Monthly Archives: November 2012

Ruffled Pillows

Lucky Me, I am working more and more with the Community Service Department.  This means I am working more directly with students and their families in need.  I say Lucky Me because helping out in this way is such a privilege.  And for my little effort of assistance the joy and gratitude I get in return is priceless.

I think for most of us in the West the closest analogy to this experience is being a parent.  Having a child you love is both a privilege and a responsibility.  Staying up all night with them when they are sick and cranky can be exhausting and yet exhilarating in knowing that you are there for them and your comfort and care can see them through the night.  Your exhaustion is over powered by your love.

And so it is here.

I am working more in what we call the village.  Not a village by any stretch of the Western imagination.  More of twisted trail of shanties and shacks created out of and propped up by the most bizarre combination of materials wedged together to maximize protection from the rain and built upon a landfill of trash that was the former dump.

My tree house fort as a child had a more luxurious interior at least I had the old carpet from my parents den and slightly used beach chairs.

But not here – Here the interiors are simply a platform built up about 12 inches to withstand the flooding that happens with every rain storm.  This platform serves as the floor, the living room, the dining room and bedroom.

When visiting I try to be gently and respectful.   I am pretty small and not very heavy but still in one house the platform was made of thin bamboo strips and I put too much weight on one foot and broke through.  I was most apologetic as I looked at the hole I had created in the platform.  The residents did not seem too concerned knowing they would find something else to wedge in there to “fix” it.

Every house has a mosquito net and in the corner a section for cooking.

And that is it.  Clothes are thrown over a wire or rope strung across the corner.  If folks are really lucky they have nails pounded into their paper thin walls and use these as clothes hooks.  There is a thin well worn woven mat for sleeping that they spread across the open planks of the platform at night.  One or two cooking pots are often stored outside which basically means they lay in the muddy dirt until it is time to cook.  And more often than not there is trash stacked here and there.

So it is pretty easy to make an impact.  And the smallest gifts are met with huge and sincere displays of gratitude.  Families who have their children in CCF programs and make sure the kids come to school receive monthly allowances in the form of rice, money and medical care.  And whenever CCF sees an immediate need we pack up the little trash pull carts and come in with extra tin to fix a roof, tarps, new mosquito nets or whatever is needed or hop on a moto to make personal deliveries of emergency food or rice.

This week we delivered a brightly colored foam mattress and ruffled pillows to this mother and daughter – A huge improvement over the thin straw mat.   Giggling, we all tried out the mattress and pillows to make sure they were comfy enough.  The neighbors gathered at the door to watch the spectacle and oh’ed and ah’ed at the latest additions.  Seems the delight in fixing up one’s home is universal.

It was far from a Martha Stewart revamp and certainly sheets were not 600 thread Eygptian cotton but still the response was “over the moon”.

The daughter had just gotten out of the hospital.   The mother is also not well.  So CCF has offered the mother (who is a sweet heart) some additional financial support to stop scavenging during the night and rest so she can get better.  In a week or two when she is stronger we will discuss a business loan so she can start something like a small fruit business or whatever she likes.

The mother is convinced she does not know how to do anything but scavenge for garbage but we are even more convinced something better is in her future.

The day after we delivered the ruffled pillows I was present for the Student of the Month Awards at the Satellite School.   The beautiful daughter, despite being sick and absent got the Best Student Award.  Afterward she rushed up to give me a hug, show me her latest honors and tell me how much she liked the ruffled pillows.

The gentleman in the background of this photo is Hoin, my new best friend in the CCF Community Service Department.  More and more we can be seen zipping around on his moto splashing through puddles, negotiating unrecognizable obstacles, pot holes and flocks of baby ducklings as we drive deeper into the community.

I have not been here long but many of the community children are in my leadership class or have met me at school so they know my name.

I have resorted to using my childhood nickname since the children struggle with my formal name.

And I can hear them call out “Ardi” and see them wave to me as we ride by.

I am the smiley pale faced gal in the photo and like I said “Lucky Me”! 



My little “full service” apartment in Phnom Penh comes complete with daily cleaning (thank goodness), laundry (I love it), air conditioning (critical), internet (can’t live without it) and TV.

I am not a TV person but by the end of a long busy day it’s a great way to take my mind off the numerous great projects and kids and unwind.

I have any number of Cambodian stations with soap operas, Kung Fu movies, game shows, news and more.  I also have Regional HBO Movies and Cinemax. To my amusement they both feature action and genre favorites like Anaconda. Transformers, Masters of the Universe – all in English.

If I were an Arnold Schwarzenegger, Slyvester Stallone, or Dolph Lundgren fan I would be in movie watchers heaven.  But alas my cinema tastes lie elsewhere.

The great thing is that there are two other English stations.  One features every episode of the CSI shows, NCIS and almost any other crime fighting or cop show seen on US TV in the last 5 years.  If I am having a hard time falling asleep an episode of CSI Miami works better than valium.

But the real saving grace is the reality show station.  Thanks goodness it does not include women from New Jersey or the Kardashians but it does feature Master Chief (with a slightly tamed version of the viciously charismatic Gordon Ramsay from Hell’s Kitchen), The Voice with its amazing cast of vocal talent and inarticulate B List judges and a full array of Makeover shows.

Makeover people, makeover houses, makeover apartments, makeover wardrobes –  Simply put if it was a televised as Makeover show I can see it here In Cambodian in a constant stream of reruns 24/7.

