tears in her eyes that she had parents and five siblings but her family were so poor that they often could not afford rice.
Due to their poverty, she and her siblings spent their days searching for scraps or picking fruit and vegetables that they could sell to support the family. Her parents both suffer from chronic illnesses which mean they cannot work.
Escaping an impoverished past
Po Sreykong, wife of Sophal offered to adopt her and her youngest brother, so they would have the opportunity to attend school.
Ny said that at that time, her godparents had not yet opened their association, and had just 10 children living with them, including their own four children.
To fund raising the children, her godparents made cakes for sale at a garment factory in Takhmao town.
“I feel sorry for my godmother. She is weary from taking care of so many kids. When I see her, I ask, ‘How are you?’ and she always says she is fine. I really admire her heart – she is still taking care of me while I am at university,” she said.
Ny is currently a sophomore studying philosophy at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and living in a student dormitory. Despite her busy workload, she still finds time to help at the association, helping to teach the younger children and cooking meals.
Ly Lim, a 21-year-old orphan who lives at the association, said that in the past he lived with his niece, who did not take good care of him. He worked full time, and was too tired to study. Some of the villagers advised him to move in with the association, so he would have time to study and get a chance at a better life.
“When I came to live here, I was struck by their compassion. They gave me the kind of positive guidance that I did not receive from my niece. I feel that they really love me, and I think of them as my parents,” said the young man.
Inspired to help
Sreykong, 52, is married to Pen Sophal and they have four children. She is president of the association. She was born in Taksin village, Kraing Thnong commune, Bati district, Takeo province, and sells cakes at a garment factory in Takhmao city, Kandal province.
She said the association was recognised by the Ministry of Interior in 2016, after she and her husband had overcome many obstacles to succeed in their mission.
Originally a baker in a garment factory kitchen, she grew more and more concerned about the number of street children she saw on a regular basis. She believes that all children will surely become respectable citizens and make positive contributions to society if they are properly educated and cared for. After thinking carefully about it, she and her husband agreed to adopt several children.
Initially, in 2001, she adopted six children to raise alongside her own. They were all from different backgrounds. Some were orphaned or abandoned by divorced parents. Others came from homes with ill or drug-addicted parents.
Raising such a large family proved difficult. She often hunted scorpions and other species to provide protein for her family.
She attends a Christian church, and asked her Korean Pastor for help. He arranged to donate a 50kg sack of rice every month and provided an additional 200 riel per day for each child, she told The Post.
She added that her story got out, both locally and abroad, and she has since received many more donations of food. She always gets the consent of the families before adopting a child, and has received recognition from the authorities. Some local women’s associations also contact her when they identify needy children they believe would benefit from her help.
A cry for support
“I do not want money from philanthropists, I want just food. I have an expatriate sister living in France who helps me and Cambodians living in the United States and Australia are also assisting us with building a larger house for the children. The Chip Mong company donated $22,500 and some celebrities also helped, as well as the Cambodian Red Cross. I sold a plot of my own land to build a three-story building to house the children. I do not have the capital to expand my association, but if more donors come forward, I might,” she added.
She said that Kandal provincial governor Kong Sophorn also donated food. She is currently bringing up 86 children, aged from just one year old to those in their twenties. They are currently living together, and are studying English with a Filipino volunteer teacher.
In just one day, her association uses a 50kg sack of rice. They also have a 25-seat bus to deliver the children to school, and a cargo tuk tuk donated by the Red Cross so they can buy fresh vegetables from the market each day.
It is thanks to the kindness of strangers that she has been able to help the kids who needed it most for more than two decades, and she will be eternally grateful to the many people who have supported her.
“I do not want anything for myself. My goal is to make sure that these kids are out of abusive situations, away from drugs, and out of their misery. If they are educated and have jobs, my husband and I will be happy,” she said.