On my very first day at Punlok T’mey Boys’ Center, I couldn’t help but notice Darith. He danced into the building as soon as the doors opened, eyes shining with an engaging smile.
Over time, I got to know him well. I learned that Darith enjoys his Level One English Class and loves learning about the computer. In afternoon Kids’ Club he sings at the top of his lungs, louder than anyone else. He eagerly raises his hand to answer every question just in case he knows the answer, and when he is wrong, he rolls on his back and giggles with a look that says, “Well, at least I tried!”
I've also learned that Darith lives in Phnom Penh with his family of six just a few short blocks from the Boys’ Center. Some weeks ago one of our Khmer staff leaders, Penha, and I walked Darith and his older brother, Dara, home after club.
The entrance to their building is on a street paved so long ago I found myself walking on loose gravel. Leaving the bright sunlight, we entered a murky hallway and walked up narrow steps worn to scallops from years of use. The landings were dimly lit by sparsely spaced vents to the outside, and after climbing winding stairs to the 4th of five floors where the family lives, Dara opened the padlock and welcomed us into their simple one-room home.
Without a kitchen, the rice cooker and small one-burner propane stove sit on the floor. A tiny bathroom opens to one side, and along the opposite wall stands a congested family clothes rack. A few toys added to other storage are accessible from under the wood slatted bed that has no mattress and covers more than half the floor space. A mosquito net hangs daytime limp from two nails in the wall. Penha guesses the parents sleep with the youngest on the bed; the older siblings sleep on the hard tile floor. One small slatted window opens onto the street below.
Darith and his brother had joyfully invited us in, so we stayed to talk and laugh for a good 15 to 20 minutes. Back on the street, I turned and looked up to see Darith waving goodbye. My heart broke as I realized their entire home would easily fit in my bedroom.
“Why doesn’t Darith go to school?” I asked Penha.
“His parents don’t have the proper paperwork,” he answered.
My heart sank as I remembered that boys like Darith, without an education, are at high risk for sexual abuse and exploitation. Penha proceeded to explain that because Darith’s parents moved to Phnom Penh from the province they could not afford the documentation necessary for their kids to go to school. This is a common situation for today's Khmer families.
He then told me that $50 would buy the right paperwork and provide Darith a school uniform, bookbag, and school supplies. While tears flowed at what I couldn’t do to help this family live in a better place, joy grew at what I could do to make sure Darith at least gets into school.
Now, a few months later, through the generosity of the supporters and friends who have sent me and kept me here in Cambodia, Darith will soon enter the 1st Grade. I can just picture him with the same enthusiasm and eagerness to learn that he expresses at Kids’ Club. This ten-year-old boy, who has never set foot in a school, will study math and learn to read and write Khmer.
This marks a profound change in Darith’s life. It truly is the start of a hopeful future.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia