Story transcripts

Big mama

Sunday, September 2, 2007
Geraldine Cox is big in every way, she really is
Reporter: Ray Martin

Producer: Mick O'Donnell

They call her Big Mama and you can see why. Geraldine Cox is big in every way, she really is "larger than life". An extraordinary Australian who's done just about everything.

But through all the adventures, all the excitement, there was always something missing. A place to call home, and most important of all, children.

Well, in her typical unorthodox way, her typical big way, Geraldine found both.

She became mum to 200 kids, the most tragic and vulnerable children you're ever likely to meet.

And she did it in war-ravaged Cambodia.

Sure, it's been touch and go at times, but it's amazing what a little love can do.


RAY MARTIN: Like a rich watercolour, dawn soaks through the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat. The old Khmer kingdom of Cambodia is about the size of Tasmania.

GERALDINE COX: I'd never seen anything so tragic in all my life to see these people suffering the way they were — homeless children. It was like a movie but it was real.

RAY MARTIN: This poor country cries with orphans. The UN says there are hundreds of thousands of them. But only 200 of the luckiest orphans make it here to the Sunrise Children's' Village.

GERALDINE COX: I want those 200 children's lives changed forever. I want the best for them.

RAY MARTIN: Geraldine Cox is a beauty. With so much love for her laughing children, she's bursting out of her skin — all 110 kilos of it. In Cambodian, they call her Madai Tom Tom — that means Big Mama. And that's not bad for a woman who could not have children herself.

GERALDINE COX: It's a wonderful feeling to go to bed at night and to know that a few yards down there, there's 200 kids that are gonna wake up in the morning and fight to kiss you first in the morning when you go down there, and I know that I'm going to get that every day that I go down there. I'm not here in Cambodia out of religious or moral conviction. I'm here for totally selfish reasons— because I want children in my life. I want them in the morning, I want them in the afternoon, I want them in the evening.

RAY MARTIN: But behind every one of these smiling faces is a sad, sad story — children dumped at the gates or sold by their parents, some whose mothers have died of cancer, some whose mothers have died of AIDS. Many of the orphans and the poor find their way here to the stone temples of Angkor Wat. The sacred calm is broken by the cacophony of kids, flogging postcards and trinkets to tourists. And how much money do you make a day selling these?

GIRL: A little bit.

RAY MARTIN: A little bit?

GIRL: Yeah.

RAY MARTIN: What do you do with the money? Tell me — give it to your mum?

GIRL: Yes.

RAY MARTIN: When Geraldine found these six brothers and sisters, they didn't have a mum — they didn't even have postcards to sell. They spent their childhood begging in the ruins. At 16, beautiful but shy, Srey Leak is the eldest.

SREY LEAK: We ask the tourist for some money.

RAY MARTIN: So, you'd beg and the tourists would give you money?

SREY LEAK: Yes, but sometime when we ... When the tourist give me and another children steal.

RAY MARTIN: Do you mean that the other children here would steal the money from you?


GERALDINE COX: I can't imagine what was going through her head about how she would live from one day to the next just by begging here.

RAY MARTIN: When Srey Leak's mother died of alcohol abuse, the children paid for her jungle grave with what begging money they had left. By the time Geraldine rescued them, they were starving.

GERALDINE COX: Anything could have happened to her. Look at her — she's beautiful — and, you know, I shudder to think what could have happened to her. And she has a wonderful life now just waiting for her and it's so rewarding to be a part of that, to give it to her.

RAY MARTIN: Back in the 1990s, after a lifetime as a diplomat, Geraldine set up the orphanage. But it almost ended before it began. Ten years ago, there was another Cambodian coup, the latest tragedy after decades of violence. Most foreigners fled the chaos and the killing.

GERALDINE COX: Some of the staff members were saying, ‘Get on the bus, you silly bitch’, and I said, ‘No, I can't go, I'd never have another night's sleep if I leave these children’.

RAY MARTIN: When soldiers seized the orphanage, Geraldine cried out to the world for help.

GERALDINE COX: All these kids have got sponsors in Australia, so if you take photos of the kids rather than me, their sponsors will see them.

RAY MARTIN: And the new Cambodian rulers let Geraldine go back to her children.

GERALDINE COX: And when I drove through that gate, the kids came from everywhere. They were yelling out, ‘Big Mum's stayed — look, she's here! Hurry, come! She loves us, she didn't go! She loves us! She's here!’ And they just carried me into the dining room and they were all grabbing some part of me to make sure it really was me. They just couldn't believe that someone cared enough about them to not leave them. And I really was the only who could be there for them.

RAY MARTIN: Like a mother. This 62-year-old madonna had spent a life-time trying to have babies. Suddenly the orphanage gave her what Mother Nature had refused. The first people who loved you truly, for you.

GERALDINE COX: Unconditionally — the first people that didn't say lose weight, study harder, be better, don't be bad. They were the first ones that were really unconditionally accepting of me — unconditionally.

RAY MARTIN: Here at her orphanage, Geraldine offers that same unconditional love to all of the children.

GERALDINE COX: These are three of my really special children. This one, from where I'm sitting, she is a beauty. From the other side not so much. You are beautiful to me, okay? You are beautiful.

