Working towards change, one child at a time- The Riverkids Project
An interview with Dale Edmonds, Managing Director, Riverkids
In the rat race that is our day-to day life, between the eternal chase of our dream career, perfect family, ballooning mortgage and car loans, that elusive vacation in Europe, and the new toy that Apple and Samsung are battling over to bring into our worlds- which we don’t really need, but once launched we can’t seem to live without, how many of us really pause and think about the millions, whose daily life is nothing short of an epic struggle? It is the inspiring story of a person that we present today, who not only asked these hard questions, but also turned words into actions, bringing change into the lives of hundreds of kids and their families in Cambodia. We at Grassroots, are honored to feature an interview with Dale Edmonds, the founder and Managing Director of Riverkids Project. Dale, a social entrepreneur, started Riverkids in 2005, with the mission to end child trafficking and abuse of children in Cambodia. Today, Riverkids is a rapidly growing initiative, bringing more and more children under its protective umbrella, with focus on many areas of development including education, health, social services and income generation for the under-privileged communities.
We thank Dale for agreeing to do this interview for our health awareness initiative ‘Talking Healthy’. Without much further ado, lets begin the interview.
1) What was the inspiration to start ‘Riverkids’ and what is the mission of the project?
We had adopted two “orphans” from Cambodia who, it turned out, had been trafficked. Riverkids started when we were very fortunate to find our children’s family and reunite them with their siblings. Adoption trafficking was and continues to be a problem in Cambodia. People think of it as an almost positive, acceptable type of child selling! But it is still human trafficking, taking advantage of poverty and tragedy to make a profit with the real needs of the children and their families ignored.
Our children’s sister, who we went on to adopt with her family’s support, had been bought by a trafficker to look after her own two small children. Our daughter was worried about leaving behind these two children who she had become very close to. The trafficker was also desperately poor – in Cambodia, most of the local trafficking rings are very small and local and it’s not heavily organised like in other countries. Only the people at the very top make huge profits. We agreed to help provide food and school for these two children so she wouldn’t worry about them.
Over time, we got to know of more children in the community who needed help. We realised there was a need to help these specific children or they would end up trafficked and abused as well.
Riverkids’ mission is to prevent the trafficking and abuse of children in Cambodia. There are lots of ways to do this because the problem is so complex, and you need to have many partners, local and international, small and big, government, business and NGO. There’s no single solution.
Our focus is on the most high-risk families. These are families who have already sold a child, or are struggling with a serious challenge like alcoholism or gambling, families that are abusive and unwilling to protect their children. They are not easy to work with! But their children are the most vulnerable and traffickers know to look for these families.
2) Could you describe some of the work that you do in Cambodia? What are the major fields of work that Riverkids is involved in?
We are a community-based prevention program. We have four centers currently, each located in or next to a major slum community so that children and families can drop-in easily. The core of our program is social work – finding the high-risk families and figuring out with them what will help. We have education programs, from kindergarten to this year, our first university scholarships, health care programs, and work and microfinance programs. We work with a lot of partners so we can focus on what we do best and refer families to specialised care. Some children are in half-a-dozen programs with us, some are in just one. Each family needs a different type of help, and our job is to listen to them and work with them so they can change and take care of their children well on their own. We very rarely have to recommend removing a child from their family – almost always, the parents want to and do change, or there is an other family who will step forward to care of the child. They just have lost hope.
3) What are your initiatives on the public health front?
We have a full-time community nurse, helped by volunteers. We hope to expand this as we recently found in a survey and research a big gap for chronic illnesses for our families. For serious illnesses and accidents, we have built up a great network of hospitals, medical NGOs and clinics that we can bring our families to for free or subsidized care. We’re in Phnom Penh, so getting HIV treatment support is straightforward – we help with the logistics and nutrition. For minor illnesses and first aid, our nurse does a fantastic job. She also provides prenatal care and counselling for pregnant mothers, and focuses on malnutrition and development for infants and toddlers in our program. We also do standard health training – handwashing, personal hygeine, cooking cleanliness – with children and families. We also have annual dental check-ups for children through partnerships.
4) How is the health situation in Cambodia and what are the challenges that you face in driving your initiatives?
Healthcare in Cambodia is sharply divided by rural vs urban and poor vs rich. If you live in the cities and have money, it is actually quite decent. A lot of people travel to Bangkok and Vietnam for treatment, which is affordable.
However, if you live in the countryside, the clinics and hospitals are few and far, and they are often badly stocked or understaffed.
