The anniversary party hosted by Mith Samlanh on Friday night was very different from one held to open the center fifteen years ago. At Romdeng restaurant, about 100 partygoers sipped on frozen daiquiris, listened to a band by the pool and looked at artwork created by former street children that the local organization helps.
On August 1st 1994, seventeen street children arrived on cyclos at a makeshift center opened by chief executive Sebastian Marlot and three Cambodians who still work with the organization. “This first night was chaotic: suddenly our vision came to life…. There was music and dancing,” Mr Marlot said in a cookbook introduction.
Its not been easy but fifteen years later, about 700 children come to the Mith Samlanh educational center while it’s outreach team builds relationships with more than 1,000 families, communications coordinator Kerri Manika said. Mith Samlanh-which is 52 percent self-sustaining-has 250 staff and its offshoot Friend’s International has over 80 staff supporting projects in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, she said.
Despite these efforts plus vocational training programs there are still an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 children on the streets of Phnom Penh.
“Hopefully in 15 years Mith Samlanh won’t exist…. Or if it does it will be as a local organization running itself,” Ms Manika said, noting that it increasingly supports other NGOs.
Friday’s party was a chance to display paintings drawn by students over the years next to interviews.
“The exhibition recognizes creativity…. It gathers 15 years of paintings that show different phases,” 15 years anniversary co-ordinator Sidonie Thomas said noting that since 1994 the pictures, like the organization, have evolved.
Vong Sunday, 14, who used to live on the streets with her two brothers displayed works painted in 2006. “Struggle of a Group of Children” shows figures wearing red riding elephants that she sees as herself beside her brothers early in life. Another “Happy Living Without Problems” is a bright flower with pictures of her brother in the picture shows her life now as a grade seven student.
Serving food on Friday was a female student, 17, of hospitality and training who started education at the center in 2001. Since her parents passed away she and her sister have lived at one of Mith Samlanh’s transitional houses.
“In the future I want to be the head chief of Romdeng…. [Here] I feel confident of getting knowledge for then,” the student, who could not be named due to media policy, said.