While we’ll stop well short of calling it “the other side”, life is slowly returning to a new kind of normal in Taksenkangbloung Village, and Cambodia as a whole. The country has officially recorded just 277 cases of Covid-19, with Siem Reap province contributing just eight cases to this tally.
While these relatively low numbers are a public health victory in a country without a robust healthcare system, the economy has taken a battering. The tourism sector, which is the backbone of Siem Reap, has virtually ground to a halt. International tourist visits to Angkor Wat in September, for example, were down almost 98% on the previous year. Many families no longer had an income to rely upon and organisations such as the World Bank have expressed grave concerns that gains made in the alleviation of poverty in Cambodia in recent years are fast being eroded away.
As was reported in the previous newsletter, schools were boarded shut throughout Cambodia in early March. While some private schools catering to a more affluent cohort of students offered online tuition, the students of Taksenkangbloung Village didn’t have this as an option. Students simply stayed at home and helped their parents where they could.
As part of the crisis support model adopted by Taksen in late March, food and hygiene aid became the main focus of the organisation. The number of families asking for this type of support rose sharply from an initial 12 families that received rice packages in the initial distribution in April. By June, the centre was helping nearly 40 families, and in July this number had risen again to 75 families. This food support was handed out monthly and we estimate that in the seven months since distribution started, this rice and soap has reached about 400 people (most of the village).Providing food support to 400 people a month is a costly undertaking and it has been impossible to organise fundraising events during these “Covid times”. The food and hygiene distribution program was only made possible by generous donations from the centre’s sponsors and donors, who despite tough times in their own countries, dug deep. When so many other charities and businesses sadly folded in Cambodia, and across the world for that matter, our generous supporter base really came to the party. We are still in the process of fundraising to make sure we keep this initiative going, if you can help please click here.
We’re pleased to report that Mookneak Primary School, which is attended by the majority of the students involved in our programs, resumed classes on 7 September. With effectively missing six months of the academic year, a more intensive delivery model has been developed by the school to try to catch students up as best as possible so as they can hopefully proceed to the next year level at year’s end. Each class has been divided up into three groups, with each group attending school for two days per week. Because class numbers are so much smaller than the usual up-to 50 students in each classroom, it is hoped students will have more support while they are at school to bridge the learning gap required to start in a new year level by the end of December.
Our older students mostly attend Hun Sen Secondary School, which is across the road to Mookneak Primary School. Years 9-12 only have resumed at this school, with exams to take place soon. We wish our students the best of luck at this important time.
Plans are in full swing to re-launch the centre’s educational programs from the start of November. As in pre-Covid times, free English lessons will be offered on site, on a daily basis, to every child in the village. The very popular kindergarten program, with Reay at the helm, will also be relaunched. The internet has been reconnected this month and students will be encouraged to use the centre’s computers and resources again (this previously wasn’t permitted under Covid restrictions).
A difficult decision was made last month to inform families that the centre was moving away from its crisis support model to enable it to once again focus on its primary aim of facilitating education. As such, October’s village-wide rice distribution was the last. It is hoped most families have found alternative ways to support themselves and director Sothea will keep an eye on individual families as needed.
We’ll continue providing soap to residents of the village, thanks largely to a new relationship we’ve formed with Eco-Soap Bank. This impressive humanitarian and environmental non-profit organisation works to save, sanitize, and supply recycled hotel soap for the developing world. Since 2014, Eco-Soap Bank has sustainably supplied more than 650,000 people with soap and hygiene education and we’re pleased to say the residents of Taksen now make up part of this number. Soap was always something we asked volunteers to carry from their home countries, given its disproportionate cost in Cambodia. Given volunteers can not travel to Cambodia for the foreseeable future, this relationship could not have come at a more crucial time.
We are also in the early stages of planning a new program in which vegetable seeds are provided to families interested in growing their own. We’re hopeful in the dry season families can have some success in this area, as Sothea and Reay had before the monsoon hit growing various types of fruit and vegetables at the centre (some of which were distributed as part of the aid program).
