Over the last four years, I have ventured out on my own to work with youth in Viet Nam, South Korea, and Cambodia to help support and empower them through education and caregiving. I am driven by a passion for community enhancement, youth development, and cross-cultural exchanges, and a desire to assist others in accessing health and language education. With each instance of volunteering, you hope to make a positive change. Often, your life changes too; the question is simply how. While each country I have worked in has left its own unique impression on me, it was in Cambodia where one child made all the difference and changed my life.
Welcome to Phnom Penh
It had been two years since I was last in Southeast Asia, and the summer heat was as oppressive as I remembered. As the plane landed at Phnom Penh International Airport, my chest tightened with excitement, though I was also nervous. I had never been to Cambodia and I knew no one there. I was pretty sure I could handle my assignment caring for children with disabilities at a local orphanage, but a part of me also knew I was underestimating the severity of the situation I would be walking into. Unlike the work I had done elsewhere, this would be deeply hands-on and Cambodia was sure to be a country unlike anywhere else I’d been to. A voice of doubt whispered in my mind, “Can you handle it?”
I woke up in a room with five strangers and spent the day getting to know many of the volunteers I’d be living with for the next month. Three of them would be working at the orphanage with me and the next day, we set off in a three-wheeled taxi for the National Borey for Infants and Children. Phnom Penh was brimming with activity; along with the sounds of motorbikes and music, the smells of roasting food and exhaust fumes engulfed us as we made our way through the city. The congested streets eventually spilled us out onto dusty, unpaved roads as we left the city behind and arrived for our first day on the job.
It's Off to Work We Go
After a brief tour and orientation, I took up a post in a room designated for children up to age sixteen. The room was cavernous, with high ceilings and doors opening up to a balcony that ran the length of the entire u-shaped building’s exterior. About fifteen children were in the room, lying on mats, strapped into their wheelchairs, or running around if they were able. The orphanage houses about one hundred children in total, all of whom are disabled, be it physically or mentally. As a government institution, the facility accepted every child brought to its door. The children are found in various places by staff and community members: churches, hospitals, or even on the doorsteps of the orphanage.
Looking around the room, I was instantly overwhelmed. It was then that I first saw Hang Phea. Lying on the floor, clenched up and suffering body spasms, this malnourished, rail-thin boy looked up at me with a vacant stare that broke my heart. How could I do this? How could I possibly help him? I looked helplessly around the room.
The Khmer women who worked there, known as the mamas, were feeding mashed up bananas to the children when one of them saw me. Looking at me, she saw an uncertainty in my eyes that she had no doubt seen many times before. She walked over and placed a plastic bowl and spoon in my hands and pointed at the child. Though unable to speak much English, she firmly told me, “feed Hang Phea.” As she walked away, I looked at Hang Phea, and he looked up at me, his arms and tongue flailing around his mouth. I would later learn that he suffers from both polio and cerebral palsy. At sixteen, he can’t speak, can rarely focus his eyes on you, and his movements are completely out of his control. Despite my uncertainty, I picked him up and tried to feed him.
The process of feeding Hang Phea took an hour. There was a lot of food coughed up in my face as I learned the right portions and speed to use. Though it took a lot of practice, over four weeks I slowly mastered the art of feeding him. During that time, we took a liking to each other. Before long, I spent most of my time with Hang Phea, carrying him around, singing to him and finding ways to make him smile. The mamas started calling me “Hang Phea Papa” as they handed him to me each day when I arrived. I became charmed by this strong young man who brought such warmth to my life.
By nature, I am a meticulous person. This is especially true when it comes to cleanliness, but I was surprised that I hardly noticed how fast this trait flew to the wayside as the care of Hang Phea and the others became my only priority. Hang Phea led me through the experience of getting down and dirty during mealtime. Twice a day, he and I would struggle, making a huge mess with him relentlessly twitching and convulsing. I sat there with him in my lap with heat pouring in from outside, both of us covered in flies as other children screamed around us. One day, I finished feeding Hang Phea and put him down on a mat. As I stood up, I noticed that he had urinated all over my lap. It was so hot and humid, I hadn’t noticed it as it happened. I sat down on a stool, sticky, barefoot, sweaty, and with my shorts soaked in urine. In that moment, I felt I woke up in a way. This was life every day for these children, the mamas, and so many others.
Life at the orphanage was a mixture of blessings and hardships. Despite a strong language barrier, the mamas embraced us and patiently helped us find our way. Beyond the fact that few of us had much experience with young and disabled children, what we did know came from a Western perspective. The mamas had a way of doing things that required adaptation on my part, and as a stranger in Khmer culture, I eagerly took up everything they taught me. Sometimes, this included learning lessons that could be heartbreaking.
Love and Loss
During my last week, I came to work feeling excited to see Hang Phea, but I was also starting to become a little sad. I had begun to realize our time together was running out. When I got to the orphanage, I learned that a nine-year-old boy had passed away the night before. He shared a room with Hang Phea and slept next to him. He had been at the orphanage most of his life. The passing was so difficult for the mamas and the volunteers that worked with the boy. I could only imagine, what if that had been Hang Phea? The realities of his situation— his health, his shortened life expectancy— hit me harder than they had on my first day with him. When I saw him that day, I would not let him go. This death was the second in a month. The passing of a child is not an unfamiliar event for those who work at the orphanage, but for those of us who were new, it was a harsh taste of reality.
The funeral for the boy was held the following day. Prior to the service, Colleen, a resident volunteer, taught us that in Khmer tradition, you wait seven days before burial, but since so many of the current volunteers would have rotated out by then, the service was being held early. Gathered all in a circle, volunteers, staff, and children stood together under overcast skies as Colleen led us in a Khmer farewell song. I held Hang Phea, his arm hanging over my shoulder, and we watched as a small tree was planted in honor of the boy. It was a difficult day for all to witness the loss of such young and innocent life.
Fortune Favors the Brave
I left Phnom Penh that week with fond memories and a heavy heart. I felt that I had made a very real difference to the lives of a few children through the bonds that we shared. Despite the hardships of culture shock and working with children who face such hardships in life, I found that love can, and will, manifest anywhere. Volunteering in Cambodia is perhaps the best thing I have ever done. I know that I will never be the same having had these wonderful beings in my life, even though it was for such a short time.
For those who seek to venture out into the world and become a force of good and an agent of change, I offer these words: Embrace the unknowns of your endeavor. If you are fluid, optimistic, and open to the cultures and realities of others, you will get more out of your experience than you could possibly imagine - and do the most good.