Math Sokha, 17, used to spend his days on the streets of Phnom Penh, scavenging for scraps or working in sweatshops to support his poor family.
Now he teaches the youths he used to spend time with on the streets about another way of life, free of begging and being addicted to glue sniffing.
Six months ago, he was approached by local NGO World Vision to become a social worker of sorts, to teach street kids how to stay away from crime and drug addiction.
“We ask them not to sniff glue or do bad things, to start a new life by selling newspapers or become shoe shiners,” Math Sokha said.
In May last year, World Vision’s Bamboo Shoot Education Children’s Center launched the program to have former street children teach current street kids about a better way of life.
“It is good to have ex-street kids explain to their street friends how to make a decent living because they understand each other,” said Se Youran, a peer educator at World Vision.
So far, 10 program participants have reached about 60 street kids living in Phnom Penh, Se Youran said. They teach the street kids about HIV/AIDS, Khmer literate, the environment, traffic rules, morality and other issues.
Experts say children living on the streets without families pose the greatest challenge in terms of rehabilitation, and often need counseling.
Pheng Heng, deputy chief of the municipality’s cabinet, said there are at least 300 children living in the streets of Phnom Penh.
Fleeing abuse and neglect at home, children are often further exploited when they live on the streets, Pheng Heng said. They often steal, and become addicted to drugs to get by.
Math Sokha had to quit school two years ago because he could not longer afford an education. With four siblings and an elderly mother to support, Math Sokha made less than $1 a day by selling scraps he found in the streets or in garbage bins.
Now he is learning how to become a tailor to earn a better living.
Thorn Chanthoeun, a fellow program participant, was taken from a slum area in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kok district and now teaches street kids about Khmer literature.
With the help of World Vision, she wants to become a chef so she can earn more than the $0.50 a day she was getting by selling morning glory before she joined the program.
“I hope that my life will get better and so will the lives of other street kids,” she said.