Nine Years of Free To Shine: A Conversation with Nicky Mih

June 1st will mark our 9th year of protecting girls from sex trafficking and exploitation in Siem Reap. Looking back we have a lot to be proud of. To date, we’ve enrolled 753 girls, engaged in 59 village partnerships, built 20 houses, conducted 147 community trainings, delivered 644 water filters and 864 bikes.

Free To Shine’s journey began when Nicky Mih, Free to Shine’s Co-Founder and Managing Director, spent two months in Siem Reap volunteering with a group of 200 survivors of sex trafficking. I sat down with Nicky in the beautiful garden that surrounds our office to reflect on Free To Shine and how the organization has grown over the past nine years.

S: When you look back on all Free To Shine has accomplished in the past nine years, what makes you most proud?

N: I think there are four things that make me most proud. One would be the development in the girls themselves. I’m thinking of one particular case of two sisters who had never been to school before and lived on a wooden platform but who now have a safe house to live in and are progressing through school. One of these girls has done six years of education now. In terms of her individual development, there used to be a struggle within her in thinking that what she wanted was beyond her reach—she dreamed of it but couldn't see how it could happen. Now she’s thriving and comfortable, and joyful, and safe, living as a seventh grader should live. And this is reflected not just in her but in her grandma as well because her grandma was barely surviving before—she was barely existing. The severity of the struggle is gone now and the family is safe and secure, getting education and living as part of a safe community.

The second thing that makes me really proud is that so many of the girls on our program now have such a dedication to sharing their newfound knowledge and skills to further develop their communities, such as with our Emerging Leaders Program. This leadership didn't come from us, but we put a framework around it. So it is their strength, community focus, and desire to give back, but with a team of support to help them along the way.

The third thing I am proud of that we have developed over the last nine years is that we don’t work in isolation. We have developed really good relationships with the 59 villages we work in. We work with the Commune Council for Women and Children, the Ministry of Social Affairs, Child Safe, Family Care First, and others. In working with these groups and best practice organizations we are part of a community that I am really really proud of.

And the fourth part is the team. Despite the challenges that you encounter as an organization in building the right team, the team of 21 we have today is incredibly skilled, passionate, and dedicated, and they basically give their hearts and souls to do this work for these girls. I’m so proud of the people we’ve got on our team, they are competent and fun to be around, and just good, good people to work with.

S: What do you envision for FTS’s growth in the next year?

N: We need to build out the infrastructure. The work we are doing with the 553 girls on our program and their families and communities is solid and needs to continue, but there’s an awful lot of tourists coming into Siem Reap that are not socially responsible, and don’t realize the larger consequences of their actions. So a big part of our growth this next year will be with our “A Mile In Serey’s Shoes” (AMISS) interactive educational activity. It is not just about creating safety for the children on our program, we also have to think about what we can do to protect the children not on our program. When tourists come to Siem Reap to look at families and villages, what impact is that having on children and families? How is this potentially putting them at risk for trafficking or dehumanizing them? So our goal with AMISS is about educating tourists and those in the wider Siem Reap community to make choices that won’t put children in danger, but also to inspire them with stories about the incredible strength of many of the girls and their families that we have the privilege to interact with every day.

S: How are you inspired by the girls on our program?

N: So many of the girls inspire me, each in their own way. I’m inspired by the girl who lost her father in a traffic accident and whilst dealing with her grief set up a community class to teach English to other children. I’m inspired by another young girl who lost her mom but got up in the morning the next day and went to school because she said it was important, she had an exam, and then came back after to look after her two-year-old brother. I’m inspired by the girls who have made it right through school, graduated grade 12, and are now in university. It gives me a lot of hope for the future when I look at Chenda, our Free To Shine staff member, who back in 2012 was one of the first girls on our program and now provides this service to other girls who look up to her for her strength. I’m also inspired by the wider team members, not just in Siem Reap, but in Australia too, so the work that the volunteers do behind the scenes, donors and the funds they have invested in us to make this work possible, and everyone who has been a part of making this happen. I’m inspired in a trillion different ways every day.

S: What do you think makes Free To Shine most successful as an organization?

N: We don't give up. There’s been hundreds and hundreds of challenges over the last nine years and it would be easy to hit a road block and just stop, but we don't—and that can be in terms of building systems and policies, or it can be in dealing with the multitude of issues a family may be facing. When we don't know the answer, we find the answer. There has been so many times that I’ve been told to stop, but we keep going and find a way. After doing our program for four to five years, one of the things that came up when we asked families for feedback on Free To Shine as an organization is that the organization “never gives up—you just keep coming back”.

To read more about Nicky and the incredible lessons she’s learned in her 9 years of leading Free To Shine keep an eye out for her book Do What Matters this August.