AT THE age of 19 Tara Winkler travels to Cambodia for the first time as an add-on to a roadtrip centred primarily on Thailand and Laos.
It turns out to be a confronting experience. In one of the lesser-known Cambodian cities she encounters apparently parentless children cramped together in sub-standard conditions. That introduction to Battambang occurs in mid 2005.
Soon back in middle-class Sydney, Winkler does not forget the experience, honouring a vow to raise donations for the group. Eighteen months later, she returns to hand over those funds.
The sense of achievement does not last, however. In 2007, on her third visit to Battambang, Winkler is appalled to find the situation has deteriorated markedly. The children are poorly fed and lack medical attention and long-serving staff members have been fired; worst of all, a teenage girl is being sexually abused by the former monk who controls the orphanage. Desperate to help and buoyed by the can-do enthusiasm of youth, Winkler decides on the spur of the moment to create an alternate home. Within days she has secured premises, been granted government accreditation and made herself responsible for 14 physically and psychologically traumatised dependents.
Yet, over time, prompted by public scrutiny of her leadership and her own rising maturity and self-awareness, Winkler begins to rethink her actions. Having been shocked to discover that almost all of her so-called “orphans” have living parents, she questions the practice of institutionalisation. She also debates the wisdom of involving beneficiaries – the children themselves – in fundraising activities and asks why untrained, unvetted Western “voluntourists” are allowed access to attention-starved Cambodian minors and what effect these short-term visits have.
Winkler’s frank, inspiring and sometimes-humorous account of her accomplishments and failures sheds light on the pros and cons of well-intentioned foreign involvement in the developing world.