Saving Starfish

Saving Starfish
Apr 10, 2010 | by THOMSON Margie
Sourced from
Tags (key words): Heroes, The Press, Denise Arnold, Cambodia, New Zealand

A lawyer and a mum from Tauranga in New Zealand runs a trust to help Cambodian children go to school. She realises she can’t help them all, but Denise Arnold is doing what she can to save ‘one starfish at a time.’

by Margie Thomson Photos Natalie Slade.

A man was walking along the beach in the early morning when he came across a boy repeatedly reaching down to the sand, picking something up and throwing it into the ocean. The man asked what he was doing. “Throwing starfish into the sea”, the
boy replied. “The sun is up, and the tide is going out, and if I don’t throw them in they’ll die. “
“But, young man, don’t you realise that there are miles and miles of beach, and starfish all along it. You can’t possibly make a difference!”
The boy listened politely. Then he bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves, and said: “It made a difference for that one.”

Being overwhelmed to the point of incapacity is a common ailment in our media-saturated era. The true heroes among us are the ones, like that boy on the beach – or like Denise Arnold, a lawyer and a mum from Tauranga, New Zealand – who can, amid the deluge, decide to do something, even if that something won’t save everyone. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”.
Denise Arnold – “Denise from Tauranga” as she jokingly calls herself – was really no different to the rest of us. She cared about the world, had a vague feeling she wanted to do “something meaningful” – yet daily life – study, work, marriage, kids – was sweeping her into that ordinary narrowness and vague sense of powerlessness that most of us know only too well. In fact, she avoided finding out too much about the terrible things
that happen in the world. “I used to feel overwhelmed, helpless. I’d feel the world’s an evil place and there can’t be a God.”

But then one day she did read an article – about children in Cambodia being sold to Westerners for sex – and it had a huge impact. She was horrified; couldn’t sleep. She rang the New Zealand- initiated organisation ECPAT (against child pornography, prostitution and trafficking) and became a volunteer, using her lawyer skills to work on policy.
But increasingly she wanted to do something tangible – to be a fence at the top of the cliff, rather than an ambulance at the bottom.
At the end of 2007 she visited Cambodia as part of a tourist group led by past VSA volunteer Jean James, who is well respected in Cambodia. I wasn’t interested in being a tourist; but I needed to see for myself what it is to live there. I didn’t presume I could make any impact. In fact I kept thinking, ‘What am I doing?’ I freaked out, and I thought this isn’t really me!

But that trip lit a fuse. Denise realised that as a lawyer she could assist local human rights lawyers get more international recognition for their struggle within and against a corrupt judiciary. Seeing schools with no resources at all, she realised she could help children become educated: “An educated population is harder to corrupt and breaks the poverty cycle”, she says. And using an approach called micro-finance, with the right contacts she could help locals establish self-sufficient small businesses.
On her return to New Zealand she set up the Cambodia Charitable Trust; this now supports eight rural schools and a total of around 4500 students. What it provides is breathtakingly simple: school uniforms, the lack of which are a major stumbling block to children going to school ($10 each); pencils and books ($1 per child, yet unreachable for many rural families); and bicycles in cases where the children have especially long walks to get to school ($100).

Last year she raised money to take eight young Cambodian human rights lawyers to
an international conference in Vietnam and had the satisfaction of seeing them form
networks with lawyers and judges from all over the world. When she visits Cambodia, as she has now done three times – trips with punishing itineraries, which only serve to make her realise yet again how much there is still to be done – she sometimes veers perilously close to her old sense of being overwhelmed. Too many starfish on the beach!

“When I feel like that,” she says, “I think of a particular little girl. We’d heard about
this girl occasionally turning up at the school near where she lives, Baknoem school. School uniforms are compulsory in Cambodia, but in rural Cambodia they are more relaxed about this – otherwise they would have no students!
But this girl only had a wrap around her waist. That was it.”

Denise employs a local woman, Srey Mom, to identify kids not attending school and who
are in particular need, and so Srey Mom tracked down that girl and got her and her
siblings school uniforms.  “Now she and her siblings are at school. My little starfish! So many kids have similar stories. I think,” Denise adds, “that is transforming lives.”

Cambodia was ravaged by the 20th century – by the Vietnam War, by Pol Pots communist regime, Vietnamese occupation and civil war. Peace talks in Paris in 1991 resulted in elections, a new parliament and a new constitution that ostensibly provided for
a wide range of internationally recognised human rights.

However, as Denise says, “the legal system in Cambodia is sound on paper; in practice
it is quite another matter. In Cambodia there is no concept of human rights. There is little
expectation in Cambodia of being able to hold on to what is yours, whether it is property or your life”.

