Victor Green gave a few children a book. From such a small beginning, a program to improve the lives of poor Cambodians has blossomed.
The striking thing about Victor and Wendy Green is how much of their retirement – both in time and money – has gone into helping others.
"We don't have a lot put away, but we don't smoke, we don't drink, so we have something else to spend it on.''
The Moruya-based pensioners are doing their bit to change the world, one underprivileged child at a time, with a program they have developed called Bluebird.
The passion project took shape eight years ago in Cambodia. Today, children across several small villages in the country are learning English through the program, with the help of second-hand laptops and a homemade computer program.
Mr Green, a qualified plumber and later an accountant, said the idea blossomed from his experience walking past a group of poor children each day during a secondment to the country.
"They knew one English word and that was hello," Mr Green said.
"I always said hello."
Mr Green knew that in Cambodia, harnessing the English language meant much better work opportunities for the children, and so he looked for a kids' English book the next time he went to the capital.
"I found a very simple one," he said.
"The next time I walked past the kids, I gave them the book. Their reaction was, basically, to drag us into the area they lived and my wife and I started to teach basic English for half an hour a day."
More and more children and their parents turned up for the daily English lesson, and when it was time for the Greens to return to Australia, they decided they couldn't leave the children in the lurch.
"We wanted to get them into school," Mr Green said.
The couple set up a small organisation registered in NSW called Bluebird.
"For the last eight years, we've been assisting some very poor families in Cambodia. We assist them with getting their kids into school, because it is not free and it is well beyond the reach of impoverished families," Mr Green said.
The organisation, which has just five volunteers, including Mr and Mrs Green, buys uniforms, textbooks and writing material for children, and if the school is a long way away, they look to provide second-hand bicycles, as well.
"Right now, we've got seven families we concentrate on – about 15 kids. Over the years, we've gradually assisted those families to improve their living conditions and improve their housing. A lot of families have no sanitised water, so we've concentrated on that as well," Mr Green said.
One of the obstacles the Greens found with their work was getting the children into English-language schools, designed to give them the language skills they would need to find employment.
The first thing the couple noticed was they could not understand a single word of what was being taught as English.
The students, however, were under the impression they were learning the language.
"We thought, 'how are we going to solve this problem?' so we started to develop some very basic English-language programs.
"We ask the public to donate old laptop computers, too slow for them today, and we basically strip all the programs out and load them with our audio-visual language programs."
The Greens take two or three computers to Cambodia twice a year, depending on luggage restrictions.
"We get the kids in a central location, a few at a time, and my wife concentrates on teaching them to speak the English phonetics ... We teach them how to use the computers and how to use the programs, and then they go off back to their villages."
Mr Green said one of the most remarkable things he had experienced was the change in one particular family they helped.
He saw a girl, aged about nine at the time, carrying water from a water source back to the hut where she lived with her three siblings and parents.
"They had lived on the side of the road for 15 years," Mr Green said.
"They only had a few pots, a plastic bag of clothes and an oil light with no glass in it in a rickety house and they were totally trapped in that environment."
He said the family had just enough money to feed themselves.
"That same family now has a far better house, has a toilet, a bathroom ... the girl has been to school and she's 16 now, and she's teaching other kids.
"She's got three computers in her house. The local carpenter made her a bench to put the computers on, and she now teaches her sister and three other children from a nearby village."
Mr Green said the first time the girl went off to school, he could visibly see the whole family lift.
"After all that desperation, after all those years, they could see a light at the end of the tunnel."
The Bluebird program is supported by Canberrans, including the Free Computer Co-Op. All the money donated – about $4000 a year – goes to educating the children.
The Greens use their own pension to buy their airline tickets, and to help the families get access to sanitised water and better housing facilities.
"We don't have a lot put away, but we don't smoke, we don't drink, so we have something else to spend it on," Mr Green said.
Contact the Greens at email@example.com.