But I don’t really need to watch a Makeover show because I work for an organization that is a Master  Makeover Machine.

Kids come in – scraggly, covered in mud and dirt, under nourished, neglected and with the weight of their own survival and the survival of their families on their little shoulders.

And they are gently swept up into CCF makeover magic.

Within minutes (literally) they get showers, new clothes, nutritious meals, a toy or two and a new possibility for life.  Within hours their parents (if they are available) are contacted and introduced to the benefits both financial and health wise that the family will receive if the child enters the CCF Educational program.  There is a respectful discussion which in almost all cases results in the child giving up their life as a scavenger and starting their life as a student.

If the child is homeless or has been abandoned they are instantly surrounded by more love than you can imagine and integrated into one of the CCF living facilities.

Scott has established a “kid scavenger free zone” in the dump community.  Like the Sheriff in a cowboy movie whenever he sees a kid hard at work looking through trash he immediately stops, starts a conversation and offers up CCF and education as an alternative.  The Rule is simple – No Kid Scavengers in Our Town.

And so the transformation begins.  From scavenger to student to scholar to leader.

The attached photos are a perfect example:  Just a couple of weeks ago Scott found this tiny guy struggling against the elements and a load of trash 10 times bigger than him.  His determination and commitment knew no bounds as his family was relying on his success to survive another day.

Fast forward two weeks and he is in school with all the supplies he needs struggling to solve math and language problems.  While his family is receiving rent assistance, rice vouchers and medical assistance to offset the loss of the child as an income earner.

So no need to watch a TV version of Extreme Makeovers as I live in the Land of Makeovers.

Saturday Night at CCF

When someone is great at something you just have to stand back and watch them work and admire their talent, skill and commitment.  And feel grateful you got to see them do their magic.   It could be a great singer, or a great artist, a great mother, a great cook.  I mean when you watched Michael Jordan play basketball – you knew you had seen the best.  There is no argument.

And Scott Neeson is a Master at knowing the CCF kids, their stories, their breakthroughs and their dreams.   As someone on the CCF facebook page said Scott is the “Real Deal”.

Saturday Scott invited me to join him for the Award Ceremonies at two of the CCF Centers.  Imagine there are 6 centers and every two months each center awards 3 “Most Improved Student Awards” and  5 “Best Student Awards”.  The Awards are some combination of rice vouchers for their families and a cash award to the student.

It was early evening when we reached the Community Center and CCF5.

As we walk through the Community Center to the School area we attract the usual crowd of neighborhood kids who want to hold hands and escort us wherever we are going.  We pass the rooms for the resident day care and dozens of wee ones rush to the door way when they see Scott.  Waving and laughing these little ones are thrilled to have visitors.

But we are on a mission.  It is Award Night so on we go.

The classrooms of CCF5 serve many resident students as well as any number of students who live in the 1 mile or so radius of the old dump.  These are open air classrooms with two or three walls, rows of chair or benches and a white board giving ample opportunity for visitors to crowd around for the award ceremonies.  Several local parents are there to watch.

From the smallest ones in first grade to the oldest in 5th grade each class stands to greet us with a well rehearsed “hello” in English.  The atmosphere is playful and casual as Scott makes funny faces, teases them and calls out personal greetings.

And then the simple ceremony begins.  Scott over dramatizes things much to the children’s amusement and listens for them to answer him back in English at every turn.   The teachers beam to see their delightful students so animated.

As each name is called with great fanfare Scott points out the winner.  With each name he hands me the envelope so I can give the award.  And speaks quietly and confidentially in my ear telling me the child’s history, her family struggles, her great success and her hopes.    For each child he can remember when he found them or when they came to him petitioning with their little hearts and souls to go to school or when the family desperate and without hope found their way to CCF.   And he has photos of all of them.  And not just one photo but a series of photos chronicling their transformation from dust covered dump scavenger to star student.

And (in confidence) he whispers the short version of their sad stories.   “He was beaten by his father.”  “As a small child she was subjected to continued sexual abuse.”  “She was sold into indentured servitude.”  “At 7 his father abandoned the family and he was the sole supporter of his mother and siblings.”

And then the upbeat part of their stories:  “I am so surprised this one did so well, finally.”  “And this one has 3 other sisters in the program also top of their class.  That is the mother over there.”  And I turn to see the proud mom beaming.  I give her a little wave of congratulations and her smile widens.

At the edge of the classroom a man is watching.   “That man, that is his father” Scott says as he calls the boy’s name and the father quietly weeps with pride.

Over 120 awards in one evening and there is not one child Scott does not recognize, not one he does not call by name, not one he doesn’t remember the story, the day and the hour that he found them.

And the more incredible thing is that with over 1300 children in the CCF – it is the same

With each award a photo is taken that will later be given to the kids.  The Number One students get a huge certificate marking their excellence in a gilded frame that is almost as big as some of the smaller winners.

With each announcement the entire classes erupts with applause as excited about the ones who have   worked so hard to be in the top 5 as if it were they themselves.  When it is a child who has really struggled to do better and gets mentioned as one of the top “most improved” the celebration is even louder.

As usual the CCF experience is mind boggling.  My head and heart are spinning.

How does Scott do it – create a world where no one is forgotten?  How do the kids do it – go from being abused, hopeless, abandoned and transform into these bright, eager irresistible little beings?

Is the human heart really that resilient?

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