Her relationships with Cambodian lawyers, in particular through the Housing Rights Task Force, have taken her to places most lawyers from Tauranga – or indeed anywhere
– would never get to see.
There was the time she hopped on the back of a moto and was taken to meet families
facing forcible eviction from the Boeung Kak district, a central-city lake being filled and
reclaimed by a Korean developer granted a 99- year lease by the government. Violent evictions at gunpoint and relocation to wastelands with no water or power are endemic in Cambodia’s cities and countryside, as developers move in, displacing communities that have lived there for generations.

“We took a wrong turn,” Denise says, “and ended up with a bonus tour through filthy
streets, walking on elevated pathways over dirty water and past unbelievably basic living
conditions. Eventually we got directions from a teacher working in a dingy, dark classroom with not a pencil or a piece of paper in sight. I was doubly glad that our trust is helping schools and children with their education – sadly not this one yet.

Eventually, my driver got me to the right schoolhouse. The whole community had turned out to see me. The room was dark, the shutters were down, as they had been threatened that if they were to talk to anyone outside, they could lose their homes. Rumour had it the last family who did talk to outsiders had their house and belongings
bulldozed flat. These people were risking their homes to see me, and I’m a nobody! I didn’t even have a hat to cover my blonde hair, which I realised was very much a liability as it made me very noticeable. The fear was palpable. But they had turned out to share their story, in the hope that I would take it to the outside world.”

That was in 2008. Last November she returned to Boeung Kak to find the villages
She’d previously visited had been destroyed, the people forcibly moved on. She met
the village leader of one of the remaining communities there, Soy Kolab – “a genuine
Cambodian Wonder Woman.”

Targeted by the authorities because of her political activism on behalf of her community,
Soy had been fined $25 by the courts for “some supposed offence” – an astronomical
sum which she had somehow paid.

“We made a donation on the spot to reimburse her,” Denise says. She discovered
Soy was trying to establish a sewing co-operative among the women in her village, a perfect funding opportunity for the Cambodia Charitable Trust. “This is building
a community up from the bottom and is an internationally recognised part of breaking
the poverty cycle.”

What’s more, Denise imports products from that and other co-operatives to sell
at New Zealand craft fairs, thus creating a market for the women. She supports a sewing co-operative in rural Cambodia that now makes school uniforms that, in turn, Denise buys for “her” students. And because the trust has no administrative costs – just the freely given labour of its stalwarts – every cent donated also goes straight to Cambodia and the
people who need it most.

Denise is the first to acknowledge that finding the right people and organisations
to partner with is a tricky business. She has met with many organisations – often posing
as an excited and concerned tourist – to see whether she feels comfortable enough to
channel her trust’s money and energy in their direction. “A lot of it is instinctive”, she says.

She was very lucky that on her first visit to Cambodia her tourist group had been put in
touch with a Buddhist monk, the Venerable Samboeun Nget, who, like many monks, helped school the “pagoda children” – orphans or extremely impoverished children who
can’t afford to go to school. He’s now a key relationship for Denise and, with his sister
Srey Mom, works to identify schools and individual children that desperately need the help Denise has pledged to provide. “They are selfless people”, she says.

Ninety-eight percent of the trust’s funding goes into schooling, and Denise is keen to
increase the services they provide – eye-testing, for instance, and library books, English
language classes… “The longer we’re there, the deeper we can support these schools.”
Last November, when Denise made her most recent trip to Cambodia, she took her
husband Doug and her parents (who, both retired, now help with selling the goods she
imports). Her family has, she says, been very patient about her new field of work, which, of course, hasn’t replaced, but has been added to all the other things she used to do. So she felt they needed to see for themselves exactly what she had been up to.

“They were overwhelmed at the first school we visited”, she says. “It is emotionally brutal. At the first school, there were 1100 kids lined up, clapping as we got out of our van. I find that really hard. I just want to get on with it.”
At another school, someone approached her carrying a starving baby and pleading
for money. My instinctive answer is that we won’t give money, but we’ll provide milk and the milk will be here first thing tomorrow. The baby has subsequently died. All of us felt really hammered by that starving baby. My husband kept saying, ‘You’ve got to keep your eye on the 4500 kids, not just the one’. And I say, yes, I agree, but I can’t lose sight of the one.

I find it really hard. I’ve had to give myself permission not to solve it all. It might look
small, it might be just one uniform. But even if I can’t do anything else, they’ve had one
more year at school.”

The Press, Copyright of Fairfax New Zealand Limited 2009, All rights reserved.
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.

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One Response to “Saving Starfish”

  1. Deanne Says:

    Thanks for taking free time in order to create “Saving Starfish Unsung
    Heroes”. Many thanks for a second time -Hans


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