Art Lessons in Humanity

By Mikarla TeagueThe sun delicately fissured through the morning peach tinted clouds, brimming and spilling ceaselessly in golds and metallics across central Siem Reap, lighting up alleyways and rooftops, pursued complimentarily by the melodic sounds and smells of early morn hustle and bustle. A gentle thick humid breeze sweeps across my hotel balcony, educing goose bumps atop my skin, resounding all the stimulatory sensations of a promising new day. I downed my morning coffee, and commenced meticulously packing my messenger bag to the bristle with paints, brushes, pastels, crayons and pencils – all the essential tools necessary to facilitate an empowering art session with todays promising young students. Butterflies collected within my stomach and chest. Today was to be like no other art class. I was to meet with a group of very special and resilient young children, survivors, and severely at risk young women who are amongst a distinct and festering darkness of relegated unjustness that plagues our modern world.Whether society and its collective conscience chooses to acknowledge our pitfalls when it comes to us failing our global children, the statistics bear a strong and resounding message that demands to be heard. According to UNICEF statistics on sex slavery, surveys concluded that horrifically 35% of Cambodia's 15,000 prostitutes are children under the age of 16. It is disappointedly apparent that Cambodia continues to serve as a leading source, transit, and destination country for human trafficking, with 43% of human trafficking individuals becoming trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation, of whom 98% are women or young girls.Nicky Mih is the dedicated and defiant Founder and CEO of Free to Shine. With a resilient, revolutionary vision and courageous disposition, she dares to challenge the limitations and injustices that plague the deeply intricate, vehemently thriving and intensely sickening world of the sex slavery and human trafficking industries. In 2009 Nicky spent a month in Cambodia with more than 200 survivors who were rebuilding their lives and delicately reintegrating back into their communities. Unnerved and challenged by the terror she saw in their eyes, Nicky unequivocally questioned the young women on ultimately “what they wanted, and how she could help?”. One could not be prepared for the response that followed, the infinitesimal amulet of wisdom that was to become the precipice for a much larger and fortuitous operation. These young survivors had identified a gap that existing NGO’s had failed to acknowledge. There were no operationscurrently effective within rural villages specifically identifying the young girls at risk of sexual exploitation BEFORE the traffickers did. Nicky established that through intercepting these young children before the traffickers did, consequently supplying them with a quality education and a committed support network, this served to ultimately keep the young girls out of the brothels and off the streets - and essentially empowered within classrooms. Thus planted the seed of inspired innovation – and Free to Shine was born.I met with the Free to Shine team at 8am at The Shine Central headquarters; Serei, Rameth, Sophy and I loaded up the tuk tuk and ventured out onto the barren outer city dirt roads towards our exceedingly rural village destination. The roads the team have no choice but to travel on to reach the girls and their villages, are exceptionally unpredictable and dangerous, particularly after heavy rains, laden with dense mud and sink holes, adding to the ever present anxiety of landmines that still surround much of Cambodia. It touched me; the immense sacrifice, commitment and tenacity the Free To Shine team endure on a weekly basis to both scout high at risk girls to enroll within the scholarship program, and additionally visit the young girls and their families for regular check ins, both serving as a powerful support network of protection and supportive empowerment, and to further encourage engagement and permanency in her school attendance and studies. Once a young girl has been identified as being at high risk of being targeted by traffickers, Free To Shine moves swiftly in pairing the girl with a sponsor. Each girl is provided with their own bike, a uniform, and a school bag filled with books and pens, all the essential tools to facilitate and encourage an empowering and promising future.


As we rode into the rural village, small children appeared from delicate grass huts and shelters, some proudly riding up on large rusting adult bikes, multiple siblings hanging from the handle bars, their small feet barely touching the peddles. It became heartwarmingly apparent to me that Serei, Rameth and Sophy were not considered as a mere charitable aid presence within the villages, they were considered family amongst these children, older brothers and sisters who were respected and looked up to as a powerful example of success, and the results of education and commitment to a brighter future. Much excitement and gratitude resounded when they rolled into town.A flock of bright eyed, large smiles, and curious faces now surrounded me as I made my way to the village heart - children in tow. A fragile and petite presence took my hand; I turned to meet with the eyes of an elderly woman. Bearing a delightful and kind weathered face, smiling from ear to ear, complimented by an eternity of wrinkles that marked the abundant map of wisdom, memories and knowledge, she lead me to where the children were gathering, a warm and profound welcome into their homes, and into my heart.We laid down large straw mats amongst a clearing in the village, sitting collectively in a large circle, I sprawled the assortment of art supplies within the center, this serves as a fascinating initial observation to watch what mediums individuals are drawn to personally cultivate and support their self-expression. As an Artist and an Art Therapist, I strongly believe art is a profoundly powerful tool for empowerment, self-expression and communication. It is no secret that art and creativity has long been used successfully fordeveloping fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, promoting confidence, and encouraging creative experimentation and risk taking. Nicky invited me to meet with the girls, with the objective to utilize the power of art to empower them, and address some imperative issues. Through creative expression we discussed their basic human rights, the importance of health and sanitation, and the profound significance and importance of receiving an education. This understanding consecutively creates a ripple affect of social awareness and empowerment throughout their villages with the knowledge to impact the future of their community, their nation and consequently the greater world.Collectively united by the young girls, their brothers, mothers, and grandmothers, simultaneously we traced our hands. I explained to the girls the significance of the humble handprint - the profound symbology that they have made a mark, that they exist, and that they matter. When the handprints are laid down together, the power of the collective was a profound realization to them - strength in numbers. We continued the morning beneath the trees, enthralled and collectively interwoven - a state of “ambedo” transpired over the circle, thekind of melancholic trance in which one becomes completely absorbed in vivid sensory details. We continued intuitively creating and mark making alongside one another utilising the universally understood visual language of art. No words were needed. Just knowing, smiles, shared creativity, purpose and laughter. A safe space of exploration, trust and self-expression; a very rare opportunity for them to cultivate a voice and a mark.


Working from this unique creative vantage point, with immense success and momentum building, the Free to Shine revolutionary model has proven to be one of immeasurable triumph. As of July 2015 - Free to Shine now proudly avowals an incredible 492 girls presently enrolled within the scholarship program, across 25 various villages within a 3-hour radius. With 2000 books within their disposal, FTS provides a unique library service, rotating books amongst the girls and their families, encouraging a thirst for literature and learning.With inspired goals and measures of international support during the next 5 years their reach will increase from 492 girls in the Siem Reap province to 1,000 girls. Free To Shine will replicate the program currently in production in Battambang and then further in 2 cities in Laos. The aspect I admire most about Free To Shine’s mission is that it isn’t an “ego-run” western world prototypical swooping in to “save” Cambodia. They have cultivated an independent charitable model, providing the support, tools and resources for Free To Shine to run independently on the ground. It's immeasurable the importance of Free To Shine's work, and how incredibly well they're implementing their objectives and support into communities and villages within Cambodia to make sure that at risk and endangered little girls are protected, receiving a quality education, staying in school, integrating creative and artistic curriculum, having empowering future prospects, and ultimately keeping out of the hands of brothels and human traffickers.My extraordinary morning spent with the Free To Shine girls will remain an experience and memory that will forever be ingrained on my heart and mind through the entirety of my life and career. Not only did it further cement the immense importance of this kind of work within our third world communities, it unlocked an understanding of the immense prominence and need for creativity and enrichment as a profound tool for empowering these communities, giving hope, further unlocking a pioneering avenue for providing a powerful voice to those who are often left