ABC Australian Story

May 2014

Australian Tara Winkler’s Cambodian Children’s Trust shifts focus from orphanage to education

Tara Winkler is happy that she no longer has to be ‘mum’ to 27 Cambodian children.

Three years after being named the NSW Young Australian of the Year for setting up an orphanage in Cambodia, the orphanage is gone, and the kids are now housed with families or foster parents.

Her change of heart is part of a growing sentiment against the spread of orphanages in third world countries, where it has been labelled “orphanage tourism”.

A UNICEF report in 2011 found that the number of orphanages in Cambodia had doubled in the space of five years – even though most children had parents.

Families were putting their children into orphanages because they were too poor to look after them.

“I had these moments of mild despair thinking about it. We had inadvertently become yet another orphanage to add to that list,” Ms Winkler said.

“The conclusion I came to was that no matter how good an orphanage is, the best place for a child is in a family.”

So instead of building orphanages, Ms Winkler’s Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT) provides a range of educational and health programs for poor families.

“Yes, I’m not mum any more. I played that role for a little when it was necessary, but that isn’t something that’s sustainable for all those kids,” she said.

“What they really need is a Cambodian mum and dad, and so that’s what we’ve been able to provide them.”

Ms Winkler was 22 when she started volunteering at an orphanage in the town of Battambang, before realising the director was embezzling donations and abusing children.

With permission from local authorities, she set up her own orphanage to house 14 of the children in 2007.

Her work was featured on the ABC’s Australian Story program in 2010, by which time she had 27 children in her care.

“CCT was set up as an orphanage, but now it’s better described as a community development organisation,” she told Australian Story in an updated program to air tonight.

Over 100 children from the local slums attend CCT’s programs each day.

But it has not all been good news for Ms Winkler, who is now 28.

In 2010, a young Cambodian orphan, Jendar Heng, drowned during a CCT outing to the local pool.

PHOTO: Over 100 children from the local slums attend CCT’s programs each day. (Australian Story)

Ms Winkler says it was “the worst day of my life”.

Drowning is a leading cause of death in Cambodia, where few people have had swimming lessons.  Following Jendar’s death, all the children in CCT programs are put through a ‘survival swimming’ program.

In the new episode of Australian Story, Ms Winkler also reveals a dramatic development in her personal life.

In between trips to Cambodia, she fell in love with the woman who had been her mentor and confidante, Sydney musician and author Carolyn Shine.

But they had been only been a couple for a short time when Ms Shine was diagnosed with appendiceal cancer.

Ms Winkler returned to Australia for nearly a year to nurse Ms Shine through 12 gruelling rounds of chemotherapy.

“Somehow we managed to turn it into one of the best years of our lives,” she said.

“Before she died, Carolyn made me promise that I would go on to live a full and happy life and make the most of every moment.”

Watch the full Australian Story report on ABC iview.