Friday, October 21, 2011

Siem Reap Cambodia: The Green Gecko Project

So, I know that since Angelina Jolie adopted Maddox, Cambodia has been at the center of many celebrities' attentions using a cause to raise their profile.  However, after traveling there, it is really apparent that they need all the help they can get.  There were only few places that we went to where we didn't see barefoot, dirty children (as young as 5) begging for money, notwithstanding that the government started cracking down on begging in 2006. 

Many of these children are the sole breadwinners for their families.  The money they collect often goes to support the drug habits of their parents. It's so painful to think that these are the same children that get sold at a young age into prostitution, most often by their own parents.  Our heart strings were definitely pulled, and we wanted to do something while we were there, however minor it may have been.  We learned about the Green Gecko Project ( through a random encounter with some Americans living in Singapore, while riding elephants in the jungles of Thailand, and decided to to a little research on the organization.

The Green Gecko Project was started by an Australian woman that wanted to make a difference. "Responding to an article she read in a Virgin in-flight magazine, Australian-born Tania Palmer walked off the plane and straight into a travel agency to book a flight. The article was about an orphanage in need. The destination was Siem Reap, Cambodia. The date was August 2004.  A month later, Tania found herself in stifling tropical heat and humidity with eyes, arms and heart wide open to the plight of the Cambodian children. Soon after, she was back home, in body but not in spirit.  By February 2005, Tania had packed up her life, home and office desk to return to Cambodia, with no plan, no goal and no idea of what the future would bring. The strength of her “calling” came from somewhere way beyond any reason or logic."

The concept of the Green Gecko Project is a little different.  It's not just an orphanage. Most of the children have families, but their home situation is so unbearable, that they prefer to live away from home. The organization pays for the children to go to private school (in Cambodia school is free only until about 5th grade, but don't quote me on that), and conducts educational seminars for parents to get them off drugs, gives them funding to start a micro-business (and business support) and just generally improves their situation.

After we read the Project's wishlist, we went to the local market and tried to haggle with some of the merchants to give us a good price. After much haggling, and playing the disinterested game, we still ended up paying falang (foreigner) prices, but, after getting over the feeling that we'd been ripped off, we were happy to spend the money for a worthy cause.
Looking for goodies at the local market

Looking for a tuk tuk with our wishlist items

 We paid our tuk tuk driver $10, to drive us to the Project, which was far out of the city, and to wait for us while we toured the property.  Doug, an Australian, gave us a tour of the property.  He was so impassioned with the Project, that he retired from his job, moved to Cambodia and started a restaurant, where his Cambodian wife was the chef.  100% of the profits of the restaurant were donated to the Project.  The lengths that people will go to when passionate about what they are doing never ceases to amaze me, and the people working working for the Green Gecko Project were a perfect example.

The orphanage was a beautiful sanctuary for the children where they learned art, dance, gymnastics, reading in English, among other great classes that they would otherwise never have the opportunity to experience.  Doug said that Cambodians themselves discriminated against these children (before Tania that is) because they were "stinky kids".  Schools didn't want them in their classes because they were so dirty.  So, in its inception phase, Tania set out to start a school made up strictly of "stinky kids", and from there the Green Gecko Project was born. 

Green Gecko Sleeping Quarters
Per Doug, as at the time we visited, 100% of the children living at Green Gecko over the age of 9 had been victims of sexual abuse or molestation.  This was by far the most heart-wrenching thing I've ever heard, and, after reading Somaly Mam's book, The Road to Lost Innocence, I gained a whole new perspective of what these poor children have actually suffered through.   


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