Forging a path for a positive future

Learning Spaces are Viva’s response to the urgent, post-Covid need to help children catch up on lost years of education. Matt Coulson describes how his eyes were opened on a visit to one such centre in Cambodia.

Sometimes we might think our eyes are open, but really they are closed. Closed to injustice; closed to our surroundings; closed to a wider understanding.

On a recent trip to Siem Reap, I visited a Learning Space in a remote location, run by our partner network, Peace Team Cambodia. There, I saw 20 children, aged five to nine years old, engaging passionately in an online video about healthy eating. It was awesome to see!

One teacher, Chanthou, told me a story of a little boy called Akrun who came to her to ask her how to brush his teeth. Chanthou gave Akrun a toothbrush and some toothpaste, and explained how to brush correctly.

The next day the same boy came back and asked how to cut his nails. The teacher patiently explained how to do it and they practised together. The next day the boy came back and asked for some food; the teacher provided some bread rolls.

I was a little surprised that this boy needed this kind of rudimentary help so I asked why this boy had had no previous help to learn these tasks.

The teacher explained to me that Akrun was one of the six in ten children who are “left behind” in this region of Cambodia. This means he is placed with neighbours or grandparents and allowed to roam free with no guidance or support.

Chanthou shared more about Akrun’s home situation. This little boy lives with his neighbours, as his parents are both working in Thailand and unable to care for the boy. With no other options available, they have left the child with the neighbours and give them a small allowance for him. However, this money is essentially for his food, so, when it is not enough – because of rising inflation or lack of food options – the child goes hungry.

The allowance doesn’t cover the cost of actually looking after Akrun and making sure that he knows how to do basic things. It doesn’t cover parental love and affection.

Akrun travels on the back of a motorcycle for half an hour to Viva’s Learning Space. For the two hours he is there it is his safe space to ask questions, to be parented, to learn and be inquisitive, and find a way to grow in spite of his circumstances.

His teachers and mentors patiently work with him and the other children in similar situations to forge a path to a positive future.

My eyes opened wide. I saw the stark realities these children face, and the amazing, sacrificial nature of our team and volunteers who act out of a deep-rooted desire for children to be safe, thriving and learning. I saw that a Learning Space is much more than a support mechanism.

It is a family; a place to grow and be encouraged. It is a place where Akrun can feel safe from the issues of neglect and a place where, because of the love of his teachers, he can overcome them.

Viva’s partner network in Cambodia operates ten Learning Spaces for over 1,500 children, five days a week, all year round, ensuring they are integrated in school, supported in their education and inspiring them as positive role models.

Viva trains Learning Space mentors and provides a suite of materials including a handbook, resource guide and learning journal. We also monitor and evalute the progress of the Learning Space.

I am extremely proud of the team that work to see these children able to overcome the inequalities of abuse, neglect and addiction their community faces. They are heroes training future heroes!

Matt Coulson is Viva’s Asia Director