Painted out of a corner

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 April, 2011, 12:00am

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The beach has been raked, the sea sparkles in the morning sun, recliners and tables are laid out on the sand. It is another day on Serendipity Beach, in the Cambodian resort town of Sihanoukville. But look closer. Two foreign men in their 50s walk past the sun worshippers, showing no interest in their surroundings. They have more sinister intentions: gripped tightly by the hand, their beach consorts are young boys.

Paedophiles are an unfortunate fact of life in Sihanoukville's sea, sand and anything goes environment. But one man has made a stand, coming between them and their innocent victims. Roger Dixon, an English artist then 61 years old, set out five years ago to rescue the waifs and strays and give them hope for the future.

'I was painting on the beach, and some kids came up to me and said they wanted to do the same,' he says. 'They had been peddling stuff on the beach for a few riel, which they took home to their families, often begging for a handful of rice or leftovers from a tourist's table.'

Many of the children had come from violent and abusive homes, he says, and none had attended school. Dixon also saw signs of malnutrition and poor diet among the children, and decided to set about raising funds to ensure that every child had healthy teeth and gums, and at least one good meal a day.

He set up the Cambodian Children's Painting Project (CCPP), teaching the children to paint with the aim of selling the pictures to tourists to raise funds for their care. Tourists loved the primitive art, canvases were quickly snapped up and more children joined the scheme. The project quickly outgrew its beach location, so Dixon negotiated a deal to rent hanging and studio space at the Serendip bar. Within a year he had applied for and received full NGO status.

Recognising the potential for his idea, but lacking the time and energy to continue developing it, Dixon approached Felix Brooks-Church to replace him. It was the perfect choice.

A professional footballer educated in the US, an injury had forced him to return home to the Spanish island of Ibiza, where he ran a lounge bar. At Dixon's invitation, he travelled to Cambodia, fell in love with Sihanoukville and jumped at the opportunity to run the project.

With a charming but aggressive and pragmatic fund-raising manner, he transformed the CCPP from humble, hand-to-mouth penury to profitability. After raising thousands of dollars to ensure it had a firm foundation, in 2009 he embarked on a children's art tour of seven Australian cities to raise funds. A year later, he staged 23 exhibitions in 15 European countries.

As a result of this, the CCPP has registered offices in Australia, Spain, the Netherlands and Switzerland, and is working on US registration.

'My tours allowed us to expand. We now have two campuses and, although art is still the core, we have become an official English school, created a nursery and started a nutrition programme. We offer computer skills training, and employ volunteer teachers and social workers. We have gone from 30 children to close to 200 registered in five years and all of them go to school. The word 'success' is an understatement and I am rightly proud to have achieved so much through the generosity of other people,' he says.

Last year, Brooks-Church also left the CCPP, to join an NGO in Nepal that develops technological solutions for endemic health problems. He was replaced as project manager by Sandi Bassett, a 54-year-old from Alberta, Canada. Michele Martin, a 30-year-old qualified art therapist from Boston, Massachusetts, is a voluntary co-ordinator who tries to find money to keep the show on the road.

'We have grown a lot in recent years,' Bassett says. 'A while back, we moved into four buildings, so we have a lot more space. It costs about US$6,500 a month to keep the CCPP running efficiently. We have eight Khmer staff and 12 Western volunteers who take classes and oversee projects. Based on current funding, there's a monthly shortfall of about US$2,000, which is covered by sales of the children's paintings.

Although school attendance numbers fluctuate, she says, the project has 160 to 170 children who attend every day. Because many of them missed out on an education when they were younger, they stay with the centre until they are older. One 19-year-old boy has been at the centre since its beginning and still has three more years at school.

'One all too common problem is dealing with drug and glue addiction among young children,' Bassett says. 'We come across it all the time when we go down on to the beach. It's a hard drug dependency tragedy waiting to happen.'

With a mission statement to create a brighter future for children through creativity and artistic expression, the CCPP provides them with a safe, stable and emotionally supportive drop-in centre.

The paintings, unframed, sell for US$4, with US$2 going to the artist and US$2 going towards financing the project and forming the basis of a communal education fund to cover school costs for all the children. So far, more than 8,000 paintings have been made, more than half of them have been sold.

'At the heart of our work is the belief that education and knowledge are the antidotes to poverty and exploitation,' Bassett says. 'The painting project has greatly enhanced the children's self-esteem and has opened a window of opportunity, allowing them to be creative and to express themselves. It is empowerment through work, education and art.'

The children are also an invaluable early warning system against the ever-present threat of sex tourists. If the children see or hear of any suspicious behaviour, they immediately report it to one of the project's staff members, who inform the authorities.