RAY MARTIN: Son Thi is 11. She had battery acid thrown on her face and body, a crime of passion that killed her mother and left Son Thi an orphan.

GERALDINE COX: And this little beauty here, whose light just shines through her one eye, her name is Wau and she was sold off by her parents, trafficked over the border.

RAY MARTIN: Sold by her parents to be a professional beggar, Wau was disfigured, again with acid, to make her more pathetic and more profitable.

GERALDINE COX: She's got spirit this one. When I told her she was going to start school at grade one and I said, ‘There's 2000 kids at the school and they're gonna make fun of you on the first day, you have to be ready for that’, she said ‘That's alright, Mum, I know it, but they'll stop when they get to know me’, she said.

RAY MARTIN: Ras Mai is only seven. Oh, dear, does that hurt?

GERALDINE COX: No, but it did before.

RAY MARTIN: He was a street urchin. Someone put a plastic bag of rubbish up his shirt and set it on fire. The plastic fused to his skin.

GERALDINE COX: I tell him that was the best thing that had ever happened to him because when he got to the hospital it was revealed he was an orphan, that's how he got here

RAY MARTIN: Like every mum, Geraldine feels her children's pain.

GERALDINE COX: I'd love to wave a magic wand. I'd love to be the woman in 'Bewitched' and just go like this, but I can't.

RAY MARTIN: There is no magic wand, just as there's no rich godfather. Ever since she began the orphanage, Geraldine has had to go begging around the world just to survive. So, tomorrow, 55 of the kids fly off to Adelaide, Geraldine's hometown, to sing and to dance for money.

GERALDINE COX: We're going to call the names of the people coming to Australia — Srey Leak and Li Mol.

RAY MARTIN: Remember Srey Leak — the girl who begged in the temple? Well, she's going too. Her life will change forever thanks to Geraldine. Srey Leak has won a scholarship to an exclusive Adelaide girls' school.

GERALDINE COX: She's going to a school my parents could never have afforded to have sent me. And one of the kids said, ‘What's your dream, Mum?’ And I said, ‘My dream is to give you your dreams’, and they were real happy with that, yeah.

RAY MARTIN: Well, Geraldine certainly gave Sopheak his dream — a college scholarship in Australia. He's been kicking goals for this prestigious, old private school since he arrived six months ago. It's a long way from the rice paddies of Cambodia. And do you score a goal every game?

SOPHEAK: Sure, yeah. (Laughs)

RAY MARTIN: Two goals?

SOPHEAK: Um, I think sometimes three goals, sometimes four goals — sometimes five maybe.



BOY 1: He's an awesome soccer player.

RAY MARTIN: At 11, Sopheak couldn't read or write when he came to the orphanage in Phnom Penh.

BOY 2: We always look after Sopheak and make sure he never gets in trouble.

TEACHER: To the power of X.

RAY MARTIN: Today in Adelaide, he's tackling trigonometry thanks to Big Mama.

SOPHEAK: I love her so much. It's just like a mum, my real mum. If not for her, well, I would not be here.

GERALDINE COX: And he said to me, ‘I don't know how to tell you how much I love you. I can't express it’. And, um, that's what I need in my life.

RAY MARTIN: Mum's finally arrived with cuddles and kids — all 55 of his brothers and sisters.

GIRL: I like your hat.

SREY LEAK: Very bright.

RAY MARTIN: Including Srey Leak, who meets and greets her new schoolmates.

GIRL: We can't wait for you to come and perform for us. We're all excited.

GERALDINE COX: If you try to touch the baby, she'll be angry. She has to protect the baby.

RAY MARTIN: Saturday in the park, and it's all swans and smiles. The sad stories that brought them to Geraldine are in another lifetime. Tell me what it's like to have your ducklings around you?

GERALDINE COX: Well, I have to pinch myself to really believe that I've got two of my kids here in my home town by the River Torrens, two kids that are making me so proud.

SOPHEAK: I want her happy. I don't want her too disappointed.

RAY MARTIN: You don't look very disappointed, Geraldine?

GERALDINE COX: No, I haven't stopped smiling since I got off the plane.

RAY MARTIN: Saturday night at the Adelaide Convention Centre — it's Geraldine's big Australian fundraiser and, hopefully, they've brought their cheque books along.

GERALDINE COX: Beautiful, beautiful — I'm so happy with how you look.

RAY MARTIN: The kids are all dolled up to win the hearts and minds and twist a few arms because their mum needs money to feed and clothe them.

GERALDINE COX: I'll see you on stage. Break a leg. They don't know what that means, but break a leg.

SOPHEAK: Geraldine is mum to all of us. We nickname her Big Mum, because ... because she's big. You've seen her, so you know what I mean.

RAY MARTIN: In the dog-eat-dog world of charity, Geraldine is a great survivor — so far. Tonight, this Big Mum has earned the right to feel proud. Had you had two children, would there be hundreds of Cambodian kids who would be still on the street?

GERALDINE COX: Absolutely. I think that the universe conspired to make me barren and unable to have children because it was waiting for me to get the plot and to come here and do what I'm doing.

RAY MARTIN: What if the government says here, ‘You're gone — end of section, tomorrow?’

GERALDINE COX: They'd have to drag me out of here physically. I wouldn't go willingly.

RAY MARTIN: No mean feat.

GERALDINE COX: That's right!

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