Zooming along the dusty red country lanes of Cambodia every morning on her little moped headed towards the children’s village that she founded and runs, retired school teacher Sue Wiggans cuts a formidable figure. “I’m a Hell’s Angel biker granny” she jokes, and yet as the children rush out to greet her with hugs, kisses and such palpably genuine love and excitement, she seems more like the warm loving matriarch of a big, beautiful family of children who, thanks entirely to her dedication, commitment and efforts, are being given a chance at a better childhood and a brighter future. Here Sue tells us in her own words how she came to swap her comfortable life on the Isle of Wight for the rural outskirts of Siem Reap.
When did you first visit Cambodia and what was it that inspired you to found Honour Village?
I first visited Cambodia in February 2009. I asked my guide to arrange a visit to a children’s project. Whilst there, a child tried to say something to me, but I was unable to understand him until my guide came over and told me the child wanted to say: “best wishes all the time.”
I returned the following winter to volunteer. I taught the children for seven weeks, and loved the experience. During the year, I had responded to a plea for funding to buy land for a permanent home for the children. Sadly, right at the end of my stay I discovered, quite by chance, that the project was being mismanaged.
I returned after a month to try to sort out this sorry state of affairs and help the director to put his house in order. It soon emerged that he had no intention of doing anything to mend his ways. We discovered that the money I had sent had not been used to buy land. On closer investigation half of the children, turned out to be family members or friends of the director, and the others were brought in from the villages for the benefit of visiting tourists.
At this point of despair a truly astonishing chain of coincidences happened. If any one of the links in the chain had not been there, then I would not now be living in Cambodia. As a Christian, I believe that coincidences are sometimes God-incidences, and I still stand in awe at what has happened in the last four years. I was invited to meet with H.E. Seang Nam, the Member of Parliament for Siem Reap. He listened to my story and offered to give land and that if I came and founded a project, he would put his name on the land. Within a couple of days, I knew I would come to live in Cambodia.
How many children do you look after, how do they come to you and what are your criteria for taking in a new child?
For the last year, we have had a residential family of 53 children. We have also been blessed with a highly experienced consultant social worker from the UK, who has been working with us for six months. A colleague joined her for two months, and they both plan to return on a regular basis, to help Honour Village and other NGOs in the vital work of reintegration. Some of the children may be able to return to their villages in the future, and others will live with us until they are ready for independence, having been supported through further education and a period of transition. During this time they will learn life skills and have regular visits from our social work team, which is set to expand very soon.
Can you give us any case studies regarding some of the children that you have with you at present? (Names and ages have been altered to protect identity)
Q., 22 months, was brought to us by his father, who was at the time very ill with both HIV and TB. At the time he was the sole carer and the situation was very urgent. Q. settled happily with a dedicated housemother as his care-giver, and grew into a happy and highly intelligent little boy. His father recovered and found work and visited whenever he could. Each time his father visited it was clear that there was a strong and loving bond between them. Eventually, Q. was able to return home when an aunt offered to look after him while his father was at work.
J., 11 years, will continue to live as a member of our resident family because his only care-giver, unrelated, is not only unable to give care, but is also violent and addicted to rice wine. It would not be safe for J. to return back to his village, but he will visit a friend in the village in the company of one of our social workers three times a year, and spend the holidays with a staff family.
Can you talk us through an average day at Honour Village?
Honour Village began as a residential home for children who were unable to remain in their villages because of extreme poverty together with family problems such as addiction and domestic violence. Our main project is now Honour Village School. We provide Khmer (Cambodian language), English, maths and computer classes freely to all local children in our commune. Our English (with maths) classes are taught by a Khmer teacher and a group of volunteers, both Khmer and western.
We have 350 children on roll, although irregular attendance is still a problem in a rural community where rice is planted and harvested and other chores and local ceremonies take place. We also serve a simple snack both morning and afternoon to the children.
On Sundays, boys and girls go into town if they wish to play or cheer on the football teams in inter-NGO matches arranged by Globalteer.
How do you ensure the growth, development and welfare of the resident children?
Our resident family is cared for by seven Khmer housemothers. There are currently three homes for boys and one for girls. Very soon we plan to partition one home so that siblings can live together as a family.
Every resident child eats three good meals a day, and their improved health and energy are a result. They receive free care at the Angkor Children’s Hospital and we take them to a private dentist once a year. Our social workers have now been trained in direct work with children – using a small playhouse and people, Khmer style furniture and accessories. This work is in its initial stages, but already the children are asking to have a turn with the house, and to come back for a further session. Direct work enables a child to look at previously hidden feelings and memories and to express emotions that have been repressed. It also enables the social worker to understand more about the child’s wishes and dreams of bonding and family relationships.
Cambodia is a largely Buddhist nation, what elements of the local and Buddhist culture do you encourage at Honour Village and how do you feel it benefits the children?
