Cambodia is one of the world's poorest countries, brought down through an era of horrific & tragic genocide, yet full of wonderfully optimistic people trying to rebuild~Here's a chance to make a real difference in the lives of real people 8,800 miles away
04.27.2012 - 05.01.2012 115 °F
Let's start with a few questions...
What's your favorite part of the day?? Your morning coffee? Going for a drive with your music turned up loud? Browsing the internet? Sitting around the dinner table talking to your family? Calling your mom? Going for a run?
What's your favorite childhood memory?? The ice cream truck? Learning to ride your first bike? Christmas? Visiting your grandparents? The first day of school? Your first crush?
Now, describe your home. Three or four bedrooms. Two bathrooms. A kitchen and dining room. Living Room. Front & backyard. How many TVs? 4, 5, 6......
The majority of Cambodia's population, more than three-quarters of its people, still lives more or less as they did 1,000 years ago. This rings true as you travel about one hour outside the capital city of Phnom Penh, where you will find some of the poorest people in Cambodia. These people own no land, living on the outskirts of government owned dirt roads or along privately owned land. Their houses are maybe twelve by twelve feet, built of bamboo and palm leaves, with few visible possessions, no electricity or running water, no telephone or television service, no means to cook food other than to build a fire... no real evidence of the modern world.
Until the 1940s, Cambodia had no schools. People relied on village monks to teach the principles of Buddhism, but education ended there. There was not one single elementary, middle, or high school, let alone a university. In vast expanses of the country, schools did not begin to appear until the 1990s, and still today there are areas where children have never set foot into a school. These small villages of land-less people are full of excited children who have never been given the opportunity to go to school. If the opportunity for education presents itself, the average child will leave school after second or third grade to help their family on the cornfields or in rice paddies. It's estimated that about 60% of the nation's women are illiterate.
Another growing concern is the "business" of orphanages. As millions of tourists flock to Cambodia to visit the beautiful temples of Angkor or to see further into the horrific reign of terror led by the Khmer Rouge, they good-willingly volunteer their time and money at orphanages as well. While these tourists hope their effort and money will have a positive impact on the children of Cambodia, in fact, it is doing quite the opposite. It's estimated that there are about 12,000 children living in Cambodia's orphanages today but, alarmingly, only 28% of these children have lost both parents. That means nearly 1 out of every 3 children in Cambodian orphanages have a parent ~ why then are they orphans? While parental illness, disability, abuse, or desertion account for some of these children, the truth is most of these children are sold to orphanages due to extreme poverty. The parent(s) cannot afford to take care of the child so they are sending them to orphanages, believing they will have better access to food, education, shelter, etc. Unfortunately, the business of orphanages is not only allowing orphanage owners to grow rich off the business of guilting tourists but it may also be harming the children with ineffective volunteer work, a feeling of loss from the constant flow of new volunteers, exposure to child predators, and orphanage owners keeping the children in substandard conditions in hopes of drumming up more donations.
This isn't all bad news though. While in Cambodia, we too wanted to volunteer our time, money and effort. We did a lot of research to ensure our money was not going towards any unscrupulous organization and we learned about an NPO called, CHOICE. This team of expats, all volunteers, have passionately dedicated their time to making a difference in the lives of the poorest people around Phnom Penh. They target Cambodians who are homeless, isolated, landless, or without education or healthcare. We spent a Sunday with this incredible team delivering food packages to two of the villages they visit daily. Every Sunday, CHOICE visits the villages with volunteers delivering food and medical treatment or providing educational trips, games, or arts & crafts. The water in the villages was toxic, causing innumerable diseases and deaths so they now also deliver fresh water to the villages daily. CHOICE supports nearly 200 families, providing medical care, food, fresh drinking water, and educational opportunities. When the CHOICE truck comes down the road, the children rush out to the street with heartwarming smiles, full of excitement! The villagers all have smiles on their faces and they are so genuinely happy to see the team arrive.
I'd like to share a few stories with you from CHOICE'S website so you can get a better idea of what they do and undeniable examples of the priceless value of their work.
