International Children’s Day AKA the sweatiest day of my life

International Children’s Day is a public holiday celebrated in Cambodia to raise awareness of the many challenges for impoverished families struggling to support their children. Typically, schools and community groups hold events to honour their students, celebrating their rights to a quality education, safety and a positive standard of living. IKEA and the IKEA Foundation partner with Save the Children to break the cycle of poverty and aim to improve the quality of education for minorities, children with disabilities, and groups that are vulnerable due to their location.

We were able to celebrate this day with the O Tapoang primary school in the Pursat province of Cambodia. When we arrived at the school, we were met with hundreds of little eyes curiously peering over the heads of their classmates. They anxiously waved their little hands to say hello while still neatly sitting in their wooden desks, which had been brought to the dirt courtyard for the celebration. They seemed SO excited to see us! We were told by our guide: “They LOVE visitors! They are proud to show their school to you!”
Throughout the morning, we watched students sing songs about the history of International Children’s Day. Several students shared written essays about their personal struggles with poverty. I sat in my plastic lawn chair in awe. These seven-to-nine-year-old children told of their disabled parents and how, because of the drought in Pursat, their farms were desolate and provided no income. The children attended school to get food and water each day. Many students, and their families, received donations from the community—items like school supplies, books and various materials to help their ever-growing needs.

After the formal awards and speeches, my fellow IWitness ambassadors and I wanted to show our support and celebrate the students’ achievements by performing a dance. If I am being completely honest, this performance ranks high on my “Top most embarrassing moments of my life” list, despite practising several times in the hotel parking lot that morning.
It could have been my anxiety about dancing in front of 100 parents and children, or the 100 degree temperature; but after cha-cha-ing I was left drenched in sweat from head to toe. The laughing and smiling faces of the kids watching told me they didn’t seem to mind.

That afternoon was spent playing with the children outside, under the tall shady trees. We had drawing competitions, jumped rope and danced, and I led an animal guessing/drawing game. I was so excited that many of the students knew the animals I was drawing in English and would shout out the answers as I drew! I have to tell you, my water buffalo and dragons were pretty spot on.
After the day’s festivities we were brought over to a small pagoda, to meet with 20-30 parents and teachers. We had an open discussion about their involvement with their children’s education and about their living environments.
During the meeting we learned some interesting facts:
• All the parents are rice and vegetable farmers.
• 20 out of 30 families have three or more children (one mother laughed and reluctantly raised her hand to say she had seven).
• Out of all the parents, only four had completed primary school (grades 1-6).
• None of the parents had completed secondary school or high school.
• Parents hoped their children would someday become doctors or teachers—none wished for them to become farmers like themselves.
• In 10 families, grandparents are raising their grandchildren because parents have migrated to other regions to find factory work.
• None of the families want to leave Pursat, despite the drought, because their children will lose access to their education and, to them, that is everything.

That final statistic is a reassuring factor. This community holds education and a child’s right to an education to the highest standard. The sacrifices these families make for their children is a true representation of the spirit of International Children’s Day.
We ended the day with what these kids deserve most: play, happiness and the confidence that with a little (or a lot) of sweat and hard work, anything is possible.

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    Cory Hinesley