Every second Friday is like a market day at New Hope, with hundreds of Siem Reap’s blighted urban poor turning up to receive food provided by sponsors including rice, fish sauce, soy sauce, iodized salt and a small amount of cash for incidentals to tide things over.
Last Friday saw the 64th fortnightly “rice drop” – as the project is called – roll out with 308 families registered to receive food assistance, with another 15 needy families turning up on the day to also register to ensure that they too would benefit from the 20 tons of rice stacked against the wall ready for distribution. Larger families receive 50kg bags, while other families receive 40kg, 30kg or 20kg of rice. The deal for receiving this largesse is that all families must be able to show that they are sending their kids to school.
A Mondul 3 villager, Vant Kheng, who has received rice aid from New Hope for almost two years, told Insider that without this organisation her family is nothing.
“I have three grandchildren living with me. Their father and mother divorced and I am too old to find jobs to earn some money,” she said, while bowing her head to thank New Hope.
She said that New Hope also provides medicines when she and her grandchildren are sick and will send her or her children to the provincial hospital free of charge if their illness is serious.
Of New Hope she said, “They give me hope, give me rice, other groceries, and we are happy that they are always with us when we are in trouble.”
I first visited New Hope four years ago and to say that the experience then was depressing is an understatement. New Hope’s headquarters and school was a small humble building in a mean ‘street’ of shanties, hovels and dodgy karaoke bars. The handful of staff was desperately trying to cope with problems in a nearby ‘village’ in the bush that housed military wives whose husbands had been dispatched to troubled Preah Vihear, leaving families to cope on about 30 bucks a month. The day that I first visited, April 27, 2009, was a grim day indeed because one child had died, another was critically ill in hospital, two others were hospitalised and released, and three adults were treated by doctors after eating poisonous frogs in Mondul3, one of Siem Reap's poorest villages.
At 8am the day before, a Sunday, four boys ate brown frogs they'd caught after the rains, and by 10:30am Sov Soparath, the son of a soldier from Preah Vihear temple, was dead, with his brother critically ill in Kantha Bopha Children's Hospital.
I attended the dead boy’s house, observed the small body lying on a mat on the floor, observed the distraught family in the midst of grief, and observed New Hopes harried staff, tears in their eyes, trying to cope.
I left that sad scene thinking that there wasn’t much hope for New Hope – despite the well intentioned staff, the job was too big, and the resources too meager to even make a dent in that hopeless mire of extreme poverty.
How wrong I was.
Last week I returned to New Hope, or should I say the ‘new’ New Hope, as the organisation had moved about a kilometre from its previous location.
What I saw this time around was a highly efficient complex of new buildings employing 82 Khmer staff and housing several classrooms, including a fully equipped computer teaching room; a well-run efficient medical clinic and a smart pharmacy; an inviting training restaurant that could have been at home on Pub Street; a compound where villagers broken bicycles were fixed; and an operational centre that hummed with purpose. And when I attended the rice drop I saw smiles instead of tears, and heard laughter instead of sobs.
New Hope’s amiable and supremely fit operations and public relations manager, former South Australian businessman Ron Carter, provided a guided tour of the mostly Australian run NGO, first pointing out that Siem Reap town has pockets of severe urban poverty, which the NGO targets specifically.
He says, “The urban poor are probably poorer than the rural poor. The rural poor can at least grow some rice, but for the urban poor, it’s a major problem. Many people don’t realise that within a 15 minute walk from Pub Street there are urban slums.”
Ron rattles off an impressive list of facts and figures. “We have seven English class rooms at various levels, one computer class, one sewing class, and one library and training classroom. We cater to 830 kids, but come September numbers will be boosted to over 1, 000, maybe 1050.
“One of our priorities is the building of a new school which will be a Khmer Public School. We estimate that this will take 9-12 months to build, and we hope to launch in September 2014. We also have 20 kids sponsored at uni.”
Also high on the list of priorities for New Hope is a sewing workshop, a revenue-raising spin-off from the sewing class where pupils already make the schools’ uniforms. “We’ve just completed a business plan for the sewing workshop,” says Ron, “And we are still seeking 50 per cent of the funding. We hope to employ up to 20 girls in the workshop and also help women in the villages. For example, we know of one woman who can crochet.”
As well as services such as the rice drop and schooling, New Hope also runs a medical clinic for its clients, as it refers to the poor that it services. “We treat about 400 patients a week,” says Ron, “it’s an amazing clinic run by an Australian nurse, Jody Bonar, and employs seven full time staff. We pay for everything – we supply medication and pay for hospital stays.”
In today’s modern world, income equals sustainability and New Hope works to supplement its donated income with self-generated revenue – in the year 2011-2012 donations and revenue totaled $460, 270.
Ron Carter outlines some of the NGO’s revenue-raising initiatives. “Our volunteer program placement fees help pay the way and this is one of the largest revenue-raisers at present,” he says.
“We have a training restaurant with eight full time staff, and five trainees every six months,” says Ron. “This is sponsored by Canadian company GAdventures, which brings tour groups to the diner up to five nights a week. That’s been important to us, but it would be nice to get some expats out here to the restaurant.
“We also have our own tour business. It’s very small at the moment, with two full-time staff, and one part-timer. The plan is to increase this significantly in the next 12 months.
“Then there’s our bicycle repair workshop. We have distributed 900 bikes to the poor over the past 12 months, but the people are too poor to fix the bikes when they break down. We have two people employed in the workshop to fix bikes that have been broken.
“The sale of bikes to volunteers brings in some revenue. Our plan for the future is to broaden into motos, and do mechanical repairs and provide traineeships for two or three boys.”
Additional reporting by Thik Kaliyann.