Some 850 Cambodian children are running around with "happy feet" because a group of young adults from Singapore provided them with footwear for Christmas.

WHEN CLOSE FRIENDS Deborah Chew and Grace Chia went to Siem Reap for a vacation in June 2007, they brought along some slippers to give to children at a village they visited. Seeing that the majority of the children went around without footwear, Ms Chew and Ms Chia were saddened that they didn’t bring enough slippers for all. It was then that they decided to do more.

In anticipation of their recent Dec 18-23 trip, Ms Chew, who is Managing Director of creative think-tank Caelan & Sage, gathered her staff, mostly non-Catholics, to plan a fundraising effort, which they named Project Happy Feet, to bring cheer to the village children
in Siem Reap. Through word of
mouth amongst family and friends, they raised close to $25,000 in cash and about $10,000 in sponsorships and donated items such as new clothes, children’s storybooks and used laptops.

Part of the money raised was used to purchase 850 pairs of slippers for children.

"If you can imagine these children walking long distances just to get to school or from place to place in the village, you will realise that slippers do make a lot of difference in making that walk more comfortable and preventing cuts," said Ms Chew, who plans more fundraising to support efforts of the Catholic Church in Siem Reap to educate the village children and youth.

The Catholic Church in Siem Reap, led by Indonesian Jesuit priest Father Heri Bratasudarma, runs learning centres in villages across Siem Reap and the Battambang province. These learning centres serve poor children, most of whom do not have the opportunity to go to
school. In addition, they provide platforms for youth to hone their
leadership skills and encourage them to give back to the community by serving as volunteers at these learning centres.

Some of the money raised was used to buy school uniforms and school supplies and provide scholarships; some was used for the repair of houses in the village of Taom, located 75 kilometres away from the city centre. Taom was adopted by the church in 2006 after an old abandoned Catholic church building was found there. The building has since been restored and converted into a learning centre.

The Singapore group of nine visited a total of four villages during their five-day visit during which they interacted with the children through activities, song and dance. They also helped to prepare and cook rice soup that was served free to the village children once a week as part of the Rice Soup Programme initiated by the church.

"Each village we visited made us reflect on how privileged we have been in Singapore," said 30-year old Dave Lem.

The Catholic Church in Siem Reap relies on donations to fund the building and running of learning centres. These centres serve the village people regardless of their religion. In fact, a majority of the village children and families are non-Catholic.

"When we don’t have enough money, we have no choice but to stop activities at the learning centres," said Father Heri. He is grateful to generous Singaporeans and their friends from other countries who have been contributing to support the church’s efforts. "You have brought much joy to our children," he said.

"Project Happy Feet hopes to support efforts to encourage and provide education to underprivileged children and youth, as well as to provide platforms for them to be gainfully employed," said Ms Chew.

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