Empathy—real, life-altering empathy—is an underrated value. In the 21st century, when human interactions occur primarily through virtual means, human empathy more often than not takes the form of online donations.
Which is why the story of Tara Winkler is so extraordinary.
In 2005, at the age of 21, Winkler traveled to Cambodia to volunteer at Akira’s Landmine Museum, which supported victims of landmines. At that time, she visited an orphanage Battambang, which, she later found out in 2007, was run by a director who was embezzling funds and sexually and emotionally abusing the young children who took refuge there.
Horrified by the stories of abuse, Winkler partnered with local NGO director, Pon Jedtha, to found the Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT), a non-profit NGO that fosters the educational and ethical empowerment of the children of Battambang.
Tired of “orphanage tourism,” Winkler and her team recently converted CCT from an orphanage into a “community development organization” to better serve the Battambang community, as well as in order to try to keep the children with their families. “I’m not mum any more,” she explained in an interview. “I played that role for a little when it was necessary, but that isn’t something that’s sustainable for all those kids.”
Just last week, Winkler was once again the subject of ABC’s Australian Story program. She was first featured in 2010 shortly after beginning the nonprofit, prior to being name the 2011 “Young Australian of the Year.”
As the most recent episode documents, Winkler’s life has been full of tragedy and loss since 2010. Most profound were the losses of Jendar Heng, one of her orphans who drowned in a pool at the age of ten, and the death of her partner, Sydney musician and author Carolyn Shine, who succumbed to appendiceal cancer in 2012. Shine was Winkler’s mentor and confidante, and they had only begun dating when Shine was diagnosed with cancer.
Forever extracting value from life, in noting the toll of 12 grueling rounds of chemotherapy, Winkler says that “somehow we manage to turn it into one of the best years of our lives.”
“Before she died,” Winkler continued, “Carolyn made me promise that I would go on to live a full and happy life and make the most of every moment.”
Watch “The House of Tara” in full here, or check out the trailer below.