Centre director Sothea is practically a chameleon, the amount of times he has changed and adapted in his role at the centre. For the past six months, he has worked tirelessly to gather and distribute the food packages offered through the centre. Every month, this involved several trips to the market, documentation and liaising with beneficiaries. He was able to start collecting more detailed data on families in the village through this process, although this will be expanded upon in the coming months. Sothea also became involved in a community-run forum which has met twice in recent months to gather data on how organisations such as ours have assisted people during the pandemic. He has reported that meeting with other organisations in this capacity was beneficial in terms of the support and insights they were able to offer one another, as well as sharing important information.
Throughout all of this, Sothea has also recently completed his first semester of an undergraduate information technology degree via the University of South East Asia in Siem Reap (mainly via remote learning).
In other news, we are delighted to share that Sheree Duncan has joined our operational management team. Sheree visited Siem Reap for the first time in February 2020 and her deep connection with the Taksenkangbloung community was immediately clear. Since taking on a more formal role in helping with day-to-day operations from Australia, she has added so much vibrance and energy to Taksen through her compassion, empathy, sensitivity and experience in the aid sector. Read an interview with Sheree below. Welcome to the Taksen Crew, Sheree!
One of our English teachers, Dara, welcomed a precious new baby:
Who knows what news our next installment will bring – these are interesting times indeed. Stay safe and thanks again for your interest in and support of our organisation.
Please, if you haven’t already, follow us on Facebook and Instagram for more regular updates.
The Taksen Team
Read full article (with images) here:
You might have seen the recent changes to Taksen’s programs on our social media accounts over the last couple of months. Our community of families has evolved over our 7 years in operation, and we had evolved with them. The program changes represented a progression and expansion from the original model of providing intensive support to a smaller group of families (with additional support for the whole community) to providing inclusive, baseline education support for all families in the village. By removing smaller-scale intensive support that was no longer required, funds would be used even more efficiently in favour of baseline support for more people. We were excited. Our community was poised for real progress – not just survival.
The world changed for everyone a couple of weeks ago. With it, Taksen was brought to its knees. The world faces an unprecedented global crisis. Six major fundraisers we had planned in Australia and the US over the next few months had to be cancelled. With Cambodia’s economy mainly operating in USD and currency value in freefall, we find ourselves AUD $1700 short of what we needed to run the centre each month, even after the sustainable income generated from our monthly sponsors is taken into account.
To top things off, every education provider in Cambodia has been indefinitely closed to halt the spread of Covid-19. That includes us. The 80 children we support are at home in Taksenkangbloung village. There are no online classes, no structured alternatives. Siem Reap’s employment economy relies heavily on tourism. Families with many mouths to feed are suddenly out of work. They are without basic supplies such as soap and running water. Due to the school closure, students are likely to have to repeat the year they are currently in.
Many of our families simply have no way of helping themselves through this intense period of global pandemic. They need our help now more than ever. We are back to the start – and worse.
The need for crisis support, as well as the very real prospect of funds drying up, has necessitated a temporary re-alignment of strategy over the coming months. We need to stay solvent, we need to keep our staff employed (who have their own families to support) and we need to continue to provide hope and leadership in the village. Consequently, we will be moving to a scaled-down crisis support model in the short term.
Our two core staff, centre director Sothea and operations support worker Reay, will continue working in the village. They will now focus on monitoring welfare and levels of economic distress. They will distribute basic hygiene supplies and esure families know how to use them. They will facilitate crisis support as needed – including basic food, basic medical supplies, and referrals/transport to hospital.
We’ve suspended several services to meet our temporary goals. These include English classes for more than 80 students, transport to and from public school (which remains closed), after-school tutoring for secondary school students, kindergarten classes, internet connection and computer tuition.
For the past 7 years, we have been the spark of hope for the people of Taksenkangbloung village. A buffer. A place to turn to for support. We don’t want to have to abandon the Taksen family in its hour of need. We want to fight.
Financial support is more critical to us than ever. We simply can’t continue without it.
We understand that everyone is facing uncertainty right now. Everyone. However, if there is any way you can help us, please do. All we can promise you in these uncertain times is that we will try our hardest to ride out this storm and to come out on the other side – bigger, better, and piece by piece. Together. We might fail, but we’re going to try.
If this is something that you can help with, please donate here.
