Youth Leaders Are Helping Cambodian Children Grow Up Healthy

Youth Leaders Are Helping Cambodian Children Grow Up Healthy

by Joan Kelley Walker


Photo: World Vision

As a child advocate, I recently had the opportunity to travel to Cambodia to see some of the work World Vision is doing to make a difference. It was also the first time I took my sons to see how many people in developing countries live. I tracked my experience in this travel journal. This is Part 3.

Read Part 1 of my journal

Read Part 2 of my journal

Day 4: Youth Leaders Provide Hope

I am so excited to tell you about the youth leaders that I met in rural Cambodia! They are young people between the ages of about 14 to 30 years old. Sure, they get together to socialize like any youth group, but the focus of their group is more important than any other youth group I have ever heard of.

These young people are the front line of the Starting Strong program that my family helps support through World Vision for all of Cambodia.

This dynamic group is the core to teaching women, mothers and caregivers in rural areas about their options and choices, and how to raise their babies with the best-possible care.


This group of young leaders is an important support for expecting and new mothers. Photo: World Vision

Starting Strong measures and tracks the progress of pregnant mothers, babies and children up to the age of five. It is difficult to believe how little education most of the women in Cambodia have here about care for themselves during pregnancy, breastfeeding and caring for their children.

Malnutrition is also prevalent, even in families that are not considered poor. It is not an economic thing; it is an educational thing.

The focus of Starting Strong is to educate and support mothers to learn how to use local, readily available ingredients to make sure that their families have all the nutrients they need. The primary goal is to prevent stunting in children, which has a very high incidence rate. (Stunting means they don’t develop and grow properly because of poor nutrition.)

If addressed before a child is two years old, the long-term physical and mental effects of stunting can be reversed.

The leaders invite the mothers to join groups that teach them about food preparation. They also have regular weighing of mothers and babies using the same growth chart that my doctor used for my kids when they were born in Canada.

It’s wonderful to see how stunting can be reversed with this team approach!


There’s nothing more beautiful than a healthy mom and baby! Here, I was speaking with moms at a rural health clinic. Photo: World Vision

At a rural health care facility about an hour outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia, I was able to meet mothers and babies who came for their regular weigh-ins.

This is important because it shows the mothers that their participation in the Starting Strong program is working. It’s also an opportunity to identify mothers and babies who need additional support.

There were many mothers attending the weigh-in. Some of the babies were in the danger zone of the growth chart, meaning the babies had malnutrition and were at risk of stunting. Left untreated, stunted babies could have physical and mental problems for life.

Embracing education

One mother I met was new to the program and she had no prior knowledge of breast feeding. She did not know that what she ate affected the quality of her breast milk, or that a diet consisting mainly of rice, or crackers was not sufficient to prevent stunting. Her baby was underweight and malnourished. The mother was anemic and lethargic.

She very relieved though that her baby had been identified as being underweight. And this mother was very motivated to follow the food regimen that was suggested. Mostly, she was thankful for having heard about the Starting Strong program from a youth leader.

She looked forward to learning about nutrition, being taught how to cook with local, readily available ingredients to make proper nutritious food for her and her family. Without it, she feared for the quality of life her baby would have.

It brought tears to my eyes to feel her struggle. It made me thank God for the good work World Vision is doing in the Starting Strong program.

I am humbled that my family and I support this program throughout Cambodia

Day 5: How Nutrition Changes Lives

Today I got to prepare nutritious food with a women’s gathering in a rural area, outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia. This is a learning and sharing opportunity for all of us.

The focus of the day is a big pot cooking over an open flame. Inside the pot is rice, meat, fish, egg, oil, clean water, peanuts, iodized salt, local pepper, herbs and lots of green leafy vegetables from local trees and shrubs. The people cook this into what they call “porridge.”

This is the front line to ensure proper nutrition for mothers and their children! It tastes more like lunch to me, not breakfast porridge. The babies and young ones can’t get enough of it and I get a great deal of satisfaction feeding babies!


Photo: World Vision

I love to hold the babies! And to talk with the mothers who are keen to learn about what it’s like to raise children in Canada. I also love to be a part of this Starting Strong program that we are partnering with World Vision Canada on to support Cambodian families and communities.

One of the mothers said to me, “As a mother of a malnourished baby, I am so thankful to be learning how to make this porridge!” She was not embarrassed, nor was there stigma, rather, she was thankful that World Vision was there to help.