Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a place that will wake you up. I admire this country because it has taken its past and transformed it into a culture that hasn’t forgotten, but chooses to grow despite the darkness it's been through.
At the airport, on my way to Cambodia, I met a girl who was visiting her uncle for the first time since he was deported back to Cambodia, from where his family had initially fled during Pol Pot's regime. I heard his story: what he’d been through, and the school he created and the kids he now mentors, and realized I needed to see for myself.
I was lucky to experience first-hand this non-profit and school called Tiny Toones. At first, I was a little taken back. There aren’t many schools where boys and girls spend their time spinning on their heads and dancing to a boombox while doing backflips, headstands, and krumping – especially the kids living on the streets in extreme poverty in Phnom Penh. The longer I witnessed this organization, the more my heart melted in reverence.
Tiny Toones is on a mission to provide a safe, positive environment for at‐risk youth to channel their energy and creativity into the arts and education, empowering them to build self‐confidence in their daily lives and feel supported in pursuing their dreams. They live this mission, and I saw it in every one of these kid’s faces. It only came to fruition through the life lessons and bravery of a man named Tuy Sobil (aka “KK”).
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KK didn’t plan on living a humanitarian life in Cambodia. A former LA gang member, KK was born in a Thai refugee camp, an escapee from Cambodia's Khmer Rouge “killing fields”. After his family was deported to the US, he grew up on the streets of Long Beach, California as the child of poor immigrants. He became a member of the Crips gang and a champion breakdancer, but was convicted of armed robbery at 18. It was only after he committed a felony that he learned he was not a US citizen, and was deported back to Cambodia where he had no possessions or family contacts.
After KK lost touch with his family and witnessed how the youth were living in the slums of Phnom Penh, he realized he had an opportunity and responsibility to transform his life and provide these kids with the guidance he never had.
KK, whose youth was not so different from the kids on the streets of Phnom Penh, created Tiny Toones organically. Kids found out he could dance and started showing up at his door to be taught. Those first nine kids turned into more than 100 a day and blossomed into an organization offering an education books can’t possibly teach.
KK’s main goal is to help these kids find pride in who they are. Every day, these kids come (for free) to dance, to make music, to learn English, Khmer (the Cambodian language) and computing, and to enjoy the freedom to be children. In this safe environment, children can enjoy learning, explore their creativity, and develop a positive sense of identity and community.
This place of undeniable support and freedom of expression made me realize the kind of person I want to be, and the world I want to live in: one of non-judgement, honor to one's path, and whole-hearted acceptance. I will never forget the way Tiny Toones shifted me and my outlook, or how the people of Cambodia looked me in the eyes and smiled. They didn’t feel like strangers. They felt like family.
This organization wouldn’t be alive without the help of others. If you feel inspired, please donate to this amazing cause and follow them on social media.
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