Brang Chhang, was a little boy who lived and died at Wat Opot. Little Chhang continued to have such a presence here that the café at Wat Opot was named after him. The café has gone through many changes. The most recent renovation enclosed the formerly open-to-the-outside eating area, making it a much quieter place to eat, read or study. A wall was removed making a more open floor plan. (an L shape area).
With the cement floor covered in tile and a large table, we can now comfortably seat 10. More if we squeeze!
The other side of the café now houses a sink and 2 burner stove. This area is where the café action takes place. At Wat Opot, the kids get paid a daily allowance, which provides them with the money to buy a snack in the afternoon. Additionally, they are encouraged to put a little each day into their savings account (or as we call it, “in the computer” – as the financial spreadsheet is there.) Once we set the goal of having $5 in their savings, there are only 4 or 5 that have not reached that goal. This is not an easy feat as most only earn pennies a day. - and we just upped the goal to $8.00!
Learning to manage their money is just another skill this generation of rural kids is exposed to. Money…a necessary evil…which brings me back to the café. Everyday the kids would get their allowance and then go running down the road to the village snack stands and get a snack. Most of the time they would come back with candy or other sugery sweets. Their teeth are bad enough without all that added sugar in their diet. I'm all for supporting the local community, but many of the little stores would take advantage of the kids and give them snacks on credit; leaving some in big debt. (big around here is around $1.00 - when you consider it would take some over 2 weeks to pay back.)
Since we are making an effort to teach our kids the danger of debt and also to make Wat Opot more self-sufficient, we started stocking the café with fruit, frozen jellies and juice, bottled water, nuts, sunflower seeds, bread based snacks and yes, a little candy. Previously the cafe was really more for volunteers to buy coke's, iced coffee and a few snacks. Now, the kids have a choice to buy from the café instead of other places. The fruit is ALWAYS the first to go, competing with the frozen snacks on hot days. The first thing the kids said when we opened was "Melinda me borrow" (their english word for credit). They were quickly informed that in no way or form will they be able to get any snack unless they have the money in hand to pay for it.
I man the café most days, but sometimes I have Srey Nou and Kunthy run it for me. Instead of paying the girls an hourly salary for working in the café, they get 10% of the profits of the day. After that minor adjustment, the profits increased and the idea of giving something away for free (to their ‘best friend just this once’) decreased. The little kids laugh because Wayne gives them their allowance, they run to the cafe and buy snacks and give me their money, and then I give the money back to Wayne at the end of the day.
Now that school has somewhat started, I cannot rely on the high school girls, so the next best choice was 4th grader Channy. Channy came to us 2 years ago with her little sister Rortana. (More about the sisters - click here) Now Rortana and Channy are somewhat of a pair and because they also both hold a special place in my heart, both arrived for work ready to sell sell sell (as Channy said to me!).
The first thing Channy did was walk over to the sink and wash her hands. That girl never ceases to impress me!
While Rortana entertained the growing clientele!
Channy worked the door selling the frozen jelly’s…
…and Rortana sat dangerously close to the snacks!
Channy got to work cleaning the cups from the juice sales - I didn’t even have ask her, she just noticed they needed to be done!
While Rortana helped herself to one of the pickles or as Channy exclaimed, “Melinda, Rortana eat money”.
They both took a little break while waiting for the next wave of customers.
And when finished, Rortana “drank the money” this time!
Channy was happy that I finally let her count the money when we closed up. She kept trying to do so during the 2 hours we worked, but I told her to not worry about the money, but to pay attention to the kids first.
The thing with Channy is that she is totally trusting of people. That is probably what makes her so trustworthy. I do not hesitate to give her my keys and ask her to get something behind a locked door with no supervision. She is very tough and will stand up to anyone, even if that person is a male and 10 years older. Her confrontational nature causes her to shed many tears, but she bounces back. We had a volunteer who promised to go to her classroom with her stating "Yes Channy I promise I will go to school with you tomorrow" and the next day as I walked by the closed door of the volunteer and then a very sad but patient Channy sitting waiting (late for school), I had to tell her that not everyone is true to their promises. That some people say things to make you feel good, but they are only words. I reminded her of who she can unconditionally trust (Wayne and I) and to continue to trust others, but be cautious.
An aunt and older brothers who live in Phnom Penh (but do not want to take care of her or Rortana) come to visit once or twice a year. They drive up in their Lexus SUV and give meager presents and maybe $5 each to the girls. Yes, 2 'orphaned girls' have wealthy family; this is not a secluded case by any means. On their last visit a week ago, Channy was given a promise by her brothers that they will come get her and Rortana and take them to Phnom Penh for the upcoming holiday. She was promised a bicycle.
Channy runs up to me everyday and counts down the days until they are supposed to arrive. "Melinda, my brother come 4 days", "Melinda, my brother come 3 days"... As I smile to her and say "I am happy you are here Channy and I will be sad if you go", I selfishly wish her family does not show up, but the beautiful look on her face has me silently willing them to come. Two little sisters, smiling often on the outside, can hurt more than you can imagine on the inside.