SERY Rathana has always been an entrepreneur. When he became an orphan at the age of nine, he sold cans and sand from the river, and cut wood so his three brothers could attend school.
Rathana, who has only a ninth-grade education, later attended the House of Peace Association, where he learned the skill of “skin carving art”.
He was so talented, he became a trainer. Then, in 2002, with his own savings, Rathana opened the Little Angels Orphanage, outside the Preah Ko temple ruins, in Siem Reap’s Bakong district.
Little Angels shelters, educates and trains orphans and children from impoverished families in the craft of leather carving.
Little Angels, which originally housed five children, now has 80, 50 of whom are orphans and 30 whose families are too poor to support them.
When families approach Rathana for his help, he interviews them to see if the child qualifies to be part of his program. Because of a lack of space, the orphanage has only 10 girls.
The “angels”, aged from five to 25, have a structured life like any other child. Their day begins at 5am, when they shower and eat breakfast.
“All students have to go to school to live here,” says Rathana, which is why the students are on a rotating schedule. Thirty-five of the children will stay at the orphanage and learn how to draw or carve, while the other 45 attend.
As the students receive 20 per cent of the proceeds from the sale of their art, some choose to go to private schools.
When they return from class, the “angels” can play sports, work on one of the five computers that Rathana saved up for, have free time, or do their homework.
In the afternoon, English classes are held, taught by a former “angel” who is now a clergyman and a university graduate.
“One student has just finished his first year of university and four are expected to start in the new school year,” a proud Rathana says.
From 5:30pm to 7:30pm, 150 students from neighbouring villages study at the orphanage.
Rathana, who receives little aid, relies on tourists to support his orphanage, and 45 per cent of the profits from art sold are used to buy supplies to make more art.
The “angels” must first learn to draw before they are allowed to carve the leather.
“I try to do everything by myself,” says Rathana, who buys fresh cow hides from town. The students dry them out for a week, the store them for three months so the smell and natural colour dissipate.
The leather is finally boiled in tree-bark juice for the brown/black colour of the finished product.