I walked into the Tiny Toones Youth Drop-in Centre and there was crazy street style graffiti on the walls and loud hip-hop music blaring. There were five year olds to teenagers with pants precariously hanging off their bottoms eyeing me distantly. They were all very cool and aloof but I knew I could break in!
I got myself a glass of water and tried to blend in. Bobbing my head to the music, moving around saying hello to whoever made eye contact with me. Fortunately, one of the staff members, ‘Short,’ found me just as I had started to regret not having worn my pants that fall off my bum as well!
Short told me that this is the only drop-in centre of its kind in Cambodia. Kids from the streets can come and access the non-formal education which includes DJ-ing, learning music production, break dancing, art and rapping! They also have classes in English, Khmer and computers.
The kids learn to produce their own music in their tiny studio, they help paint all the amazing murals and graffiti and Tiny Toones is the leading hip-hop dance crew in Cambodia.
The centre is a rickety building with a big courtyard and, its doors are open to anyone seeking a refuge from the streets. It gives the kids a creative release and escape from their limiting environment.
It owes its popularity to one man. On paper, he’s anything but a good role model. Time spent in prison, gang-affiliation, gun violence and a deportee from America. Tuy Sobil is the accidental hero of this Cambodian success story.
His parents were poor farmers who escaped the Khmer Rouge’s violence and fled to the US in the 80’s. Tuy, or KK, grew up poor in America, joined a gang and at 18 was arrested for armed robbery.
He was promptly deported to his country of origin, Cambodia, since he wasn’t a US citizen on paper. In Cambodia, he found work at an NGO and eventually started informally mentoring and training a few local boys in break dancing.
The word got out and kids started pouring in. At the time, he was training the kids at his home. That was before Tiny Toones was officially established as an NGO.
Over the past few years, KK has become an idol for the toughest of kids from the streets of Phnom Penh. He’s been in their shoes and knows how easy it is to fall into the trap and lure of the ‘gang life’. He’s made all the mistakes that he’s trying to stop them from making.
It’s plain to see that the kids dote on him. Hanging on every word he speaks. I think what works for him, is that he makes being good, look cool!
Tiny Toones is KK’s new gang. He leads by example, has his fingers on the pulse of all that’s going on with his crew. We chatted in the courtyard of his home where the boys were preparing for a sponsored invitation to perform in Singapore. “I thought I had a hard life, but when I see these kids I realise that I had it made. This is my chance to give back and make good for my mistakes”, he said.
In the background there are boys doing handstands, back flips, spinning on their heads and making it all look too easy!
As we continued to talk, I realised that he feels a deep love for his ‘crew’. He gazes as the kids; eyes full of compassion and pride and tells me that, most of kids don’t have a home to go back to, many have parents that are drug users, sex workers or are HIV positive. “But, when they come to this place, they find hope. They start believing that there is more to life than what they have experienced. They have choices and they can become so much more than what they have seen in their own environment.”
Up till now, I hadn’t even noticed that the all the kids’ clothes were old and tattered. How young they were and some painfully thin. But, they were all thriving under KK’s light.
Tithiya Sharma is on a year-long journey across the globe to find 100 everyday heroes — and hopefully herself — along the way. For more on Tithiya's adventure log on to http://100heroesproject.com .