Vanna Yet's two children have been studying primary school at the Together for Children and the Elderly Organisation (TCEO), but her eldest son now continuing his secondary education at a public school at Grade 8.

She hopes to soon send her youngest daughter to enrol in first grade at TCEO, while her second child is already in Grade 3. She will then have more time to make a living selling soft drinks and snacks in front of a factory.

The 42-year-old was diagnosed with cervical cancer and had to bring up her children alone as her husband left after learning she had developed the disease.

“The TCEO school has really helped to ease a lot of the burden on me by providing an education for my children, at least until they finish primary school,” Yet said.

But the not-for-profit’s 18-year mission of providing the very poorest children an education – and easing the strain on struggling parents such as Yet – is under threat.

The TCEO school has been running classes under a wooden house since 2005 after Om Dara, the founder of TCEO, visited the Stung Meanchey garbage dump and saw miserable scenes of children living in such poor conditions.

He then came up with an idea after seeing them living in such difficult situations – and kick-started the project aiming to get the poorest of children an education.

Dara was a civil servant working for the Ministry of Economy and Finance. He suspended his job to form TCEO, oversee the education of the children and find funding to support the organisation for nearly two decades.

“At the time, I was renting a space under a wooden house to build a room to teach in, and I relied on volunteer teachers. We collected around 30 children from the garbage dump to study.

“The big organisations cannot help all the children living on the rubbish dump, so I am assisting those that are left, as many as we can, by educating them,” the now 63-year-old told The Post.

Continued to grow

Dara initially donated the volunteer teachers one bag of rice and each student 10kg of rice a month. But as the number of children kept increasing, he was constantly increasing his outlay on buying rice and other materials to support their studies.

Seeing the importance of his work, some friends and other generous supporters began to help and the project continued to grow until it was fully registered as an organisation.

“Initially, it was just a small project for helping children to learn, but as time went on, it grew and more children became involved until it was registered in 2006.

“TCEO has been providing education at primary school level. And with six classes from Grade 1 to Grade 6 since 2005, the school under the wooden house has provided education to around 400 to 500 children who have completed primary school.

“But I recognised that most children are not able to pursue their education after finishing primary school, instead going off to work due to being poor and their families unable to afford their studies. Some do not even finish primary school but have to work to support their families,” Dara said.

Dara said that because the parents worked away from home, such as collecting scrap and selling dun-dried clams, they took their children to the organisation during the day.

“By studying at TCEO, where the curriculum is in line with public schools and recognised by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, the students can continue into secondary education after they finish primary school,” he said.

“We have so far over these 18 years educated many children, and we continue to enrol more students for each academic year, but we are limited to only 100 students,” he said.

While TCEO also helps the elderly by providing food, it cannot fully take care of them. In one area, the organisation helps by providing rice, soy sauce and fish sauce, with 10 elderly people receiving regular food packages, five of whom live right next to the garbage dump.

Dara, who continues to focus on improving the education of children, said very few students went on to continue their secondary education at a public school.

He gave the example that among 10 students who passed Grade 6, there were only two or three who continued onto secondary school because their family lives were so difficult.

Students at the school getting free haircuts. SUPPLIED

Some parents were forced to take their children – who had perhaps only been studying for three or four years – out of school and get them to work to help support the families.

On average, he said that out of every 100 students, around 10 dropped out of school.

‘Difficult times’

But despite seeing that many children who had gone to primary school were unable to continue their education and dropped out to work, Dara is unable to run a secondary programme for them due to limited funding.

“Today, the organisation cannot make its expansion into secondary education as even the funding of the primary school has been hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, with foreign donors forced to suspend or even end their support.

“Each of the generous families overseas who supported us have been hit financially, and most of them are elderly. They have asked to stop funding.

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, from 2020, we used the remaining funds and tried to raise funds through social media and seek donors to help support us during these difficult times,” Dara said.

The $1 fundraising campaign on Facebook could not support the organisation’s costs, with the founder being forced to reduce staff from more than 10 to five and cut lunch for students.

TCEO had provided a meal to each child at noon, before starting school again in the afternoon. But since the Covid-19 pandemic they could no longer donate food and the students had to bring their own lunch.

Dara, the founder of TCEO, which has relocated its office to Tuol Pongro near the new Choeung Ek landfill, said even such cuts were proving to be not enough.

TCEO has survived largely through overseas funds, which were raised through an annual fundraiser.

He said that at present, staff and food assistance had been cut, with the organisation needing around $2,000 per month to run the school. This covered staff salaries, rent, water and electricity bills, and other expenses – some $25,000 per year.

“Local fundraising is not sustainable in the long run without long-term assistance. In the last two years, we have struggled after running out of foreign donations,” Dara said.

Under threat

The organisation is now facing a funding shortfall for 2023. In the next few months, if no further funding is available, the organisation will have to shut down.

And Yet’s dream of sending her youngest child to school is under threat.

The single mother struggling with raising her children and battling her cancer spoke of her hopelessness after hearing that the organisation could face closure due to a lack of funding.

“I was shocked during the meeting when it was said that TCEO could close down. My kids have studied at the organisation, which even helped with food,” she said.

Dara said it was important to fight to keep the good work of TCEO going.

“It would be easy for me to close up and move on. But over the years, we have worked hard to help uneducated children. We think we have educated 100 students a year – 100 students every year who otherwise would not have gone to school, instead having to work.

“This is a problem that affects our society. When children who haven’t been to school grow up and become adults, they are illiterate, and being unable to get a good job they can turn to crime.

“Please donate a little money so that TCEO can continue to provide education to the poor children living on these piles of rubbish, and contribute to reducing the burden of social problems,” Dara said.

Yet also expressed hope that the organisation would continue to educate children.

She said she would be thrilled for concerned donors to step in and help keep the good cause going – and to see her youngest daughter make it to school.