At Thalias Hospitality, we’re proud to have shared many milestones with PSE. Over the years, we’ve not just sponsored numerous events but also found incredible talents from this amazing community. Today, we wish to celebrate Mamie and the incredible difference she made. With the help of Thalias, her birthday will be celebrated the 16th of september 2023. That is the opportunity to meet with Leakhena des Pallières, now managing director of the NGO and living proof of PSE’s success !
“I’m not interested in careerism, what counts are the children”, says Leakhena Gauquelin des Pallières who is one of the first former PSE beneficiaries to rise to the position of Managing Director of the NGO Pour un Sourire d’Enfant.
In an exclusive interview, she talks about her early days with the association and how she rose through the ranks.
Can you tell us who Leakhena is in a few words?
My name is Leakhena and I’m 34 years old. I’m an only child, born in Kandal, but grew up in Phnom Penh. When my parents divorced, my mother and I moved in with an aunt in Steung Meanchey. My earliest memories date back to our move to the capital. I went to school, but rather irregularly, as I had to work to earn enough to eat.
“My aunt was an ice-cream seller, and we helped her by digging through the garbage, but it wasn’t always enough, and there were days when we didn’t have enough to eat.”
This aunt already had to look after her four children, and as she lived very close to the large Steung Meanchey rubbish dump, we began to rummage, sort and sell garbage.
CM: How old were you when you started doing this?
Eight or nine, until I became a boarder at “Pour un Sourire d’Enfant”. I met the founders of PSE on the dump, and they agreed to take me in when they saw my predicament.
At first, I was able to attend school, but I had to go home at night, and that wasn’t always easy. Soon, cousins joined me at the school. This relieved the family and did us all a lot of good. We were finally able to have two meals a day, which was far from being the case before PSE.
As for access to school, it was a chance we hadn’t dared to imagine! It was only under very special circumstances that I was then able to benefit from their accommodation.
Under what circumstances?
One morning, my mother accompanied me to the PSE premises and told me quite clearly that I would have to live there permanently from then on. Of course, I was completely lost and didn’t really understand what was happening to me. No one at PSE knew anything about it either, but faced with a fait accompli, Grandma and Grandpa didn’t hesitate to take me in. This enabled me to continue my schooling up to the baccalaureate. I wanted to become a social worker, but there wasn’t any university course at the time.
“Nevertheless, I was able to learn on the job, initially by working with Papy and the PSE social teams.”
This enabled me to acquire the rudiments of the job, and then to practice it to the full by taking part in a whole series of internships both in Cambodia and in France. Some of these internships, which took place in Paris, enabled us to share our skills with people from all over the world. I also had the opportunity to work with an American organization based in Cambodia. As I already had a lot of practical experience, my skills were validated without me having to undergo lengthy training. So, at the age of 20, I was able to start working as a social worker and live outside PSE.
What does it mean to be a social worker at PSE? What were your duties?
Participating in the recruitment of families, trying to solve the problems faced by the children, listening to them, assessing their situation, and what we call “opening” or “closing” a case, i.e. putting together a file and closing it.
It must be a difficult job…
No, it’s not a difficult job, because it’s a job I love. It’s true that sometimes our children’s situation seems insurmountable, but with time, PSE has been able to put in place a solution adapted to almost every situation.
And getting children out of misery, being able to give them what I’ve been given in the past, all that is extremely motivating. It’s a job I did for 3 or 4 years, before I was put in charge of foster families. But in a way, it’s also part of my job as a social worker. After a year and a half spent on this mission, I then became responsible for half a dozen people, before taking over the management of the social team.
How many cases do you handle each year?
It’s quite difficult to measure, but there are around 5,000 cases a year, with sometimes very different problems. Being myself from the same background as the children we support helps a lot, in both directions: on the one hand, to better understand their situation, but also to show them that if I’ve managed to get by, they can too.
How did you get started?
They were tough! When I started work, I was just a young woman who didn’t yet have the keys or all the diplomas in my pocket. Thanks to the help of those around me, I was able to overcome this stage and climb the ladder to become responsible for various programs within PSE: accommodation, extra-curricular activities, medical department…
Which of these departments had the greatest impact on you?
I liked accommodation the most, because you work 24/7 with the young people. It’s very exciting.
How many departments are there at PSE?
There are large departments that cover smaller services. For example, the Education department covers schooling, vocational training, language schools, pedagogy…
We’re talking about a structure with more than 600 employees… as in any organization of this size, we have support departments (finance, HR, administration, purchasing, communications…) and, of course, the whole social side, which refers children to our huts for the very youngest, our remedial classes, public schools or vocational training.
And you’ve worked in all the association’s departments?
Almost all of them, yes, the last one being responsible for the Education sector. At the same time, I had become deputy general manager, and applied when the position of director opened up.
And it worked out well for you! What motivated you to apply?
It wasn’t at all to get the title of director – careerism has never concerned me in my profession. It was the substance of the subject that really interested me, the children, the families, the possibilities of helping them… And then, it’s a job in which you act as part of a team, and I’m well surrounded.
What’s your day-to-day routine like?
I spend a lot of time with the teams, so I can understand in detail what their tasks are and get to know each other better. I’ve only been here a relatively short time, since mid-August, so things are still settling in.
“Getting started was also complicated by Covid, which was yet another challenge.”
Classroom closures, online training, distress for children and teachers, families who could no longer leave their homes, setting up emergency aid schemes… When you know the difficulties this can cause in families in general, you have to imagine the damage among the most vulnerable…
How do you see the future of your career?
I’m going to do everything I can to improve the quality of education, to take care of the pupils, to listen to the needs of the country and to be able to adjust the programs according to those needs… I’m also going to make it more frequent for the children to meet our staff, because it’s important to be able to put a face to a name.
What do you do outside work?
Looking after my three children, plus a niece, is a lot of work! I try to spend as much time with them as possible.