Christian and Marie-France des Pallières, founders of Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (For a Child’s Smile), have lived and worked in Cambodia since the beginning of their action in the country. Each spring, for the last 20 years, they crisscrossed France and neighbouring countries at the wheel of their camping car to promote the urgency of helping destitute children. From the start, Christian and Marie-France surrounded themselves with a top-quality Khmer team to establish PSE’s independence.
Until his recent death, Christian was a member of the board, tirelessly fulfilling his role as director of the humanitarian NGO based in Phnom Penh.
Marie-France has now joined the board to ensure PSE’s compliance with its commitments to its sponsors and donors and ensure that ethical standards are met by the organisation as expressed in the Charter – a task she has been doing alongside her husband.
KT: How did this organisation come about?
Marie: My late husband and I founded it back in 1995.
We started this organisation because, having worked in another NGO for two years, we came to see despondent children scavenging the streets of Phnom Penh; but at that period of our lives, we didn’t have the time to care for them. However, at the end of our two-year mission, we were free so we contacted them and got to know more about their lives.
They took us to a place where they ‘worked’ regularly – a huge dumpsite where thousands of children were walking, often barefoot, knee-deep in decomposed garbage. Under the sweltering heat, there was a sickening smell being emitted. Without water to drink while rummaging all day long in rubbish, sometimes at night as well, and feeding off this horrible waste it was inconceivable! It was a great shock… We simply could not continue to go on living our lives the way we had especially after having seen this and immediately decided to do something.
KT: How has the PSE grown or changed over time?
Marie: In May 1996, we took charge of 10 children. Today, we have more than 6,500 children in our programmes. Among these are, Nutrition (providing 7,000 meals a day), Schooling, Healthcare, Child Protection (providing accommodation to 500 children), Vocational Training (involving 1,500 students), support to families (distributing seven tonnes of rice each week).
KT: What differentiates you from other organisations?
Marie: I think the biggest difference is that we take total charge of the children – right from babyhood to adults with skilled jobs. Our slogan is “From destitution to a vocation”.
When we started, we had no business plan. We decided to listen to the children’s needs. They asked us two things: first, to have one meal a day and second, go to school like other children. Papy, my late husband, used to say: “a life without a dream is not a life”. Based on this quote, we decided to put everything together to give them back their dreams!
KT: What would your beneficiaries say is the best thing about your organisation?
Marie: Our alumni always speak about their PSE family with fond memories. Most of them keep very close to their Papy and Mamie (Grandpa and Grandma) as they call us. Besides, I can say that next to getting access to a good education, they always mention the fact that the food in our canteen is so good. One of their favourite answers is, “Without PSE, I don’t know what would have become of me,” which I feel is the best gift they can give back to us.
KT: What results has your organisation achieved? How has your programme improved over time?
Marie: We started by setting up a remedial school where the children can achieve two grade levels in one year. After some years, we also set up the Vocational Training Institute and at present, we teach 20 different skills. Our remedial school and all our vocational training schools are approved and recognized by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training. Today, we have more than 4,500 alumni who have decent jobs, can help their families or start their own families and develop their country. Last but not least, we are always listening to the Cambodian labour market to adapt to the different skill options required of our students. Our goal is to make sure our students get a job as soon as they finish their curriculum at PSE.
KT: What are your goals for the next three to five years?
Marie: Continuing to offer [opportunities] to children who have nothing, to find their place in society while improving our methods, to continue identifying the children and families who are most in need and to bring them out of misery to a decent life.
KT: What priorities will help you achieve them? What barriers are in your way?
Marie: Our financial means is the most important thing for us to be able to continue but we also always try to adapt our offers to the existing needs so we do not do what already exists or what others are doing.
KT: What is the hardest decision the organisation has had to make recently and how did you evaluate the tradeoffs involved?
Marie: The hardest decision in this period has been to close our schools and let the children go back to the lives they had before – even if we continue helping the families. A long time ago, we let our children go back for one month during the yearly school break. When they came back we realised they had forgotten a lot they had learnt in such a short period. To avoid this situation, we decided to create the PSE Summer Camp so our children could continue being under the care of our organisation even during the holidays. With this COVID-19 situation, we know that we will face lots of problems with our beneficiaries once the children go back to school. Therefore, we are now working hard with our teachers and pedagogy teams to be prepared for the day our children will come back to our centre.
KT: What do you personally spend most of your time on?
Marie: I receive and answer many emails. I review and sign the report of each child proposed by our social team to be under our care, I prepare the annual fundraising tour, I work on the film that I am going to screen during our tour, I leave for Europe two and a half months every year (except this year) to meet donors and find new ones. I also focus on checking and verifying that the spirit of the how we started this mission originally is kept in focus throughout the years and across all the programmes.