Tremendous Taksen- Some thoughts from a recent visitor to the centre, Alison…
Last month, I was fortunate enough to be able to join Jenny and Emma for a week at the Taksenkangbloung Community Centre. I last visited Cambodia in 2014 and only made a few quick visits to the village back then, so I was very excited to see the developments since becoming more involved with the charity as a board member last year.
The Tuk-Tuk ride into Siem Reap invoked a flood of memories – the humidity, the vibrant aromas of street food and of course, the unassuming, open and friendly smiles of the locals. A bowl of delightful Khmer soup later we were heading along the road to the village. Our Tuk-Tuk was greeted by a sea of smiling young faces, an array of ducks and chickens and the ever-friendly local team of director Sothea, teacher Sokhean and all around WonderWoman Rae. The faces I recognised had grown up so much in four years and it was lovely to break the ice with the kids and sing songs taught to them by visitors past.
The week that followed was to hold many memorable moments for me. Firstly, meeting my beautiful pen pal and her family was so special and seeing how much the kids enjoyed receiving and responding to the weekly emails was lovely. Then there was the day trip adventure – first stop Rehash Trash! This organisation empowers women who have found themselves in difficult circumstances by teaching them to make beautiful products from used plastic bags and providing a fair wage. This was a great lesson for the kids as the problem of plastic litter is growing worse by the day in Cambodia. The ladies helped them to wash the bags and crochet them into bracelets and key rings for them to keep. They had a great time! After a quick stop for a delicious lunch, we visited the giant lake Tonle Sap, sailing the waters to the floating village of Kampung Phlok. It was quite a spectacle and everyone was spellbound – including me! Perhaps the highlight of the day was the incidental ‘buspool karaoke’ – where the microphone was handed around and we were treated to a serenade of Khmer songs from the beautiful Cambodian voices.
The other big event during our visit was the annual graduation ceremony celebrating the completion of a year of English classes at the Centre. Watching each graduate receive their certificate and don the graduation hat and gown to the sound of the cheers of their peers was beautiful to watch. The Nutella baguettes and Arnotts Cream Biscuits were consumed at break neck speed and the dance party that followed was quite the spectacle. a
I was so humbled by the whole experience and perhaps the most impact I felt was from the openness and willingness of the kids to embrace someone different. They are all living in a variety of conditions and were so happy to play with me and laugh with me despite language and cultural differences.
I would just like to thank Jenny, Emma, Sothea, Sokhean and Rae for taking good care of me and welcoming me to Taksen.
I can’t wait to go back!
What a few months we have had, both in Cambodia and Australia. Highlights included welcoming 13 new students
into Taksenkangbloung Community Centre’s fully supported program, several new enrolments in the centre’s free
English classes and a visit from 12 Warrnambool College students for four fun-filled days.
Put simply, the centre would cease to exist without its wonderful, hardworking, generous supporters. The past few
months have been fruitful in terms of several new monthly sponsors signing up. Thank you to these people – your
contributions are invaluable.
There have also been several successful fundraisers recently. Once again the crew in South Australia, led by past
volunteers Penny, Vicki and Jeanette (with lots of help from their husbands and children), hosted a Cambodian feast
fundraising dinner in July. The event was well and truly at capacity, with 32 guests and eight “staff” in attendance.
Everyone raved about this pop-up restaurant, which raised well over $3000 for Taksen’s programs. Thank you and
well done to these wonderful people! Just try not to drool looking at the pictures of the food!
Taksen’s inaugural golf day at Woodlands Golf Club was a success, with thanks to organisers Alex Strauch and John
Mann, with support from Mark Dwyer. While the August event didn’t attract quite as many players as the boys had
hoped, those who took part in the event raved about it and have requested it be an annual event. And the $500 that
was raised was certainly not to be scoffed at! Over breakfast before the players teed off, important messages were
delivered about Taksen’s projects and responsible development agenda.
Students from Warrnambool College held a cinema night in early September, raising more than $1200 for repair
works on buildings at Taksen. “Gifted” lured in quite a crowd and the students put on a great spread of pre-movie
nibbles. Thanks to all who supported this event.
The fully supported program has increased its numbers to 20 after several students dropped out in recent months
for various reasons (see previous newsletter). Six existing participants have continued to study at the centre for the
duration of their long school holiday period and Visna will return next week after the loss of his father last month.
