Sisters go to school instead of the dump

CNN Films’ “Girl Rising” documents extraordinary girls and the power of education to change the world.

Story highlights

U.S. couple were horrified to see kids picking through garbage at a dump in Cambodia

The experience haunted Bill and Lauren Smith, and they decided to help two sisters

They paid for girls' education so they wouldn't have to collect recyclables for money at dump

The Smiths later started a nonprofit organization called A New Day Cambodia

CNN  — 

A Chicago couple never planned to turn their trip to Cambodia into a mission to help educate girls. But that’s exactly what happened.

Bill and Lauren Smith had traveled to the Southeast Asian country often. During a 2002 visit, a taxi driver asked the Smiths if they wanted to see “the children.” Not really knowing what he meant, they agreed. The driver took them about 25 minutes outside the capital of Phnom Penh. On their arrival, they saw hundreds of people on giant mountains of garbage.

“There were flies everywhere,” Bill said. “There were snakes and rats and the stench; you were just gagging.” His wife added, “I had to breathe through my mouth not to smell it.”

But they said they were most shocked by all the young children going through the garbage. These kids were scavenging for metal, plastic, glass and anything else they could sell to a recycler to make money. Each child would make about $10 a month at the dump to help out their families, Bill said.

A photographer for Chicago sports teams including the Bears and Blackhawks, Bill started snapping pictures of the dump. But the experience haunted him and his wife. “We were just tourists,” he said. “But we thought we could help one person.” They came back the next day and decided to focus on a child to save from the dump.

One girl stuck out in Lauren’s mind, she said. “I remember seeing this little girl with the red hat. And I don’t know if it was the red hat or it was her eyes … these big eyes (that) … just looked kind of hopeless.”

Through their driver, who spoke some English, they found out the girl’s name was Sreyna. They drove her home to talk to her mother about a way to get the 10-year-old out of the dump and into school. When they arrived, they met her sister Salim, 12, and decided they would help them both. They made a deal with the girls’ mother.

“We’re going to pay you whatever they would make at the dump,” Bill recalled telling the mother. “We’re going to make sure you have food at the table, and in exchange for this you have to promise us that you’ll make sure they go to school every day. You’ll make sure they stay in school, and you’ll make sure they never go to the dump again.”

The mother agreed, and the Smiths gave their trusted driver money to fund the plan for the girls for the next six months. The couple also found two other girls they decided to sponsor during their trip.

Returning home to Chicago, the Smiths showed their photos to friends and family and told them what they were doing with the girls. Many decided they wanted to help, too, and gave the Smiths money to fund more children. Bill also started doing fund-raisers with a slide show called “From the Sports World to the Third World.” He would show his photos of the sports teams he covered and then scenes of orphanages, landmine survivors and the children at the dump in Cambodia. “By now, the whole room’s in tears,” Bill recalled.

A newspaper wrote an article about what the Smiths were doing, and soon they were getting donations from all over the country. They ended up starting a nonprofit organization called A New Day Cambodia.

Today, the organization has two centers where they house about 100 girls and boys. And the concept is the same as it was from the start. The group pays the parents what their children would make at the dump in exchange for the kids going to school.

And these efforts are paying off. Today, the sisters the Smiths initially helped are attending Harold Washington College in Chicago. Sreyna is studying hospitality, with hopes of working in the hotel and restaurant industry. Salim is studying English and wants to become a teacher.

Over the years, they became close to the Smiths, spending a lot of time together traveling. Salim says she feels like they are her second family.

Without the Smiths and an education, it’s hard to say where the two girls would be now.

“Education is really important to me personally, because I see it as a bridge,” Sreyna says, adding, “Education to me is like a second life.”

For ways to make an impact on education for girls around the world, check out CNN’s Impact Your World resources or take action with 10x10.

• More about CNN Films’ “Girl Rising” project.

• More from CNN’s Impact Your World.

• More about A New Day Cambodia.