"In March 2011, CHOICE was notified about Sokha, a 53 year old lady who had fallen off the back of a truck. Having no money for an operation, she had laid paralyzed and in agony for 10 weeks with a broken neck in 2 places. Her 16 year old son Channy had quit school to look after his mother. CHOICE arranged and paid for her operation and later instigated Physiotherapy. During her ordeal we have supported Sokha and her family with essential items the whole time. This family of four is extremely poor, they do not own a house or have land or any such assets, and a friend allows them to live in what I could only call a “chicken shed” with a dirt floor. Sokha, much improved now, has been released from the Physiotherapy centre. We have built a concrete area for Sokha, all on the one level with a bedroom and undercover Physio training area; we have provided a wheelchair, commode, walking frame, and other essential items to help her manage. Now Sokha is stable we have arranged for an operation for her brother who has leprosy, one leg has been amputated below the knee. In the future he may have to have the other leg, plus his hands removed as well. We will continue to monitor and look after this family. "
CHOICE'S medical team visits villages every other Sunday. Hundred of people are treated in the villages or at a nearby clinic. For more severe cases, CHOICE provides transportation into Phnom Penh for the villagers, help them get admitted to the hospital, and most costs are paid for by CHOICE. Some of these cases include a 2 month old baby girl who need an operation to remove a life threatening abscess from her head and a 3 year old girl who was treated for sever burns and infections and remained in the hospital for several months.
CHOICE believes firmly in keeping families together at all costs. This story exemplifies the benefits of providing for a family, rather than allowing them to separate due to financial constraints. CHOICE provides extra support to the parents of children, rather than allow poverty to separate the children from the family.
"Early in the year we discovered an abandoned mother with 2 week old twin boys plus two older boys, she had nowhere to live and had no income. As she struggled to breast feed the babies, she begged us to either take her babies or else she would have to drown them. Not an option for us. She had been staying with relatives but they could no longer afford to keep them so they had to leave. They moved into an unoccupied grass hut, had no money, no food, no work, no property, and four children. We can happily report that we found a sponsor to help her family, built her a hut, and provided baby milk powder, rice, water, food, clothes, chickens, batteries, mosquito net, baby clothes and light etc. CHOICE also sent the older boys to school, giving them a bike."
As I mentioned, many of the children from these villages have never stepped foot into a school before. Schools are far away from most of the villages and it’s too expensive for families to pay for their children to get to and from school on a daily basis. CHOICE decided to take matters into their own hands and organize schooling for these children. They found 2 qualified teachers who live in the Village, gave them a salary of $50 per month, and erected a tarp structure in one village. In the other village they could not find flat ground, so they arranged to set up a school in an existing house. They provide all necessary books, boards, bags, etc. for both villages but are aware that this is only a temporary fix. The children cannot advance to secondary schools without attending a recognized school, such as a government school.
At the same time, CHOICE has set up the CHOICE Center. Using a vacant lot, the organization has built a main building with a TV & DVD player to show educational DVDs, a kitchen to provide the children with a healthy breakfast and/or lunch, toilets were installed, and classrooms were built. They intend to not only teach standard Khmer education, but to also train the older children vocational skills such as sewing, hairdressing, and mechanics. They also intend to pay for the fees, uniforms, transport, and books to enable as many children as possible to enter the Government school in October, the beginning of the school year. The CHOICE Center was opening two days after we volunteered so we were lucky enough to take a tour of the final product. They've done an amazing job with the grounds and the excitement was palpable, seeing all the hard work pay off and start to come full circle.
It was amazing to see that every dime donated to this organization was being given to these overwhelmingly grateful families. It was in the bags of food each household received. It was in the walls of the new center. It was in the chairs the students will sit in as they excitedly get their FIRST day of school. It was in the children's smiles as they rushed to the CHOICE truck as if Santa was arriving. It was in the clean water containers delivered by CHOICE daily. It was in every ounce of effort this organization puts forth. No member of CHOICE'S team is employed by the organization. It is solely volunteer run, meaning every single cent goes right to the people of these villages. CHOICE is doing wonderful, exciting things and I love the invigorated spirit that comes with this team. They see a problem and stop at nothing to find a solution for the well-being of others. I ask you to please consider these stories and if possible, take the time to visit their website to read more in their blog. http://choice-cambodia.org/ There are also links on their website to donate to this registered charity. I earnestly hope they can continue to expand and achieve endless success. I hope they can afford to send each of these children to receive the education that all children deserve.