For almost three years we had meditation as a family every weekday, now I have introduced a one-minute meditation before each kindergarten class begins. It is amazing how these small children come into class and immediately sit with their hands upturned on their knees, waiting for our meditation bell to sound. All of our children are Buddhist, and meditation is part of the Buddhist tradition. Not only does meditation lead a child further into his/her birth tradition and philosophy; it also is good for self-discipline and can enable greater self-awareness.
Our resident children live in as similar a way as we can provide to match that of their home in the village. By keeping our life style as local as possible, we are looking to the future when our children will return to a local setting; so we guard against western influence as far as we can so that the transition will be easier. There would be no benefit, even if we had the funding, in providing facilities that only the best paid employees could ever attain to; the reality is that there are never enough highly paid jobs for those who would like them. For any of our children who do well in life, it will be a step up; for most of them, there will not be a step down if we do things the local way.
What paths can the children take once they have reached the age where they should move on from Honour Village and how are you facilitating this transition?
During the next three or four years we plan to provide at least one opportunity for vocational training on site, and we are already liaising with other NGOs and the youth employment service so that we have other links ready for when our oldest children leave school. They may decide to study until they are older than normal school leaving age (18 years) as they are almost all behind with their studies, having had disrupted schooling, or having been promoted beyond their understanding in their former schools. Any student who passes Grade 12 and wants to go to university will be sponsored for a course of their choice.
Why did you choose the name Honour Village?
The name Honour Village seemed a good name for a project that had sprung out of corruption, because of the gift of land. This gift enables us to build permanent structures, which is not recommended on rented land. We are very blessed indeed to have it. Our motto is Truth – Transparency – Integrity. Our vision is to provide communities with opportunities for change through education. Our logo is an open lotus flower, which again symbolizes purity and truth, as well as being a symbol of Buddhism.
How can people get involved in the work you are doing at Honour Village Cambodia?
People can help to spread awareness of our work. They can arrange donations which can be put through the Virgin Giving page on our website. www.honourvillage.org
We welcome volunteers for a minimum of two months, to work in our school either as assistant teachers or as play-leaders. We do not accept casual visitors, but if a sponsor or potential sponsor is in town, then we are very happy to welcome them for discussion and a brief look around the village. Visitors might consider bringing good used laptops, books, jigsaw puzzles, educational toys or cotton clothing in their luggage.
You mentioned corruption in small privately run orphanages or charities. How can people ensure their time or money is going to worthy, credible and trustworthy causes?
If you want to give either your time as a volunteer, or your money as a sponsor, I think you need to look for the following things:
- Transparency and a willingness to answer any questions you may have on any subject.
- A good Child Protection Policy that must be read, understood and signed by anyone who is on site for more than a short visit. Visitors must be accompanied at all times by a member of staff or volunteer.
- All volunteers should have had background checks, carry current police checks, and provide evidence of these.
- No volunteer should be doing work that could be done by a local employee. Do not agree to work in a residential project where you are asked to do child care work that should be given by local women employed and trained as housemothers. If you and others give children basic care on a short-term basis, this may affect the children’s abilities to make lasting relationships. The best volunteering positions are those in which the volunteer is enabling local staff to increase their skills and autonomy.
- There should be accounts that are available for you to look through without feeling rushed. Preferably accounts should be audited.
- Be wary if a project appears very poor and short of funding. Be very wary if a director tells you there is no money. Sadly, many small projects deliberately keep their children looking poor and badly dressed in order to win sympathy. It is tempting to choose a seemingly underfunded project over a better-presented one, thinking that your money will do more good. It is very unlikely that you will be the only person moved to help a poor project, and you need to ask yourself what benefits the children have been receiving from other peoples’ funding. If you become a regular sponsor, then expect to see the difference your funding has made on your next visit, or photographic evidence. Gifts such as school notebooks may be used for the children, or they may be returned to the market. This applies to any saleable items.
- Ask to see some old photos of the project’s children, and see how many you can identify – sometimes children are brought in from the villages especially for the tourists, and their stay is temporary, during the high season. However, if there is a no-photo policy, it is probably a good sign.
- Notice what sort of transport the director uses. If he drives a Lexus, ask yourself what salary he is paying himself! Is this reflected in the accounts?
What are your hopes and aspirations for the future of Honour Village Cambodia?
To increase the skills and abilities of the Khmer staff and assistants in teaching, child care, social work and a range of other areas; to encourage a sustainable model and provide excellent, safe and loving care in our homes and excellent education in our school; to enable as many children as possible to re-enter their families or home villages on a safe and successful basis; to ensure that the children continue their development, and have vocational training opportunities, or a university education, followed by employment; to provide adult education as local people desire, probably in sustainable agriculture and fish rearing.
How does founding Honour Village and its subsequent growth make you feel?
Honored, privileged, awed, excited, tired, relieved, busy and quietly confident for the future.
As someone who is embodying the ‘Be the Change you Hope to See in the World’ motto, what advice would you give to others aspiring to live by this principle?
We cannot change the world, but we can change ourselves in many ways. Our strengths and weaknesses affect other people. I like to try to live with an open heart and mind, so that I am available to change even when it feels uncomfortable.
Thank you so much for your time and for being an inspiration to others.