By TARA WINKLER
This is how running an NGO for children in Cambodia made me realise the importance of mothers.
Another Mother’s Day has come and gone. This year, I reflected on how much my attitude toward the holiday has changed.
With over a billion dollars spent on the holiday each year, I used to see Mother’s Day as an engine for consumerism
I don’t see it that way anymore.
I am not a mother, but I am responsible for many children and it has definitely changed my perspective on many things, including the importance of mothers.
In 2007, I established Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT) and suddenly became responsible for 14 children.
It wasn’t something I had planned. While traveling in Southeast Asia, I volunteered at an orphanage. Later, I learned the orphanage’s director was corrupt. He had been embezzling all the donations and the children were suffering gross neglect, being forced to catch mice and rats to feed themselves. Worse still, the director of the orphanage was physically and sexually abusing them.
I had to act. With the help of one of the orphanage staff, and the support of the Cambodian government, I took the children from the orphanage and started CCT.
These children had been through so much. Some had lost their parents and lived on the streets. I wanted to give them a safe home where they could receive the care every child needs.
I was 21 at the time, and to be honest, I was in way over my head. Fortunately, I had help from many people including, of course, my own mother. I appreciated her a lot more after better understanding the huge responsibility that it is to look after kids.
I took my new responsibility to these 14 children seriously, and I started to research how to structure CCT to best care for them.
Along the way, I learned upsetting things about orphanages in Cambodia.
In Cambodia, most children in orphanages are not actually orphans. They are children from poor families. The primary reason these parents place their children in orphanages is to access to education.
Yet these families aren’t aware of the harm orphanages can cause children.
Being separated from family has a lasting effect on children. Research shows living in orphanages can harm them physically, intellectually and emotionally, at times even causing personality disorders.
While not all orphanages are corrupt or abusive, it is clear that children do best when they have the same adults consistently caring for them, rather than a rotating roster of staff and volunteers.
This makes sense. I can’t imagine what my childhood would have been like without the steady and reliable presence of my mum and dad.
I didn’t want CCT to be another orphanage contributing to these problems in Cambodia, and so we restructured CCT to support children within families. We reunited children with their families. We provided support to families so they could afford to keep their children with them. And for those children who did not have families or who were unsafe at home, we placed them in foster care, where attentive and nurturing foster parents care for them.
Today, CCT supports more than 300 children, all of whom live in a family, where they receive the kind of care that is not possible in an orphanage; the attentive care a mother gives a child.
We asked some of the mums caring for children in our foster care program what being a mum means to them. Their responses were inspiring.
Rin said, ”I am so proud to be a mother to children who can have such good education that they will be strong enough to help make a better future for Cambodia.”
Kim said, ”I am so happy to see older girls who have grown up to become such strong and brave women who can look after themselves. I work hard to make my girls strong so they can be the role models for other girls and boys.”
Roan said, ”I am very proud to see the children I have worked with so long grow up from their hard life before – supporting themselves, being respectful of themselves and others and having big dreams.”
Thanks to my mother’s support and care, I was able to grow up happy and have the opportunity to contribute to those around me. In the same way, Rin, Kim, Roan and the other dedicated mothers we work with are making it possible for their children to overcome the obstacles in their lives and achieve great things.
And that is worth celebrating not only on Mother’s Day, but every day.
If you’d like to learn more, you can also watch Tara speak on ABC’s Australian Story last month.