Poverty is complicated.
It’s never the same from one family or child to another.
And, while it can be defined by not having enough — material goods, resources, support, opportunities — there are no perfect, broad solutions that help every child escape.
Keeping kids in school helps. Providing advocacy helps. Giving food and medical care helps. And for some families, that support is enough.
But some children need more. They need the individual attention, love and willingness to go the extra mile that parents usually provide.
Poverty also has some ugly, horrible cousins: abuse, neglect, loss.
But every child deserves the chance to reach their full potential. Every child deserves the love of a family to help them grow and reach their dreams.
I want to tell you about Phal. We shared her story in December in an urgent plea for help. And you responded so generously. I finally have a happy update.
Phal is the saddest child I have ever met.
She was sitting in a big group of children, all of whom were dressed in the white shirt and black pants or skirt uniform that every school-aged child in Cambodia wears, yet I noticed her immediately.
Cambodia is one of the most beautiful and harshest places in the world. The people are kind, welcoming and rich with culture. But their history is difficult, the lack of development undeniable and during the summer months, the land is so hot and dry that food and water shortages are common.
Kids in Cambodia rarely smile as it isn’t considered polite and humble, but you can still see the sparkle and curiosity in their eyes. All children are wonderful, but Cambodian kids are some of my favorites — tough, self-sufficient and very innovative. They are generally extremely polite and fun.
I’m lucky to get to meet kids in Holt’s programs around the world regularly. Even when I don’t share their language, there are a few go-to tricks to connect with kids — waving, high-fiving, taking pictures together, starting a game.
Phal was different. Her face was blank, her eyes dark, her despair so evident. I tried to engage with her, but she bowed her head and then literally turned so her back was to me. I could see her eyes filling with tears.
Based on her height and weight, I guessed she was about 7 or 8, but when I asked our staff, I learned that she was actually 11. Her dark brown hair was turning orange — a sign of severe malnutrition.
Our staff told me that Phal had recently lost both her parents in tragic accidents, just months apart. Phal and her twin brother watched in grief as their two older siblings sold everything the family owned — including their land — to bury their mom and dad. Phal’s older siblings were barely adults themselves, but they had both migrated to search for work on farms or in garment factories in Phnom Penh. Phal started living with one of her aunts, while her twin brother went to live with another extended family member. But both these extended family members had their own children to feed, and in this impoverished area where drought and food shortages are common, there was already too little to go around.
Phal was hungry. She was scared. She had no parents to keep her safe. She grieved the loss of her mom and dad and the separation from her siblings. The more I learned about her short, tragic life, the more my heart broke for her. A village elder walked Phal away from the group of children who had gathered to share stories and play with their American visitors. He got her an extra bowl of rice — a precious meal the elder’s family couldn’t afford to share — and Phal ate it quietly, politely and thanked her neighbor again and again for sharing.
I left the village a few hours later, but Phal’s little face stuck in my head.
Phal wasn’t in sponsorship yet, but surely, I thought, the support of a sponsor would be enough to improve her health and help her stay in school.
When I returned to the U.S., I started sponsoring her.
I watched for an update on Phal. In October, I received a new picture. Phal’s hair was her solid shade of brown and all the orange had disappeared. She looked taller, her clothes were cleaner. But her face — it showed the same pain as before.
Phal’s new advocate shared an update on her: “Phal still doesn’t have sufficient food. She did not pass her exams. Besides school, she helps with looking after a 1-year-old niece. Phal does not have many friends. She is very shy and not brave meeting others. Her goal is to be a waitress in a restaurant. Her aunt is very poor and does not have a stable job. They need assistance to survive.”
Then, another update — this one much bleaker.
Phal’s living situation was no longer safe. For the sake of her privacy, I’ll keep the details vague. But after so much hardship, so much pain and so much trauma, the house she was living in was not a place she could continue to safely stay. She needed to get out as soon as possible.
Our on-the-ground staff made a plan, but they needed help from donors to make it happen. Phal’s advocate contacted Phal’s older siblings to see if they could care for her, and while their heart broke for their little sister, they didn’t have any of the things they needed to help her. The had no land, no house … nothing.
But, our staff asked, what if they did? What if they had a safe, permanent house big enough for not just Phal, but her older siblings, their families and Phal’s twin brother?
Barely believing the offer, Phal’s older siblings immediately agreed that if donors could help build a new house for the family, they would commit to raising their younger siblings wholeheartedly.
Our CEO shared about Phal in a Christmas request to donors, asking for extra help for kids who we had identified around the world with the most urgent, pressing needs. And, generously, so many wonderful, kind, compassionate people gave what they could to help these children — including many Holt staff members who were moved by Phal’s story!
In an amazing act of generosity, donors provided enough to build Phal’s family a safe and stable house big enough for everyone — and also to equip Phal and her family with essentials likes dishes, pots and pans, and other household needs. They also made a year-long commitment to provide an extra little stipend — helping Phal’s siblings afford basic necessities for Phal and her twin!
FINALLY Phal is reunited with her twin. FINALLY she is safe. FINALLY she is surrounded by love.
As one of Phal’s sponsors and Holt’s creative director, I can’t tell you how grateful I am for your generosity to this beautiful little girl.
Phal is, without a doubt, the saddest child I have ever met. But because of you, her life is taking a major turn. I can’t wait to receive an update and see a picture of her with a smile on her face.
But in the meantime, I’m filled with gratitude.
So many charity organizations aren’t able to go the extra mile for kids. They provide food, one-time access to a doctor or pay a child’s school fees. But then they are gone.
At Holt, our model is different. Sponsors and donors provide more than just one-time assistance. You ensure that every sponsored child has a long-term advocate who checks in with the kids they serve regularly.
It’s only because of Phal’s in-country advocate that we learned she was in danger. Because of this extra advocacy in her rural village, we were able to connect donors with staff on the ground to make a personalized plan for Phal and her family.
Poverty, abuse and neglect are complicated. They require one-to-one solutions. And because of you — and Holt’s amazing staff in Cambodia — Phal received the help she needed, regardless of cost.
You can’t put a price on a child’s worth, a child’s safety or a child’s future. And I’m so glad that because of our donors, we don’t have to.
Billie Loewen | Creative Director