If you are poor, you are supposed to qualify for free treatment, but to get it is quite complicated and many of our poor families don’t know how to ask for it, where to go or are too afraid to ask. There is unfortunately a lot of corruption, and poor families are forced to pay or denied access. We have had some very sad stories for this. Even when the treatment is free, the custom in Cambodia is for the family to provide nursing care, bedsheets, food etc for the patient. For a poor family, a sick child in a free hospital can still mean a huge loss of income as a parent has to stay with the child fulltime, and the cost of transport and food can mount up. Riverkids provides subsidies for cases like this, and our nurse and social workers will accompany families to the hospital and clinic for treatment to advocate for them.
We also have to follow-up – you can get the right treatment, but then the patient doesn’t understand how to take the medication, or is living in a filthy shack, can’t afford healthy food or is too drunk to take care of themselves, so their injury gets worse again. Our nurse does home visits and follows-up with families.
Riverkids is fortunate to be based in Phnom Penh and have access to clinics. We need more nurses and social workers, and we are trying to figure out how to help chronic illnesses like diabetes that don’t kill people immediately, but make them weaker and are expensive to continually treat, leading to a downward spiral into poverty.
5) Do you get institutional support from the Cambodian government? Do you have any partners, and if so, who?
We are a local non-governmental organisation in Cambodia. We don’t get any governmental funding. We have been very fortunate to build good relationships with the local authorities in our communities. They give us support in helping us get the documentation for healthcare access. We’re currently looking into getting recognized as a children’s centre to qualify for free or subsidized immunization for our older children. The Cambodian government has a good immunization program- if you know where to take the children and how to fill out the paperwork!
We have a lot of partners for medical care, clinics and hospitals we can go to with clients and other medical NGOs.
6) What projects would you like to do in the future to enhance health care among the kids and the community under your care?
We want to complete immunization for all our kids. The older ones are tricky as they have often never been immunized and need a special schedule, plus HIV screening. We would like to do more HIV screening as we have a very high rate of HIV in our families, and we fear it could be much higher, but there is resistance as most of our families don’t want to know. This requires more advocacy and outreach. It’s the same for family planning – getting contraception is relatively cheap and straightforward, but there are a lot of social issues around it.
We would like to get another nurse so we can do more training work and support for people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, and follow up faster on sick children. Families are reluctant to ask for help, so we often only can get involved when a child is already seriously ill which is frustrating and dangerous.
7) How do you fund raise for your projects? How can interested people contribute to your mission?
We are mostly funded by donations from individuals, with the rest coming from small grants from foundations. People can donate through our website at http://www.riverkidsproject.org
We are always looking for volunteers as well, especially with community health experience.
8) Have you been challenged by any social and/or cultural sterotypes?
Almost all our staff are Cambodian which makes a huge difference. It is very important to know as much as possible about Cambodian culture and to listen to Cambodians and the local community if you want to help effectively. Otherwise, you will make lots of silly to tragic mistakes.
However, the families we work with live in almost a different culture from most Cambodians. There is a lot of overlap with how other “slum” communities are – accounts of very poor and socially isolated families in Indonesia, England, the Philippines, Brazil – they have a lot in common, the same bleak and destructive social behaviours.
So it’s a culture shock as well for our middle-class and working-class Cambodian staff too. When you meet someone who’s mother was a sex worker, who was sold herself as a young teenager and has sold her own daughter and is now planning to sell her grandchild, and who sees this as normal and acceptable, that is a very different worldview. You need to understand the history of this family to recognize why the daughter still loves and obeys her mother, why the grandchildren are seen as property rather than beloved babies. It’s hard. But you can’t help if you don’t try to understand.
9) Where do you see Riverkids in year 2023?
We hope we will be working in very different areas of Cambodia. “Alexandra”, our first community centre, has seen a lot of changes – when we started, we had no problem finding teenage girls for our Get Ready program that helps them get back to school or find safe jobs. This year, we’ve had none from that community because we’ve either already done the program with them, or they don’t need it.
As Cambodia’s economy improves, a lot of the worst effects of poverty will disappear. Family abuse unfortunately won’t – every country in the world struggles with this – but we hope the families we work with will become fewer. We also see the Cambodian government taking over more educational, health and social issues so we can focus on reaching the families that slip between the cracks.
10) Do you see your initiative being applicable to similar communities outside of Cambodia?
Definitely. We are inspired by programs in slum communities all over the world, and there are a lot of programs that can be localised and applied to other slum communities.
Grassroots will be working with Riverkids on areas relating to health, to bridge the gap in education and awareness. In particular, we will be conducting education sessions with the nurses and community health workers on the nutritional disparities of currently served meals at the organization. This will be supplemented with education on the universal health standards of diet and nutrition, and the distribution of materials. Grassroots will also conduct basic BMI scoring of the children at Riverkids to evaluate their malnutrition status. With this, we hope to better the nutritional status of the children as well have it translate into their families. More details about Riverkids can be found at their website: http://www.riverkidsproject.org/