Student promotes fair trade to help Nepalese street children

9 July 2013

At a time when many major retailers have come under intense scrutiny over the unethical origins of their products, one University of Sydney student is helping to bring fair trade on campus with an innovative not for profit venture.

Master of Social Work (Qualifying) student, Sarah Reyes, is Director of Welcome To My Yard (WTMY), a multifaceted project that helps Nepalese street children and young people earn a living and gain vocational training.

WTMY has several project arms, including a drop-in centre in the heart of the Kathmandu street community, English and practical IT skills training courses, and a popular e-shop selling locally made handicrafts. The project also takes visitors to Kathmandu off the tourist trail and into the backstreets on the WTMY City Walk, led by a qualified guide and a young person in training.

All profits raised from these social enterprises directly fund WTMY's on-the-ground initiatives, with proceeds also deposited into a savings scheme to support the children's education or future business ventures. Since its inception in 2011, more than 130 street children from the Kathmandu community of Pashupati have participated in the project.

Now WTMY has begun operating from Australia, with its first pop-up shop held at the University of Sydney at the end of May a great success.

"We basically sold out of everything - we've only got five items left!" Reyes said. "Running the stall at the University was just fantastic. We met so many people and we got to talk about the work we're doing. It's real fair trade. People get something they want, and the money they use to buy it is going straight back to the programs we do."

Kathmandu has some of the highest number of street children in the developing world. Estimates from child rights group CWIN Nepal show there are more than 4000 street children in Nepal, with over 1200 living on the streets of Kathmandu alone. Many are victims of abuse, exploitation or trafficking, and a high number suffer from drug addiction issues and poverty, forcing them to beg in order to survive.

Unlike many other organisations working in Nepal, WTMY takes a community-centric approach to help tackle these issues, to the point where even internal recruitment processes are subject to input from the young people and street children themselves.

"We see the community as being not only as a place of struggle and street life, but also of great strength and support with each other," Reyes said. "Essentially, we don't exist without them, so we understand that they have a lot to offer and we have to work in partnership with them in order to succeed."

This ethos has informed WTMY since the project was first devised. The initiative's unusual name was born from a photo project in 2005, where Reyes approached a group of street children in Kathmandu, armed them with disposable cameras, and asked them to document their lives. The resulting photo book eventually evolved into the WTMY project itself.

"[WTMY] is really about the fact that this is their world," Reyes said. "It's a recognition that this is their community and we're guests in it, and we understand that. It's not us going into their community and telling them what to do. It's about their project, their community - it's all about them."

For Reyes, it's been a "really interesting journey" to return to study her Masters of Social Work (Qualifying) after more than a decade away from formal education. Having completed her undergraduate degree in international development in 2001, Reyes has worked with families and communities across Mexico, India and most recently at Camden Council in the UK.

"I've always thought I'd like to go and get that qualification, because I've kind of worked my way through the career path," Reyes said. "I'm really enjoying meeting the people from my course; a lot of them are in very similar situations where they've worked for a certain amount of time and are looking to get that qualification, so we have a lot in common."

Now one semester into her Masters degree, Reyes is juggling study and erratically timed Skype calls with her team in Nepal to continue WTMY's work in the community.

"It sounds really corny but every cent really does go a long way over there and helps us meet our goals," she said.

Contact: Emily Jones

Phone: 02 9114 1961; 0405 208 616

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