Shelter From The Streets

18 May 2016

Yayasan Chow Kit does incredible work to provide a safe space and a brighter future for at-risk youths. We paid them a visit to find out more.

The buzz of the alarm doesn’t stop until the door closes completely. The security guard is unfazed, merely smiling at us as he gestures to a sign-up sheet. The mix of smells in the poorly ventilated space is familiar: high school boys, packed food, and uncapped stationery.

We’re here at Krash Pad, one of Yayasan Chow Kit’s three centres for at-risk inner-city children. Pusenthi, the centre manager, greets us with a warm grin and proceeds to give us a tour – not before taking a slice of guava from the kitchen counter. “I haven’t had lunch!” she says apologetically. “We’re always so busy.”

Yayasan Chow Kit certainly has their plate full these days. Ananti, or Ana, is the Chief Operating Officer for Yayasan Chow Kit, and explains how it all began. “The original focus was obviously for the children of Chow Kit. Children were on the streets because many parents couldn't – and still can't – afford day care services, as they fall under the poverty line.” Many of the said parents were working more than one job, or unable to work at all because of medical reasons, or were single parents simply trying their best.

That's when Dr Hartini, founder of Yayasan Chow Kit, decided to open the first centre. "She just started pulling children off the streets and putting them in a safe space," says Ana matter-of-factly. There was no structure in place for programmes or activities back then, and the care centre was solely for providing a safe space. Eventually, interested parties came in to lend support and donations.

But they realised that just giving them a space for those few hours wasn't enough. "There wasn't any holistic growth because they [the children] were going back home to the same cycle over and over again," says Ana. They began to provide social work, reaching out to the needs of individual children. Now, each child has a file, with information pertaining to the growth of their well-being.

The expansion of Yayasan Chow Kit was an organic one, borne through trial and error. "In 2006, we were known as Nur Salam. So many children started coming - babies, children, teenagers. It was so hard to do programmes in one centre because everybody has their own thing. Teenagers are not interested in colouring!” Dr Hartini then decided to have a separate centre for teenagers, which led to the opening of KL Krash Pad in 2010.

At the same time, Yayasan Chow Kit was receiving referrals for children who were abused. “We were actually sheltering these children in our Chow Kit centre,” says Ana. “But sometimes the perpetrators would know where the children were, and started coming in and picking fights with the staff. So that's when we realised that we needed a foster care system, a temporary one where the child can stay while we take care of the case.” And that, in turn, led to the opening of Pusat Jagaan Baitul Amal in Petaling Jaya in 2011. The high-risk cases that Pusat Jagaan Baitul Amal deals with run the gamut from sexual abuse to child trafficking, mostly referred to them by the police, Jabatan Kebajikan Masyarakat, the judicial system, or even various embassies.

In KL Krash Pad itself, teenagers come in for after-school activities but there are also those who come in for full-time lessons.  We peek into the classroom, where a motley crew of teenagers of various ages in school uniforms are gathered. Some are reading on their own, some are playing games. Excited chatter fills the air, but the teenagers aren’t rowdy in the least. "Those children are mostly undocumented refugees. Their rights to public school were denied, so they come here for a programme we call ‘Alternative Literacy’ that's funded by Yayasan Sime Darby, where they get basic education," says Pusenthi.

"It's a mix of the Malaysian syllabus and UNHCR's syllabus. But we've had to develop our own modules, as some of the children who come here have never been to school, even though they may be 12 years old!" explains Ana.

"We also learned through experience that we cannot get consistent teachers through volunteering, and this is a 24/7 job. So we have full time teachers who we recruit through an interview process," Ana clarifies further. "They're trained by UNHCR, as UNHCR recognises community schools and they have training units in their facilities."

When asked whether the children were generally eager to learn, Ana says yes and no. "In the start they weren't. Some of the girls, for example, come from cultures where they marry early. So in the beginning there were a few who asked, 'Why must we study?' We tried different methods. But eventually we learned that we need a balance of more interactive learning to keep the children interested."

Ana recounts something that's stuck with her through the years. "We've done reviews with the children, asking them what it is about the programme that they like. And the answer that comes up a lot? We call them by their names! Their parents are so busy working, that sometimes they don't even acknowledge their children coming home. So with all our programmes here, assessing their needs, et cetera, and it all comes down to this small thing. It's a sense of belonging, that they're seen and very much cared for. That makes a lot of difference."

Yayasan Chow Kit's main challenge now is finding funding and manpower. "We're growing so fast! We need to develop the direction of the organisation," says Ana. She mentions that many NGOs are in the same boat, competing for the same grants. She notes the importance of coming up with a long-term plan to be self-sustainable, whether through different means, or reaching out to the right people. "A lot of funders support programmes, not operations. And you need funding for operations, or else who is going to run the program?"

Unfortunately for many funders, it comes down to numbers and KPIs. "Our results are very different. Our results are human. Like when you plant a tree. You don't plant a seed one day and get a tree the next. It's the same for children. You have to give them all the nurturing they need, and enrich their lives."

"If you can take care of children, you can take care of the whole world!" Pusenthi beams.

Find out more about Yayasan Chow Kit here.

By Alia Ali

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