In 2007, Tara Winkler rescued 14 children from an orphanage in Battambang and founded the Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT). Now, at the age of 26, the former recipient of New South Wales’ Young Australian of the Year award continues to build local capacity in the northwestern province
Interview by Sacha Passi
What were the conditions like in the orphanage you rescued the children from?
The kids were starving basically, forced to catch mice and fish to cook and eat and there was a lot of emotional and sexual abuse from the institution’s director. The kids asked me to help them and I didn’t feel I could turn my back and forget about it. We registered the organisation, rented a little house and turned up with a bus one day. The 14 kids who were legitimate orphans all decided to jump on the bus, but the director also had 10 kids there that were his nieces and nephews, so they couldn’t come with us.
You’ve since developed CCT into much more than a home for the children you first took in. How has CCT progressed?
Our focus has definitely shifted away from residential care. The orphanage was really a kneejerk reaction to a crisis that those kids were in. Taking kids in is absolutely a last resort. We work primarily with the families now to do everything possible to keep them with their parents, or even with extended families if that is possible. Now we focus on helping families get on their feet by setting up small business enterprises and permanent accommodation so they have the ability to care for their own kids.
Orphanages are a contentious issue within the NGO scene in Cambodia. Are you concerned the international community will see your story and take the wrong message from it?
I really hope not. I am the first to point out that in the past six years the number of orphanages and the number of kids being institutionalised has doubled and there’s no reason for that – in the past two years CCT has only taken in two kids… Certainly, orphanages are not the way forward for Cambodia. I hope that when these kids grow up and move on we won’t have an orphanage in the future.
You’ve had some great highs and devastating lows since 2007. Have you ever thought, ‘I’m out of my depth’?
The first 18 months to two years was super tough. I was pretty naïve jumping into this – I was young and wanted to do what I could but I didn’t have the funding or the support… I was really here on my own, just me and a couple of Khmer staff. Trying to find the funds to get food on the table every month was a huge source of stress. There’s also been some serious threats from the old orphanage which has meant the Australian Embassy have had me under police protection at times.
You also lost a little girl in a drowning accident in 2010…
Jendar was five, and she was like my baby. We were at the pool one day, all the kids wear life vests and I always keep watch like a hawk, but the staff and I were packing up to go and we turned away. She was a cheeky little thing, she took off her life vest and jumped into the big pool and it was just too late. I found the next six months really tough, just trying to put one foot in front of the other, but I don’t have the option of throwing in the towel. The kids are relying on me and I love and adore them all, so I can’t give up on them.
Do you have any regrets about the path you’ve chosen?
It’s such a cliché to say: “The kids have helped me as much as I have helped them”, but it truly is spot on, especially in the last two years, experiencing these sorts of tragedies. It is not a job for me, it is just my life, and I feel very lucky to wake up every day and have a purpose.