Thirteen other students will commence next week to coincide with the start of the new public school year at Mook
Neak School. As a first, four of the new students are six years old and will be going into grade one (the equivalent of
prep/foundation in Australia). It is hoped the fact these students are starting school supported at the right age will
lead to greater engagement throughout their school years. We are very excited, as are they!
Before the school holiday period commenced, exams were held at the end of July at Mook Neak School. While we
are proud of everyone’s achievements, two of our students, Sreoun and Sokna, received outstanding academic
results. As a result, the school decided they should both skip grade six and start secondary school after the holidays.
This is a real credit to the girls, who have taken every opportunity they have been given through their involvement
with the centre and ran with it.
Repairs were made to the dirt road into the village, with the help of a donation from the centre. The wet season
takes its toll on the road every year and the centre’s vehicle contributes significantly to the many pot holes that form
on its frequent school drop-offs.
The duck/chicken and mushroom projects continue to have their ups and downs. The number of centre-bred ducks
(which are sold for $8 each) was as high as 80 at one point. The majority of them were sold, contributing valuable
funds to the centre. However, there were several casualties as the wet season arrived. No one is entirely sure what
happened to them. We continue to learn. At present, there are about 30 ducklings at the centre and a few adult
ducks. There are also a few adult chickens and about a dozen ducklings.
In terms of mushrooms, we’re nearing the end of the three cycles of mushrooms that were funded by the Lion’s Club
of Warrnambool. While the profits were well down on the projected income, we’re still happy with the various
outcomes that have been achieved through this project and plan to continue. As with the poultry project, lessons
have been learnt and each crop has been more successful. The training organisation, Trailblazer, has decided to
cease educating people on mushrooms in favour of other crops, which may lead to more demand for our product at
market. After great consideration, we’ve decided to trudge on. Watch this space!
VISITS AND VOLUNTEERS
In a centre first, a group of students from Warrnambool College visited Siem Reap and Taksenkangbloung Village in
late September. They spend four days at the centre, playing sport, using computers together, dancing, singing,
laughing, sharing stories and teaching each other Khmer and English. It was a mutually beneficial cross-cultural
experience that will no doubt be life changing for the Australian students and the Cambodian students.
The focus of the 11-day trip was on responsible volunteering. As part of this, the group learnt about ancient and
modern Cambodian history, experienced local life on a bike ride, in tuk-tuks and by eating and cooking Khmer food,
and participated in a workshop ran by Concert Cambodia. They also learnt about how various inspiring charities are
addressing issues affecting Cambodia today. They met some landmine-detection rats, weaved bracelets and
necklaces to sell out of old plastic bags and watched Phare circus, an acrobatic spectacle that empowers
disadvantaged people and should not be missed! Some students also met with staff from Women’s Resource Centre,
Cambodia, to learn about the invaluable work that organisation is doing with Cambodian women.
The centre is thankful for the financial support it receives from Warrnambool College through its philanthropic
partnership with Merri House and for the responsible volunteering message that the college is keen to spread
among its community. We are hopeful this successful trip can continue to run in the years to come.
Two lots of classroom assistants will visit the centre from mid-November in their school holidays after graduating
from year 12 at south-west Victorian schools. We’re grateful to these four girls for giving up their festive seasons in
Australia to work with the students at Taksen. They will mostly be working with the new intake of six-year- olds while
at the centre to support teacher Sokhean as he integrates these children into his very diverse classroom.
Elaine’s sewing and knitting skills were much appreciated last week, as several sets of hand-made boys and girls
clothes were handed out to some of the younger residents of Taksenkangbloung Village. These children were also
delighted to receive hand-knitted teddy bears, thanks to Elaine. A large number of Days for Girls feminine hygiene
kits were also taken to Siem Reap a few weeks ago and passed on to charity partner Women’s Resource Centre for
distribution. Elaine put in countless hours preparing and creating these items, which were gratefully received. Thank
As always, thanks again for your interest and support. Please let us know if you would like more information about
any aspect of Taksenkangbloung Community Centre. We’d also love to hear about any new fundraising ideas you