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Taking it to the slums

By Hayley Gastmeier

[email protected]

A massive birthday party was thrown for Cambodian children who did not even know what day they were born.

The celebration, complete with presents and birthday cakes, was put on by Rochelle Morris-Penfold, originally from Hawkes’s Bay.

For the last few years she has been spending time in the Cambodian city of Sihanoukville, working with children living in slums.

Ms Morris-Penfold, 47, who from time to time works at Neighbourhood Coffee in Martinborough, has been teaching English to about 70 children from five different slums.

As well as this, she has been treating them with basic healthcare and supplying them with clothing, jandals vitamins, and food on a regular basis.

Her journey within the poverty- stricken city began two years back when she was backpacking through Asia.

She was compelled to stay on and try to help the children she saw begging for food and money, with some as young as 18 months old.

Ms Morris-Penfold’s last trip to Cambodia was backed by the Wairarapa community, which pulled together resources for the cause.

“People blessed me,” she said.

Martinborough business Thunderpants funded the freight of “heaps of boxes” of supplies to Cambodia, which included donated uniforms from Martinborough School and Greytown School.

It had been “too much stuff” for the 70-odd children she works with regularly, so the excess was given to other charities to distribute in the area.

Ms Morris-Penfold with Cambodian children she helps support. PHOTO/SUPPLIED
Rochelle Morris-Penfold with Cambodian children she helps support. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Ms Morris-Penfold returned from Cambodia last month to recharge her batteries and gather more resources.

During her first stint there she would feed, bathe and play with the children, all piled into her one roomed flat.

Her neighbour, a Chinese woman, watched this going on and subsequently found a house and arranged one year’s rent and power to be paid.

“She would watch me in my tiny little house, which is probably the size of a Kiwi lounge,” Ms Morris-Penfold said.

“You imagine 20-odd kids crammed into my tiny whare.

“I’m trying to give them a kai, like 2 minute noodles, and shower kids, and I’m scared that some of them have HIV.

“I’ve got no hot water and I’m trying to sterilize everything with the boiling jug, and they’re bringing babies in with no nappies on.

“Amongst all that stuff I’m wanting to be present with them, play with them and give them an extraordinary experience, but then I’m worried about the hygiene thing.”

Rochelle Morris-Penfold at her Cambodian school-house, colouring in with the children. PHOTO/SUPPLIED
Rochelle Morris-Penfold at her Cambodian school-house, colouring in with the children. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Ms Morris-Penfold said the neighbour could hear her teaching the children English with song so rallied the funds for the dedicated school-house.

The house is located inside a slum and is open from 5pm Monday to Friday.

“There’s about 70 children who come five days a week.

“They’re based in the slums.

“A lot of them are beggars and a lot of them don’t even go to school, some are fortunate to.

“But they know at 5 o’clock the door to the house opens and they can come for  kai, they can come for first aid, they can come for vitamins, but the main thing we do is teach them English.”

Ms Morris-Penfold said most of the children had never attended school and had “not been brought up within structure”.

“They’re not disciplined like Kiwi kids are, so it’s absolute mayhem.”

During the day Ms Morris-Penfold teaches Grade 1 at Life International School, which is paid education for children in the city whose parents can afford to send them there.

The job provides her with accommodation and $2 per hour.

“My last math lesson with them I shared stories and photos of the beggar children.

“I asked them to help me make up 70 ‘love packs’ with soap, books, and pens, explaining to them that I was throwing a birthday party for all the poor kids as not one of them knew when their birthday was and many had never eaten a birthday cake.”

Ms Morris-Penfold intends to fly back to Cambodia in the new year.

She can be contacted through her Facebook page Project Sunshine.


  1. What Rochelle does in that little house is amazing. She’s full of energy and loves these children and they love her.

Comments are closed.

Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland is Wairarapa’s Local Democracy Reporter, a Public Interest Journalism role funded through NZ On Air. Emily has worked at the Wairarapa Times-Age for seven years and has a keen interest in council decision-making and transparency.

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