Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The 'Dream Home'

Since the devastation and genocide of Cambodia in the 1970's, the country has struggled with extreme poverty. Many families who were too poor to care for their children gave them up to 'orphanages' rather than watch them starve to death. They believed these institutions would care for their children and provide them with a better life and education. For years, we've known that some Cambodian orphanages were a scam, literally a front for greedy people to line their own pockets, and in some severe cases, a way for pedophiles to get their 'needs' met. There are some pretty sick people out there who prey on innocent children. 

In recent years, many NGO's (non-governmental organizations) like UNICEF have been pressuring the Cambodian government to crack down on orphanages. You can read here about how this has prompted the government to investigate. All this negative media attention brought embarrassment and dishonour on Cambodian officials, who have reacted strongly and are now calling for closure of all orphanages and return of children to their families. If you're interested, you can read more about that here..  

Honour Village Cambodia, where we volunteer, was founded in 2010. It's never been (and probably never will be) an 'orphanage'. Their website clearly states that Honour Village "provides a home, education and loving care to 50 children in need, together with children whose parents are too poor to provide for their basic needs." I suppose it could best be described as a 'residential school', a residence for displaced children, and a free school where these children (and many from surrounding villages) learn English, and also have Khmer lessons that supplement what is taught at their provincial schools.

In keeping with the government's mandate to return children to their families, Honour Village is committed to repatriation of the children where possible. I am really impressed with.their approach to this challenge. They currently have a team of trained social workers (two full-time Khmer social workers and two qualified western volunteers) who are in the midst of assessing the situation for each child. Initially this requires research, finding all the family members, including aunts, uncles, grandparents, parents, and going on 'home visits' to learn if any of them might be able to take the children. (In Cambodia, it's very common for extended family to care for children when the parents are not able.) They also interview the children and assess whether they would be able to be integrated back into their home environment. They use three basic criteria to decide whether a child will return home:
a) Does the child want to go home?
b) Does the family want the child to come home?
c) Is it SAFE for the child to return home?
In some cases, it's not safe.  In some cases, the child wants to stay.  In some cases, the family doesn't want them. If all three of these criteria are not met, these children will remain at Honour Village, and with the detailed reports from professional social workers, the government will have no choice but to allow them to remain in their 'home'.

One of the tools social workers use to help them communicate with children is a 'Dream Home'. It's like a dollhouse,with a selection of little dolls and furnishings, and other items that might be needed to live in the house. The social worker asks the child to imagine his/her 'dream home' and what it would be like.  The child selects one doll to represent themselves, and then they are asked to select and name the people who would be in the home with them.

The social workers at Honour Village thought this would be a valuable tool to help them talk to the children about returning home, and they asked Gordon if he could build a simple little wooden house (similar to many homes in the countryside).

Here is the house that Gordon built.
It needed to have a large opening at the front
so the children could easily see the things they put inside.

A straight-on view

One of the problems the social workers had encountered was finding little people for the house. All they'd seen at the market were Barbie's and GI Joe's, which weren't really appropriate. Knowing that I could sew, they asked me if I could make some little people. Before I did, I thought I'd take another look at the market. There they were!  Little china dolls on key chains!  Although they were dressed in very fancy outfits, I knew they'd work well, so I took them back to the guesthouse and modified their clothing to resemble Cambodian attire.

Here's what I came up with!
The top two rows represent adults and
the bottom two rows represent children.
I cut the legs off a couple to make them small, like babies.

It helps when the scenario is as realistic as possible, so they wanted to have more than just people for the Dream Home. They asked if it was possible for me to make some bags of rice. Rice is the staple food of Cambodia.

Four little bags of rice... and they're filled with real rice!
Our room key is on the right so you can gauge the size.

Although Cambodian countryside homes are sparsely furnished, they all have carpets.  You wipe your feet on them before you enter, and after you take off your shoes.  They're fairly small, and the children sometimes sleep on them.  They come in a variety of colours, usually very bright. 

This is the carpet in front of our bathroom.

Here are my creations.

A Cambodian home will also have one larger mat that is used for sleeping or sitting on.  They are woven and quite colourful.

I got to use my cross-stitch and embroidery skills.
This one was so much fun to make!

The Dream Home has become quite the little project!  A lot of the volunteers have gotten involved.  One person is making thatched roofing for the house.  Another is looking for toy farm animals. (Most Cambodians will have a chicken or two, dogs, and maybe a pig or a cow. I've found some netting that will be ideal to make a fishing net.  The honest truth is, what started out as a tool to help children communicate with the social workers has turned into a dollhouse project for a bunch of volunteers who are enjoying being surrogate grandparents.

To date, six children from Honour Village have been reunited with their families, and more are slated to return in the coming months.  Some may never go home, either because they are too vulnerable, or because their families don't want them, or because they don't want to go home.  As more children do return home, the focus of Honour Village will adjust and change, and it will just grow in different directions. It has always been an evolving project, expanding to meet the changing needs of the community and the children, and there's no fear that Honour Village will ever be shut down. In Cambodia, and especially at Honour Village, there will probably always be a need for volunteers, and there will definitely always be a need for love and kindness. 


  1. what a great blog entry!

  2. Will the children who have gone home be monitored to make sure that all is well?

    1. Yes, Victoria, the two permanent social workers will do monthly visits to monitor progress, and more if required. In fact, many of the children who go home live in nearby villages and still return to Honour Village for 1/2 day of English classes, so the social workers have fairly close contact in some cases.