Changing lives, one step at a time

A WHOPPING two million people visit Angkor Wat, near Siem Reap, Cambodia, each year, yet most are oblivious to a small village of 350 people next to the temples. 

Taksenkangbloung Village is hidden beside one of the most important archaeological sites of south-east Asia, and a Warrnambool family is giving the disadvantaged community a helping hand.

Sisters Rebecca and Emma Burchell and their mother Jenny have set up the Taksenkangbloung Community Centre, the primary focus of which is a day program to help 15 of the village’s most disadvantaged children attend school.

“There are about 350 people in the village,” Rebecca said.

“It is very basic and most people don’t seem to be reaping the rewards of so many wealthy visitors to the temples. 

“They are living in squalor right beside Angkor Wat but the tourists generally don’t see it. It’s hidden by a line of trees.”

Regular visitors to Cambodia over the years, the Burchells met a family in disarray who changed their lives.

“Basically we came across this particular family four years ago and our family couldn’t turn our backs on them,” Rebecca said.

“It’s come from that. We couldn’t forget about them. Things just kept getting worse and worse for them. 

“While poverty is certainly not isolated to this family in this village in Cambodia, we thought we’d try to do what we could to help on a small scale.

“Because of Cambodia’s recent history, a lot of the adults in the village are at the age where they would have suffered great sadness and trauma during the Pol Pot time,” she said. 

“There is a sense of hopelessness there and it’s extremely hard for people to get jobs and look after their families.”

Alcoholism and domestic violence are prevalent in the village and many children support their families by begging at the temples or scavenging.

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Rebecca said the new centre aimed to empower the people of the village through improving access to education. 

“We will never expand beyond Taksenkangbloung. We believe social inclusion and education are the keys to advancement within the village and in the short time the centre has been open there has been evidence of success.”

Last year the Burchells visited Taksenkangbloung Village and were dismayed to see that the modest house of the family they had been concerned about had fallen down.

They helped re-build the house and through talks with the village chief, came up with the idea of a community centre.

Over six months and with careful planning and case studies conducted in the village, the pilot day centre program was developed and fine-tuned.

“We offered 15 of the most disadvantaged children in the village a chance to participate in the program, which effectively meant they would be able to start going to school,”Rebecca said.

“They range in age from six to 15 and are from five or six different families.”

Local builders were employed to build a basic school house, kitchen and toilet block.

Six days a week the 15 students make their way to the community centre at 5.30am. They are given clean clothes from a clothes library on site, two meals a day, tuition in English and Khmer and a safe ride to and from school in the centre’s tuk-tuk, which was purchased with a donation made by the Lions Club of Warrnambool. 

“We basically provide everything they need to succeed at school, including a full belly and clean uniforms,” Rebecca said.

Six staff are employed at the centre, including a full-time teacher.

“Because this is a centre for the community we wanted to have a sense of involvement for everyone, so we also offer four classes a day of free English lessons for anyone who wants to attend. We have 90 people coming on a daily basis,” she said.

“The very existence of the centre has created this real sense of pride and hope in the village. In the three months since the centre opened, there has been amazing progress.

“There’s a real sense of community. The people of Taksenkangbloung can use the centre for anything they want. We wanted them to take a certain sense of ownership over it.”

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Regular fund-raisers, combined with generous donations from local organisations and individuals, fund the centre.

“We are hoping by the end of the year to have enough money coming in from our monthly supporters to meet our monthly running costs. That way any fund-raisers held can go directly towards improving the centre and helping more children within the village,” Rebecca said.

For more information on the centre or to make a contribution, visit Taksenkangbloung.org or call Jenny on 0417 623 819.

rhoulihan@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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