Street smarts

Street smarts

A Cambodian group is helping deprived children through dance, art and music

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The Tiny Toones dancers who went to Singapore this year
The Tiny Toones dancers who went to Singapore this year
When Romi Grossberg heard about a job at Tiny Toones - a non-profit organisation in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, that helps youths from deprived backgrounds - while working in Australia last year, she felt she had to apply.

"When I looked at the job description, and what Tiny Toones is about, it just made so much sense ... I felt like it [would make use of] all of the skills I already had," says Grossberg, who has worked as a sports teacher, photographer and social worker.

Tiny Toones is a drop-in centre for Cambodian street children which uses activities such as music, art and dance to inspire them about their future. It also provides non-formal education, such as lessons in Khmer and English, and computer training.

As Tiny Toones' programme manager since March, Grossberg has overseen both its creative and informal education programmes.

The group also has an outreach team, which regularly visits some of the poorest areas in and around Phnom Penh, giving youths hygiene, drugs, sex and HIV education.

Many of the youngsters they see live in areas with large numbers of gang members and drug addicts. Poor children, some of whom are orphans, often search through rubbish for anything they might be able to sell. But they lack basic skills: Tiny Toones often needs to teach them things like how to wash their hands and brush their teeth.

The team also gives out children's books "just for kids to see books, because they don't have access to that type of thing", Grossberg says, and small "kits" with things like an exercise book, pencil, eraser, toothbrush and soap.

The job can be stressful and unpredictable, but "little things" make it worthwhile, she says.

For example, "someone who has a problem with drugs [might] come into your office and say, 'I'm struggling, please help me'... or a kid [might say] 'I want to go back to school' after realising for the first time that schooling has some value", she says.

"Sometimes it's as simple as watching the older kids nurture and teach the younger kids."

Tiny Toones was founded in 2004 by Cambodian Tuy Sobil - nicknamed "KK" - in 2004. KK's own life story is remarkable. He was born in 1977 in a Thai refugee camp after his family fled the "killing fields" and persecution by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

The family arrived in California in 1981. But their neighbourhood was one of the most gang and drug-infested in Long Beach, and KK became involved with gang-related crime as a teenager.

After a number of years in and out of jail, he was deported to Cambodia in 2004. He found work as a drug counsellor having taken classes in HIV education, drug counselling and gang intervention while he was in prison.

Word spread that he was a talented breakdancer - he developed his talent in California - and youngsters approached him for lessons. Worried they might fall into the same traps that he did, KK started using his home as a youth centre where breakdancing was the main activity. KK also covered most of the group's costs himself until US-based charity Bridges Across Borders started supporting it.

"He's incredible to work with. He has possibly the biggest heart of anyone I have ever met," says Grossberg.

Tiny Toones now has about 35 staff, including volunteers, and has helped between 7,000 and 8,000 youngsters. It has just started a scholarship programme, providing secondary and university education funding.

It has also recently become more well known internationally. In August, Grossberg, KK and a small group of Tiny Toones dancers and rappers went to Singapore for 10 days, performing in primary and secondary schools.

"The response was absolutely incredible. Every single person bought one of our T-shirts... They were so loved," Grossberg says.

A few weeks ago, Romi and KK went with four of their young dancers to Italy to take part in a week-long event organised by a large drug rehabilitation community.

"People from eight different countries [who] work with drugs and youth ... came together to dance and collaborate," says Grossberg. "It was absolutely mind-blowing."

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