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Forgotten Children

Susan Bryan

How Tim Paton and his team bring hope to street children in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Tim Paton looked into the eyes of the little girl sitting in the corner of the bus. Her little vest hung on her slim body; her dark hair was cropped so short that she looked like a boy. She clutched a little doll, hugging it tightly to her chest. Her eyes shone brightly, full of love for the small object she cradled so lovingly. Tim knew getting the doll back would be difficult.

The Bus of Hope travels into the city of Phnom Penh and surrounding suburbs twice a day from its headquarters in Takhmau, Cambodia. As soon as the bus arrives, the excited children squeal with delight as they queue up to be allowed admittance. The bus can only take up to 40 children at one time, so competition is fierce.

"We just don't have enough resources," Tim says.

Once on board the bus, the children each take a shower, get their nails cut, receive clothes if needed, eat, and get medical treatment. They also hear about the dangers of glue sniffing, AIDS, and smoking. They're taught how to read, write, and count. And at the end of the session, they can play with a selection of toys.

When the time's up, the doors open again. The children (the fortunate ones) put on their little plastic flip-flop shoes which they left at the entrance. Leaving the lovely toys, books, and care behind, they go back into the real world -- often alone -- to fend for themselves in a city of more than one million people.

Sometimes one of the children lingers behind, needing to talk to someone. Tim remembers one young child who stayed behind. He has parents, but his dad drinks and often beats him. After having already spent five nights on the streets, too scared to go back home, the boy asks for help.

He's not alone. Many of the children who come to the bus are from homes where they're either physically or sexually abused.

The Bus of Hope team consists of six men and women -- five Cambodian staff and either Tim or another staffer from Worldwide Evangelization for Christ International (WEC). Sometimes the team takes a child into one of their children's homes in Takhmau, where they have their mission headquarters seven miles outside of Phnom Penh. The orphanage called Kingdom Kids Home cares for 40 children on a permanent basis. The staff tries to find a permanent home for these children. When one older child leaves, a new child replaces him or her. The drop-in center houses 20 children and is a halfway house.

The street children seek out places in the orphanage, and the team finds it unbearably difficult to have to turn so many away. The orphanage educates the children and trains them for future jobs. One of the children recently won a place at a university.

The team often sees the same children week in and week out on the bus. Then suddenly, some never come back and it's impossible to find out where they are.

Have their parents or "boss" told them that spending two hours on the bus, instead of shoe shining or begging, won't bring in the money? Or are they behind closed doors working in the child labor industry? Are they sick? Have they died? Have they been trafficked? Could they be among the hundreds of Cambodian boys and girls in Thai prisons?

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