Sunday, August 26, 2007

Doing something positive

A Mum to 14 just 21 - by Caroline Marcus of The Sydney Morning Herald

Tara Winkler had an enviable life. She grew up in Bondi, enjoyed the beach lifestyle and was establishing a career in the film industry. But after a holiday to Cambodia she gave it all up to devote herself to rescuing orphans from a life of abuse and neglect. During that visit two years ago Winkler was deeply moved by the suffering of children she encountered at an orphanage at Battambang, in the country's west. She established the Cambodian Children's Trust to support the orphanage, which she described as heartbreakingly run-down. As the months passed, rumours intensified of underhand dealings by the orphanage's former director. Early this year, Ms Winkler returned to Australia on a three-month fund-raising trip, and took measures to safeguard all donations to the orphanage. She went back to Cambodia this month after learning the orphanage's director and staff had been removed by the former director and replaced with his relatives. The former director allegedly has a history of embezzling donations from foreign sponsors, funnelling the money into his own property and livestock. "It got a bit nasty and all of the children were being abused really badly - physically and verbally," Ms Winkler told The Sun-Herald from Battambang. "They have lost several kilograms each and look like little stick figures and really unhealthy. "Seven of the children have hepatitis B and one girl is HIV positive.

In a desperate bid to save the children, the young Australian set up her own orphanage - in just two weeks. Battambang's Governor and government authorities gave her team full support to remove the children from the former orphanage and rehouse them, Ms Winkler said. She now houses all 14 orphans, aged between 5 and 17, and has employed a full-time nurse, local director, social worker and cook. "I wasn't prepared to be setting up my own centre so soon but I'm just relieved to have them out," she said. "They're all from horrible backgrounds, with many the victims of child trafficking and others orphaned by HIV/AIDS." In order to survive, the orphanage must raise $50,000 a year. Ms Winkler intends to transform the orphanage into a sustainable "eco-village". She plans to spend five years and $2million introducing development projects that will enable the orphanage to support itself. Her designs include buying a 40-hectare plot to establish a plantation as well as a fruit, vegetable and herb permaculture garden. A medical facility, animal clinic, education program and English school are in the works.
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