Stories of Impact
The Need for NightCare
Those We Meet Along the Way: Cha-Nu*
It’s 2013, and our first-ever NightCare center is up and running in Cambodia. Despite this being a huge accomplishment, I know there’s an immense need for more, and I’m eager to open another. I am touring around Cambodia’s red-light areas hoping to narrow down our options for a new center location. A lot of research goes into finding the right spot for a NightCare center. We interview local mothers and nonprofit organizations working in the area, not to mention looking for a building with a layout conducive to sleeping 30+ babies and toddlers a night.
It’s late in the evening and our guide is taking us into the “backyard” of a red-light area in Phnom Penh. He promises lots of babies and toddlers live there. We walk along the abandoned train tracks further into the unlit neighborhood. As my eyes adjust to my surroundings, I see a little girl sitting on a porch not too far from us. She looks to be close to 2 years old, with cute curly hair, and a welcoming demeanor. Almost immediately she invites us into her home. I learn that her name is Cha-Nu*. My new friend begins showing me around her house, and I see a newborn in a hammock in front of a TV, women getting ready, and many beds with curtains. It does not take long for me to realize that she lives in a miniature brothel.
Under this small brothel is an even smaller room where Cha-Nu, the newborn (who I later learn is Cha-Nu’s younger brother, Pagna*), and other children stay while their mothers work. Oftentimes, the older children wander out of the room and roam unattended. Most likely, this is how I was able to meet Cha-Nu that very night. After our quick tour, I step back outside. It takes me a minute to process everything I just saw, but I know I have found the perfect neighborhood to open the next NightCare center.
The Desperate Need
Just 6 months later in 2014, we open the second NightCare center right in Cha-Nu’s community! I am thrilled. Of course, I expect Cha-Nu to be a regular attendee. It’s only later that I find out that her mother, Val*, will not be bringing her. Though she will let us care for baby Pagna, she said Cha-Nu needs to stay with her at night to sell condoms to her clients to help earn money.
Over the years, I visit Cha-Nu and her mother many times. During these visits, Val is often heavily intoxicated, rambling, and stumbling around with her daughter there witnessing it all. To this day, my heart breaks for this precious girl. Many of the staff at Saving Moses and I have pleaded with Val to let Cha-Nu attend NightCare. We even tried incentivizing her with transportation help, food, and anything else we could think of. Despite our efforts, she never brought Cha-Nu regularly. On the very rare occasion, she would bring her for a brief period, but never for long.
Now Val is dead, and I was heartbroken to find out that Pagna went missing. He was just two years old. Nobody in the neighborhood knew where he went, and nobody has seen him since. Cha-Nu is now staying with another woman in the neighborhood. When I saw her last, her sadness was apparent when talking about her brother, but she became stoic when I asked about her mother. I’m not sure they had any connection at all.
These days I think of her often and find some hope in the fact that there are many other programs and organizations available to her now that she is of school age. Though we were never able to help Cha-Nu as much as I wanted to, her story will always remind me of the desperate need for NightCare.
Chanda* is another toddler I met who is growing up in the sex industry in Cambodia. Before finding NightCare, her mother did the best she could to protect her. She did not have anyone she could trust to watch Chanda. Despite this, she needed to work to put food on the table and pay rent. Though she knew having Chanda in the room while she worked was not ideal, she felt she had no other choice. She heard that little girls in the neighborhood were being abused by their babysitters and did not want to risk this happening to her daughter. There were no good options.
Now that she has found NightCare, she brings Chanda to the center every single night it’s open. Chanda loves NightCare. When she gets dropped off in the evenings, she runs inside full of excitement. She gets a warm bath, toys to play with, learns new songs, and falls asleep in a safe and nurturing environment. NightCare is her safe haven.
Chanda’s mother is always telling us how grateful she is. Though she is still in a difficult and dangerous situation, the fact that Chanda is safe means the world to her. It is a weight lifted off her shoulders to no longer worry about exposing Chanda to what happens while she is with a client or worry that someone is hurting her daughter.
Making a Difference
There are so many wonderful organizations working to help women who are trapped in the sex industry. Unfortunately, there are next to none besides Saving Moses who focus on the babies and toddlers who are growing up in it, exposed to its horrors day after day.
Cha-Nu and Chanda will always have a special place in my heart. Both of these toddlers’ stories remind me to stay on course, helping babies (ages 0-5) where the need is most urgent, and help is least available. The babies and toddlers growing up in the sex industry have an urgent need- safety. We have heard the horrible things that happen to them without NightCare. During a group interview, I asked a group of our mothers if their babies had been abused by their clients. Almost all of them raised their hands. This is a sobering fact and one that we are changing.
Having the opportunity to watch the babies and toddlers go from a constant state of survival or disassociating to playing, engaging, and thriving has been a blessing in my life. Because we know that there are so many little ones like Cha-Nu and Chanda growing up in an environment of abuse, neglect, and exploitation, we continue to work towards expanding our NightCare program to reach them, knowing they are all too often left behind.
“Every night we provide shelter to these babies, we minimize their risk of abuse, being stolen and sold, neglected, and harassed. I truly believe that with NightCare we are rewriting their stories-stories of pain into stories of purpose, freedom, and health.”
-Sarah Bowling, Hanging by a Thread