KUALA LUMPUR: The track to the isolated Perak village was so treacherous that the two pastors from Kuala Lumpur were worried their struggling four-wheel-drive would get stuck.
It was 1996, and Rajendran Velu and his friend Cheah Kim Hock were on their way to Kampung Orang Asli Pelawan for the first time.
When their dirt-streaked vehicle finally arrived, the two friends were horrified by the deplorable state of the village. The ramshackle buildings were decayed and rubbish was strewn all around.
“The sight of that neglected village and the people there was so depressing, I couldn’t turn a blind eye,” Rajendran told FMT.
“In a developing country like ours, why were they living in such miserable conditions? So many villagers were suffering crippling social problems including alcohol and drug abuse,” he said.
The conditions the village children were living in were especially heartbreaking.
None of them attended school, so they had no knowledge of anything outside. The dilapidated village was the only world they knew or could look forward to.
The shocked pastors wondered if there could be a way out for the villagers. The adults would be difficult to educate. But the children…
“We visited other villages and it was usually the same story.”
Instead of tut-tutting and getting on with their life as most of us would, these Samaritans were determined not to pass by. They wanted to do something to help.
It became obvious to them that for any effective long-term change, they would have to start with the children.
“The children needed to go to school so they could learn about the world and have a brighter future.”
Fast forward to 2004 and another Orang Asli village: Kampung Sungai Dalam in Raub, Pahang.
Conditions there were no better – perhaps even worse. In nearly 10 years, nothing had improved.
But by now, Rajendran and Cheah had hatched a plan. They were going to take this bull by the horns.
“We realised we couldn’t keep on just handing out rice every time we visited. We needed a long-term plan for them, especially the children.”
The dynamic duo rented a small wooden house for RM150 per month, paid out of their own pockets, 6km away from Kg Sungai Dalam.
The house was to become their learning centre. They called it The Dormitory and furnished it to accommodate up to 20 children. They managed to convince the village parents to allow their kids to stay there.
“We needed money to feed the children, to pay for electricity, water and medical bills. All the things growing children need, including uniforms.”
It was expensive but somehow they kept their heads above water. “It was worth it for the kids,” said Chea.
By 2010 The Dormitory was at last becoming what they had dreamed, when suddenly the owner sold it without telling them.
When they found out, their first thought was, “Where can we go now with the kids?”
They appealed for donations and gradually accumulated enough money to secure 12 hectares of land near Tras, Pahang, which they were able to buy in stages.
They started building their own centre. This time nobody would be able to sell it from under them.
Nine years further on, the visionary pair say about their Semenanjong Orang Asli (Semoa) Educare Centre, “It’s still not finished, but we’re getting there.
“We are trying to make it nice and comfortable for the children. We have separate dormitories for boys and girls, and a kitchen, a library, a kindergarten, and even a fish pond.”
Today, they are taking care of 93 kids. They intend to raise this number to 200 in the near future and are building new dormitories in preparation.
Each month they need RM35,000 to pay for everything, and there are times when they don’t reach that target.
But with the help of a growing number of volunteers they are making good progress.
“Our target is to ensure that the kids attend until Form Five and then transfer to government schools.”
Their vision remains to enable previously doomed kids to join the outside world, and so perhaps ultimately lift their villages out of the poverty trap.
These compassionate pastors seem to be well on track.