For the past five years, Central Coast Grammar School, north of Sydney, has been hosting the at-risk children, many of whom, have gone on to forge successful careers.
Seventeen year-old Phannat Phy only began playing piano five years ago.
He learnt entirely by ear in his home country, Cambodia, and he’s already receiving standing ovations.
His performance at Central Coast Grammar’s school assembly blew the audience away.
Phannat is one of a generation of children in Cambodia living below the poverty line.
Since he was three, Phannat has been living under the care of Sunrise Cambodia, a charity that supports and educates at-risk children.
It was set up in the early 90s by Geraldine Cox.
“All of the children that have come have been affected in some way by feelings of abandonment, low self-worth, lack of confidence because there is a stigma attached to being an orphan in Cambodia.”
Phannat is one of four teenagers from Sunrise Cambodia, taking part in an Australian exchange program.
For a month, they attend school at New South Wales’ Central Coast Grammar and stay with a host family.
For most, it’s the first time they’ve lived in such a setting.
Phannat says it’s like having a second family.
“I feel like that this is my own house and she is my mother, yeah – they are very kind, it’s like my mother and father.”
He and the others are giving just as much back to the community.
Bec Hockey, a year 12 student at Central Coast Grammar, first met Phannat when she went on exchange to Cambodia last year.
She says it was an honour to see Phannat perform at the assembly.
“Really proud, I knew how nervous he was and he was just amazing and to see his talent be showcased at our school was really amazing.”
Founder of the exchange program, Peter Davies, in the past has hosted some of the Cambodian students in his home.
He says the memories they leave behind last forever.
“Some of the funny things that happen, you’ll never forget. For example, we told two of our boys that we had a machine for washing clothes – I wound up pulling clothes out of our dishwasher.”
For the students, the trip is full of new experiences.
In Cambodia, school runs for just three hours a day and there are no extra-curricular activities.
Phannat says he’s grateful to be taking part in a range of subjects that don’t exist in Cambodia.
“(We) don’t have sport or art or music, that’s why it makes us like, feel stressed. This place is very nice.”
Chieb Khtik says it’s her first time using a computer at school.
“It’s very fun. The school standard, in here, it’s very modern. In Cambodia, when we study, we use the notebook but here, we use the computer.”
The classes are igniting new aspirations for the students.
Vichhay Khorn has been taking part in an I-T elective and now hopes to forge a career in that area.
He says he wants to share the skills he’s learning here in Australia with his peers back home.
“I want to work in IT. The knowledge about technology is so low, so that’s why I want to get more from Australia and share with the other children at the centre and in the community.”
That’s a real possibility, says Geraldine Cox, if the program’s past participants are anything to go by.
“We’ve got one doing a scholarship in China in IT, another doing agriculture in Israel, we’ve got two girls doing international relations degrees in Phnom Penh universities. We’ve got another boy doing civil engineering, we’ve got kids in hospitality, social welfare, the whole lot.”
And with Phannat on a path to study at the Royal Fine Arts School in Phnom Penh, the list of success stories looks likely to grow.