West Belfast woman Arlene Gormley's dream of helping children in Cambodia turned to reality when she set up a charity. She tells Gail Bell how that dream is still alive with a new project helping young people train for the hospitality industry
FEEDING and educating 800 slum children each day is a daunting task, but for west Belfast woman Arlene Gormley another day is another chance to bring hope to Cambodia's desperate 'invisibles'.
Arlene, who co-founded the Feeding Dreams charity in Cambodia's tourist capital of Siem Reap, in 2012, has now written a children's book, 2030 Not a Fairytale, to help fund the life-changing work which includes a children's school and her latest project – a new vocational training centre for young people.
With expenditure running to £149,000 each year, the 32-year-old decided to help raise funds by picking up a pen and writing about a subject close to her heart.
The United Nations agenda for sustainable development is, perhaps, not the usual bedtime reading material parents might expect from a picture book but it has struck a chord.
"The aim was to introduce sustainable development goals to pre-school children through a colourful picture book with simplistic explanations," Arlene says. "The official document for the 2030 agenda is long and technical.
"Children are born into an uncertain and unequal world and parents worry about the kind of world their child grow up in. I think it’s important to make children part of the conversation from the earliest opportunity.
"The book is being read to children in Ireland, America, the UK, Australia, Nigeria, Holland and the UK, so it is educating the next generation as well as supporting children here in Cambodia."
Arlene, who recently graduated from the Heller School in Boston with a master's degree in Sustainable International Development, is excited about the new training centre which is equipping young Cambodians to work in the country's flourishing hospitality industry.
"Siem Reap, which is a gateway to the Angkor temples, boasts around 200 hotels and 250 guest houses, with numbers increasing rapidly," she says. "We currently have 28 kids enrolled in the centre and they are really optimistic about the future.
"Our one-year course provides training in everything from housekeeping and room service to front-office management and official certification is awarded by the Cambodian Ministry of Education and Department of Tourism.
"Fewer than three per cent of Cambodians have a bank account and fewer than one per cent have health insurance, so this is an opportunity for a promising career for the most marginalised kids who couldn't afford an education and who spent their days collecting rubbish."
It is also a "huge undertaking" for the Queen's University Belfast sociology graduate who first discovered a passion for social justice while in the classroom herself.
"I grew up in Andersonstown and the Northern Ireland political conflict definitely shaped my experiences," she recalls. "I was passionate about inclusive development for youth and at university it struck me that the worries, hopes and realities for both Catholics and Protestants were similar.
"University was a great learning experience for me and it was the first time I ever spent time with people from the 'other' community."
After graduating in 2005, she took part in the Northern Ireland Small Enterprise programme, leading to the opening of her own enterprise – a bakery – in an inter-face area in Belfast.
But, Arlene had ambitions beyond baking buns, even when her 'Crumbs Cakes' company developed into a leading wedding and novelty cake business in her home town and provided employment for disadvantaged youth on her own doorstep.
"My business was hugely successful but I often thought about what I had learned in my training as a sociologist," she says. "I began to wonder if my skills for enterprise, coupled with a passion for social justice, could help young people living in other post-conflict societies. There was only one way to find out..."
After selling up, she took herself off back-packing in Cambodia, "hoping to find a challenging project to be part of". It didn't take long – a 20-month training programme as a social worker beckoned in the south-east Asian country, impoverished and still scarred by the war, dictatorship and genocide of the 1960s and 70s.
"The area in Cambodia I was working in was going from strength-to-strength, so three colleagues and I got together and decided to start up a new organisation in a slum area called Tavien in Siem Reap province," she says. "I met Australian Kerry Huntly, the other director of Feeding Dreams, while back-packing and we both had the same drive to make a difference.
"We sat round a small table with big dreams for this village that was suffering badly. Homes were literally made from rubbish and there was over-crowding and rapid spread of disease.
"So, we set up a school – providing work for local teachers – for 800 kids who attend at different times of the day. Education for the poor is largely inaccessible in Cambodia due to insufficient government funding and high fees.
"We feed them every day and we use the school as a platform to operate a community outreach programme to help the families, a sort of a social services centre. We have counsellors on site, so if a child is visibly bruised, really starved or sick looking, we try to help the family.
"I love the kids here like they are my own. When I first met some of them, they were very sick, dangerously thin and covered in sores and many of them were bald.
"During the first few months of school they were falling asleep on the desks after we served the first meals and many of them were in agony with stomach pains because their wee stomachs just weren't used to eating."
With a football academy and university scholarship programme also part of the expanding programme, she admits it is a "huge task" to run everything for under £150,000 per year – but friends back home continue to be supportive, both financially and emotionally.
"As you can imagine, it can be a little isolating over here ," Arlene adds. "I miss a decent mattress and good hot shower, but to know that there are people at home who have faith in the work I am trying to do spurs me on.
"The goal is to raise a community of healthy, happy, educated young people who will be able to offer their own kids a better life than the one they were handed."
:: Feeding Dreams receives no government funding and relies solely on fundraising and donations. To buy a copy of 2030 Not a Fairytale, sponsor a child, volunteer or make a donation, visit www.feedingdreamscambodia.org