By Helen Grasswill.
She is a dynamo who has charmed both a prince and a prime minister into helping her to be ‘Mum’ to hundreds of orphaned, raped, trafficked, disabled and abandoned children.
But at 70, Geraldine Cox admits that the clock is ticking and she must find a successor to run her orphanage and welfare empire in Cambodia.
“I’ve been trying for many years to try and find someone to put up their hand,” she told Australian Story.
“But it’s a big ask. Who wants to live in rural Cambodia with no privacy, hundreds of kids, the pressure of having to raise money, travelling economy, on a small salary?”
With her flaming red hair swept up and held together with a ubiquitous chopstick, this septuagenarian is far from the typical image of an orphanage administrator
But then very little about Ms Cox is ordinary.
She first went to Cambodia as a fun-loving, 25-year-old secretary in the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh.
“I pictured myself swanning around in a black cocktail dress, seducing James Bond types,” she said.
Instead, the Vietnam War was spilling over the border into Cambodia, with the Khmer Rouge and the Vietcong fighting over territory, and American B52s dropping bombs so close to her apartment that the walls shook.
At the time, Adelaide-born Ms Cox was also suffering internal turmoil.
Her fiancé had recently broken off their engagement, after finding out that she could not have children due to blocked fallopian tubes.
Ms Cox then looked for a different type of happiness through a hedonistic lifestyle, numerous affairs, and a high-flying international career in foreign affairs and banking.
But she never lost the desire to be a mother.
Cox finds life purpose in becoming ‘Big Mum’.
In the mid-1990s she returned to Cambodia to help as a volunteer in an orphanage for refugee children that had been set up by Princess Marie, wife of Prince Ranariddh who, in an uneasy coalition, was co-prime minister of the country with military strongman Hun Sen.
The youngsters loved the loud and funny Australian, who they called ‘Big Mum’.
“It was like a thunderbolt, ‘Oh Geraldine, this is why you couldn’t have your own children, this is what you’re supposed to be doing’,” she said.