Why read about family-based care when there is an opportunity to see and hear about it firsthand? Children in Families, a local Cambodian NGO, has created a program they call Rok Kern. Rok Kern is a Khmer phrase meaning “to come and see,” and that is exactly what they invite participants to do. Aligning with many of the principles discussed in Faith to Action’s Short Term Missions: Guidance to Support Orphans and Vulnerable Children, Rok Kern trips inspire participants to become family-based care advocates.
Children in Families spent much of 2017 piloting their Rok Kern program to Australian secondary school students. In Australia, many schools promote overseas trips as a way of exposing students to different cultures and regions of the world. These trips often involve volunteering at orphanages. In light of the increasing awareness of the risks associated with volunteers interacting with children at orphanages,[i] the staff at Children in Families wanted to provide an alternative.
The Rok Kern program invites students to assume a posture of learning as they are immersed into Cambodian culture. The participants’ discoveries, however, start well before the plane takes off for Cambodia. Pretrip orientation covers a variety of issues including poverty, aid and development, challenges of orphanages, Cambodian history and culture, and how to communicate about the trip with friends and family in an ethical manner. Once in Cambodia, staff of the Rok Kern program facilitate their 12-day visit, which includes sessions with Children in Families staff, meetings with Children in Families’ partner organizations, language classes, cultural briefings, and visits to important historical sites—including the famous temples of Angkor Wat. By providing an all-encompassing historical, cultural, and community development curriculum, Rok Kern helps participants to develop a deep respect for the community’s ability to provide family-based care for children.
Throughout the trip, Rok Kern utilizes Children in Families’ expertise in family-based care to teach the students about the importance of keeping children in families. Founded in 2009, Children in Families’ mission is to “equip and strengthen families and communities to provide a nurturing environment for children, through family-based care, community development and educational support.” They fulfill this mission by offering a multitude of services for families in crisis including temporary emergency care, family preservation support, kinship care, local foster care, support for foster families seeking to adopt, and therapy services for children with disabilities. By meeting with the Children in Families staff in charge of these programs, trip participants are given a behind-the-scenes look at how family-based care organizations support the process of building healthy children, families, and communities.
Of course no one organization can do it all. Children in Families has a network of partner organizations to which they can refer cases that are outside their purview. These partner organizations graciously open their doors and make time for their staff to share with the Rok Kern program participants as well. This allows the participants to gain an even more robust understanding of the variety of ways best practices are being implemented in family-based care organizations in Cambodia.
Rok Kern has received very positive feedback from the pilot trips with Australian secondary school students. Teachers reported, “[The trip] encouraged students to think about missions and international aid in their complexities, while exploring the uniqueness and strength of the Khmer people.” Another teacher commented, “Rok Kern was extremely relevant and well paced for our students. It challenged notions of appeasing the conscience of someone trying to help, with the realities of how to actually help.”
Moving forward, Children in Families is planning Rok Kern trips for American church groups with the same underlying principles. Their goal is to create family-based care advocates who are well equipped to think through how they can ethically contribute in service to others, whether overseas or in their home communities. As participants “come and see,” it is Children in Families’ hope that perspectives will be molded into one that sees the strength, capabilities, and rich cultural heritage of the Cambodian people to care for their children and advance their communities.
This innovative program is creating family-based care advocates that can support the global movement as more people work together toward family-based care for children around the world.
[i]. See Chapter two of Faith to Action’s Short-Term Missions: Guidance to Support Orphans and Vulnerable Children.