Below is a letter from Nicky Mih, CEO at Free to Shine. We love and appreciate her and the teams tireless, selfless ambition. Blessings to all involved. FS crew.
Dear friends and Free To Shine family,
Today is our 5th birthday! And from my first trip to Cambodia to spend a month with survivors of sex-trafficking to enrolling our 440th girl this week, what a journey it has been! I’m writing to you to acknowledge the part you have played in our special journey, and to tell you we appreciate it.
When I asked survivors who had been rescued, how I could help, I was hardly prepared for their answer. I thought they’d want something straight-forward and easy to provide! But they didn’t want anything for themselves. They just wanted for no other girl to go through the horrors they’d been through. They asked me to go out into the rural villages, find the girls who weren’t in school and protect them. They told me if these young girls were in school they would not be trafficked.
So I looked for someone doing that. There were organisations collaborating with the police on rescue operations, there were aftercare centres, there were legal teams working in the justice system but I couldn’t find an organisation out in these rural villages specifically identifying these girls before the traffickers did. Instead I found Kylie, and together, 5 years ago today, Free To Shine was born!
There have been trials and tribulations, heartache and tears, of course, but there has been so much love and passion, humour, joy and laughter. We feel incredibly blessed! In our first 5 years we have cultivated a cohesive team of skilled volunteers in Australia and a team of 10 dedicated and knowledgeable Education Outreach Officers in Cambodia. Our team in Australia have volunteered more than 15,000 hours. Our sponsors and donors and those of you who have come to our events, have entrusted us with $410,253 and with that we have reached 440 girls across 25 different villages in a 3 hour radius, we have 2,000 library books being read, provided access to safe drinking water to every girl on our program and have built 4 houses.
The impact our program has had on our girls and their families has surpassed even our own expectations. We’re so very proud of Free To Shine, not just of what we do, but how we do it and the energy on which the organisation is built.
2 years ago I met Rery. She was 8 years old and had never been to school. Her 10 year old sister had also never been to school though she had been sent to Thailand to work. When we met Rery she was living outside with her grandma on a small wooden bed wrapped in plastic. They always got wet when it rained. This 8 year old told us she really wanted to go to school like other children. She sometimes even borrowed a bicycle from a neighbor to cycle to the school to look at other children learning and hoping that one day, perhaps she too could sit inside the classroom! We enrolled her on our program and she is loving school and thriving. During our monthly visits she eagerly shows us her school work. I cannot express just how much this little girl loves learning! Once Rery was in school we built her and grandma a little house of their own. And within a year we had her older sister home and enrolled in school too!
When we found Chenda, she was 14 years old and living alone with her two younger brothers. Their house was full of holes and they were getting wet every night it rained. Chenda’s mum is a strong woman, with a difficult background, who is 100% committed to her own children getting an education in the hope that they’ll each have a better life than her. She is prepared to do whatever it takes to ensure her children go to school – even if that meant leaving them behind to move to the city to work, leaving her children to fend for themselves. She used to visit her children for 3 days every month. She loves them dearly. She did this only so they could go to school. Chenda has inherited her mother’s tenacity. At 11 years old she knew she couldn’t get to school without a bike, so she left her younger brothers to go and work for a family. She earned $7.50 a month. As soon as she had the $40 she needed to buy her bike she quit her job and returned home to look after her brothers again. We enrolled Chenda on our program 2 years ago and the school resources we provided alleviated the pressure off Mum, who no longer needed to earn quite so much money. She now only had to fund school for 2 children. She therefore returned home taking lower paid work in her community, so that she can now be home to care for her children. Free To Shine and the whole community rallied around to help build them a new house. The whole family are now together, safe, dry and thriving.
Romlek, had dropped out of school when we found her 2 years ago. She was working full time in a brick factory. She’s now in school, happy and working part time to continue supporting herself and grandma.
Our girls want an education so that they can help their families and their communities. Chovvy has been on our program for a year and a half. She is 14 and has five younger brothers and sisters. A year ago her father died in a tragic road accident, placing her as the eldest daughter, at even greater risk of leaving school to support her family. We provided a little additional help to this family while they were in crisis. Not only has Chovvy stayed in school, but she has asked us to provide her a whiteboard and pens, and now she teaches small classes in Khmer literacy and basic English to her neighbours!
When Sreyleak’s bike was stolen, 12 of our girls came together in a real display of community spirit. These young volunteers happily went from one house to another sweeping and making rubbish bins. They led the way in clean environments, set a good example to their community, and helped their friend earn a new bike.
Channeth is in grade 10 and she wanted to be able to cover some of her school expenses herself. So she asked if we would sell some of her artwork so she could use half the money raised to pay for her own exam preparation classes, and donate the other half to Free To Shine to enrol more girls! Self sufficiency and philanthropy! And because her artwork sold, she has a real belief in her talent.
When we enrolled Sreynit onto our program 2 years ago, she was a shy girl. Always polite, and always studious, she was unsure of herself. This year I watched her grow into a quietly determined, self assured 12 year old. As a human rights organisation, we bring the right to be free from slavery, the right to an education, the right to adequate shelter, safe drinking water and enough food to our girls. When tasked with the important mission of bringing these rights to the rest of her community Sreynit approached this task with a deep sense of understanding of the importance attached to it. Natural leadership began to emerge from this once shy girl. She listened carefully to her peers as she took the pen and scribed the groups ideas, and after she stood with confidence and proceeded to present the groups work. Her motivation and her desire to help her community seeped from her.
You see, none of our girls have ever been given charity. They’ve been given a team. A team who help them overcome challenges and achieve their rights, a team who support and guide them as they and their families find their way through difficult circumstances. It is an honour and a privilege to partner with these families to get and keep their daughters in school, so that they, equipped with an education, will have an easier life. No longer forced to focus on survival they’ll be able to turn their attentions to leading their communities, and even their country. The compassion, determination and philanthropy of our girls continues to astonish and inspire us. As you team with us, you help make all of this possible. Thank you. You’ve been part of what has been achieved here and the results speak for themselves.
We’re not finished! It is our commitment to continue to build upon our success and reach an ever-growing number of girls. Our first 5 years have seen rapid growth and our goals for the next 5 years are even more ambitious. We have successfully kept 440 girls safe from being trafficked. During our next 5 years we will increase our reach from 440 girls in the Siem Reap province to 1,000 girls. We’ll then replicate our program in Battambang and then again in 2 cities in Laos. As we celebrate our 5th birthday today we also look forward to the future. Thank you for being a part of our special journey.
With much love and appreciation,
CEO Free To Shine
Empowering with an education to prevent sex trafficking