For a number of young girls in Cambodia, Tauranga is a place they have probably never heard of, let alone visited.
But those girls have a very special connection to the New Zealand city thanks to three guardian angels that are changing their lives – Tauranga sisters Denise Arnold (51), Janine Tait (53) and Robyn Fairweather (49).
Through The Cambodia Charitable Trust, founded by Denise, the sisters are raising funds to allow girls from poor villages to get an education in a bid to save them from child-trafficking, a widespread problem in the country.
The trust counts businesswoman Theresa Gattung as a patron and Nadia Lim as a supporter, with 100% of funds raised going to Cambodia.
One night while lying in bed, busy lawyer and mum-of-two Denise was reading a story about young girls who are rented from brothels in the country. She knew from that very moment she wanted to do something about it.
“I have two daughters myself and I had a realisation that, for these parents, if a child goes missing, you’re never going to find them again,” explains Denise.
“They could end up in these brothels. I knew I had to help these children, even though they aren’t mine.”
So in 2007, she packed a bag and jumped on a plane by herself to spend three weeks in Cambodia. “It was eye-opening,” she sighs.
“I think the hardest part was the sheer extent of the poverty – many children begging, and a lot of amputees and children that were just too poor to go to school. That was what had a real impact on me – they want to go to school, but they don’t have the clothes or the books, or they have to work. That’s when they become vulnerable to trafficking.”
Upon her return, Denise says she struggled to reintegrate back into the normalities and relative luxuries of life after what she’d seen. Ever a woman of action, she realised she would make the greatest impact on preventing these children being trafficked by supporting them through education, and so in 2008, the Cambodia Charitable Trust was born. It’s been a family affair ever since.
“Right from the start, the charity has been a big thing for us all,” tells Denise.
"My nephews were the first to donate. They gave their pocket money so the kids there could have sports equipment.”
Sisters Janine and Robyn are proud of the difference the Trust has already made in Cambodia.
Janine tells, “We’d drive past a school that didn’t have any resources and then we’d go to a school supported by the Trust, and the difference was just phenomenal. We realised this small charity in New Zealand is really punching above its weight.”
And knowing their sisterly bond could expand the good work, they each harnessed their skills – Denise’s management of the Trust, Janine’s experience in the beauty industry and Robyn’s operational and administrative experience – to form the Bestow Sisterhood.
This collective of beauty therapists, each of whom sponsor a “little sister” for $40 a month, provides vulnerable girls with a uniform, stationery and essentials such as sanitary items.
Robyn is the facilitator of the sponsorships and also sells hundreds of second-hand books to raise extra money.
Janine says, “I’ve been a beauty therapist all my life and they’re incredibly caring people.So I had this idea that it would be nice to take this sisterhood we three have and expand it.”
Robyn adds, “We’ve ended up with a nice little amount of money that was able to be dispersed around different schools and playgrounds because children need to be children at the end of the day.”
Of the difference the sponsorship makes to their recipients, Janine explains, “In a poor family, it is the girls they pull out of school first to work because education is more valued with boys. So the $40 a month basically replaces their wage, on the condition that the child stays at school. It protects these girls from sex trafficking. Because an agent would come along and promise these girls a job as a nanny and the family think it’s real, but then the child disappears.”
Denise agrees, adding that keeping girls in education is the key to making a difference in generations to come.
“There’s a lot of research out there that shows an educated girl marries later, marries a better quality of husband, has less children and has them later when she can deliver them safely,” she says. “Then she educates those children herself. It’s a real pivot point for development in a community.”
“When we see those sponsored girls,” Janine adds, “it’s been hugely transforming for them in the way they feel valued. They feel special and they now have a whole different view of the world.”
All three women admit the work keeps them extremely busy on top of their everyday lives – “We are so thankful for our volunteers!” Denise exclaims – but they know they are making a tangible difference.
“When I was over there, I asked for a report on how the sponsorship was going, expecting to see a spreadsheet. But the people I asked came back and reported the impact was that the children looked you in the eye and smiled,” Denise tells.
“The human impact speaks more loudly than numbers.”