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Sandra Sully: I Can't Wait To Meet The Little Girl Who Changed My Life

Her deep brown eyes fix my gaze as I stare and stare at her in this picture, wondering who is the person inside.

She looks a little timid, if not frightened. I know she is anxious. To be honest, so are we.

Meet Srey Nait, my sponsored daughter and the newest member of our family. In a couple of weeks she will be 15 and, in a couple of days, we are about to meet her, in person, for the very first time.

For most kids, turning 15 is a pretty cool milestone. For Srey Nait it is quite simply an extraordinary achievement.

Her 15 years on this planet, like so many other children born from the ashes of the bloody Khmer Rouge killing fields, are a testament to her grit, determination and survival instincts, and it’s incredible that she has even made it this far.

Srey Nait was born into abject poverty and destitution. She lost her father before she was born and, along with her mother and two brothers, was forced to live amongst the notorious filth of  the Steung Meanchey garbage dump, scrounging for scraps of decaying and rotting food to survive.

Hundreds of families make their living from the Steung Meanchey dump in Phnom Penh, picking recyclable goods from the city's refuse. Dozens of families live directly atop the mountain of waste. Image: Getty Images

It’s been an incredibly humbling experience to be such an important part of someone’s life from afar, and I can’t wait to hug her for the first time and tell her that we care about her and her future, despite the distance.

We have been corresponding by email for a couple of years now, but it’s nowhere near enough. Which is what prompted this trip -- the chance to finally meet this beautiful young girl, who is quickly becoming a young woman, and find out what makes her tick.

A letter from Srey Nait.

I want to find out what makes her laugh, even giggle. Who are her friends, and how often does she get to see her mum or spend time with her family? Does she ever get to play any sport, run in a park or have a pet? What does she dream of, or hope to achieve?

My stepdaughter Mia and Srey Nait have developed a lovely rapport via email these past few years, and have worked out they both share a love for Korean Pop Music and learning.

Srey Nait with a friend.

That’s partly why we are paying for her education. We want to give her a chance to break the cycle of poverty that’s beset her family and a generation of Cambodian children. We want to empower her with the choices to chase her own dreams and maybe help her rebuild her beloved yet fractured homeland.

We know she is sweet and engaging and yearning to learn about us and our world, just as we are keen to learn about hers.

I stumbled across the Cambodian Children’s Fund by accident, as is often the case in my business. I was asked to host a charity function four years ago and, frankly, the rest is history.

I was so struck by its founder Scott Neeson and his story that I couldn’t let it go.

Scott is a former Hollywood heavyweight, who mixed with the likes of Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson, on movies like Titanic and Brave-heart.

Then, seemingly without warning, he traded in his millionaire’s lifestyle, his Brentwood mansion, sports car and yacht for a life in Cambodia, helping some of the world’s most disadvantaged.

I remember vividly retelling the story of C.C.F.  to both my husband Symon and Mia. The following year I asked them to join me for the next gala event.

That night our lives changed forever.

It was Mia who asked us if we could sponsor someone.  It was Mia who asked us if we could do this.  It was Mia who gave her own money to initiate this process.

And as it turned out, our chosen child was the beautiful Srey Nait.

Cambodia is still recovering from it’s tragic past where almost one quarter of the population was killed during the Pol Pot regime and fifty-three per cent of the population live on less than two dollars 50 a day.

Srey Nait at school.

What impressed both my husband and I was the unique nature of the program.

It's not an orphanage or an adoption agency but provides a unique contract between the agency, the child and the parents.

Families receive free medical care, nutrition, clean water, housing and family support, and in return they must support their children’s education and the family home must be free from alcohol, drug abuse, and domestic violence.

For nine consecutive years, C.C.F. has received four out of four stars from independent charity watchdog, Charity Navigator, with a score of 98.23 out of 100.  This objectively awarded, top tier ranking is only given to charities that exceed industry standards and outperform

We are not alone is helping educate other young Cambodian children whose opportunities are extremely limited. There are scores of Australians, like us,  who have become sponsors.

Many sign-up at the annual gala dinner, after hearing the life-changing stories and meeting some of the students.

This year Srey Ka -- a former roommate of Srey Nait's  -- was one of two CCF graduates who travelled to Sydney and shared their story at the Gala.

Scott Neeson, Bob Alexander, Sythun, Sandra Sully, Mia and Srey Ka at the CCF Gala, 2018

Both Srey Ka and Sythun have survived extremely difficult beginnings but thanks to their sponsors, are both now flourishing and are living proof of the success of the program.

We will travel to Cambodia this week, full of excitement, love and hope that we can help change one person’s life.  One person, who is now a part of our family, our child who can do whatever she chooses to do.

As her journey unfolds, we will be proud participants, watching on with love and affection and compassion, because the gift of giving is reward in itself.

It’s now up to Srey Nait to do with it what she wants.