About 5 km outside Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, there used to be an enormous rubbish dump called the Stung Meanchey Municipal Waste Dump. It covered an area of approximately 100 acres and everything from household refuse to hospital waste would be dumped there. Until it was finally relocated to another site in 2009, about 2000 people lived on this toxic smoking heap. Men and women, as well as little children, would pick through the rubbish looking for anything which could be sold to earn about $2.00 a day.
One day in 2006, a photographer named Livingston Armytage visited Stung Meanchey to document the lives of its inhabitants. He met this little girl clutching a bouquet of dead water lilies.
5 years later in 2011, wanting to use the girl’s photograph on the cover of his new book, Livingston mobilized his friends and NGOs in Phnom Penh to look for her in order to properly acknowledge her in his book. Miraculously the young girl was found. Her identity was confirmed by two tiny birthmarks. She was still living with her mother and sister on the rubbish dump, emaciated and covered in grime. In exchange for $20.00, her mother gave permission for her daughter’s photo to be used. She was then referred to as Srey Lak, meaning “beautiful girl” in Cambodian.
Livingston Armytage and his wife Miyako placed Srey Lak in the People Improvement Organization, a Cambodian not-for-profit government-approved organization operating as a private school near the rubbish dump where Srey Lak had been living. It was only then that they found out her real name is Kao Vorleak. She was 10 years old when this photo was taken.
Vorleak was given accommodation in PIO’s “Shelter” where 45 other children like her are provided with full board. She joined the approximately 1500 children enrolled in PIO’s classes.
In 2016, the Armytages visited PIO. 5 years after she started studying at PIO with her sister Somaly, also sponsored by the Armytages, she was thriving in her new environment.
The Armytages were private sponsors, but in 2018 they decided to join forces with Dharma Care to educate more girls like Vorleak. Together they created the Srey Lak Program for Girls. Donations from generous sponsors can transform the lives of girls like Vorleak.
In 2019, Vorleak was chosen to represent PIO and Cambodia at the 10th Asia Girls Peace Camp in Kathmandu. She was issued her very first passport to board her very first flight. Asked what the camp was about, she responded: GIRL POWER!
In August 2019, Dharma Care’s CEO Irwan Wyllie and Miyako Armytage visited PIO to consolidate DCI’s relationship with PIO. They were warmly welcomed by everyone at PIO. They concluded the visit with a boisterous pizza party with all 45 boarders at the Shelter.
In January 2021, Vorleak left PIO to embark on the rest of her life. Her life has been transformed after 12 years of education at PIO. We all wish her well.