My good friend, Linda Franks, invited us to join her on her yearly humanitarian trip to Phnom Penh, so I jumped at the chance to go and spend time with her and follow her amazing shadow of good will. Jen and Emily Kelly, and Anna and I flew to Phnom Penh for a 4 day/3 night visit spent learning to serve and love the Cambodians.
1. Spending time with Linda Franks, founder of AKUN charity
2. Volunteering in the Mother Teresa's "Missionaries of Charity" orphanage
3. Visiting the Genocide "Killing Fields" Museum
4. Traditional Cambodian Dance show
5. Spending time in the Lindalva Learning Center
6. A girls' trip
(Click below right to read more . . . .)
1. Spending time with Linda Franks, founder of AKUN charity - The Franks are dear friends of ours that we made while living in Brunei. Since they moved away, it has been a priority for us to visit them often - in Chengdu, China and a few times during the summer at their lovely home in Bozouls, France. Linda is president of AKUN, a charitable organization that provides food, shelter, education and hope to many Cambodians in need. Before we joined her in Cambodia, she had already spent a few days out in the country overseeing house building projects, education scholarships, and feeding programs she heads up. She is absolutely amazing and I love spending time with her.
2. Volunteering in the Mother Teresa's "Missionaries of Charity" orphanage - We spent 2 afternoons playing with 20+ of the most adorable Cambodian kids aged 0-5 in an orphanage run by the same order of nuns that Mother Teresa belonged to. Many of the children aren't orphans, but are placed there because their parents (or, more often, parent) cannot afford to raise them. This is especially if the case if the child is mentally handicapped or if the single-parent needs to work and they have nowhere to keep their child. In this situation, once the children reach school-age, they may then be able to go back and live with their families or other relatives.
We sang songs with them (it's surprising how global "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and "The Wheels on the Bus" are), held them, rocked them, and played and played, becoming human jungle gyms for them to climb. We also came with donations of money that Linda has been raising over the year. As the sisters take a vow of poverty, they do not and can not accept cash gifts. So every year, Linda asks them what is needed, then goes and gets it for them - benefitting them with needed goods such as water filters, towels, fans, baby bottles, diapers, etc. Once the nuns found out that I am a music teacher, they were quite convinced that I should stay in Cambodia and come and run a music program for the kids. That would be amazing!!!!
It was great to be in a space where we felt like we were contributing, even if only for a day or two. That is something that is almost impossible to do when we are "fast" traveling, so this has definitely added value to my time in Asia in a positive way.
(There were no pictures allowed in the orphanage, so there are none to share)
3. Visiting the Genocide "Killing Fields" Museum - This was a somber time spent on our visit to Cambodia, but one that was important for me to better understand these resilient people. The museum is housed in an old school in Phnom Penh that the Khmer Rouge repurposed as a torture center for those who they mandated to undergo weeks to months of "interrogations" before being sent to the Killing Fields.
A brief history of this time period (as published on the museum's website):
Throughout the 1960s, King Sihanouk struggled to keep Cambodia neutral as the neighboring countries of Laos and South Vietnam came under increasing Communist attack during the Vietnam War. In 1970, the U.S. supported the South Vietnamese fighting in Cambodia through air strikes that destroyed villages and killing thousands of civilians. This angered many Cambodians leading them to support the growing communist regime in Cambodia; the Khmer Rouge. With the withdrawal of U.S., North, and South Vietnamese troops from Cambodia a civil war ensued. Fighting broke out between Lon Nol’s troops and the Khmer Rouge communists, which grew to 30,000. Lon Nol fled to Hawaii when the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975 thus beginning Cambodia’s reign of terror.
Following the takeover in 1975, Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot renamed the country “Democratic Kampuchea”. He then proceeded to force entire urban populations, such as those in Phnom Penh, to the rural areas to work in agriculture. About one and a half million people were executed by the Khmer Rouge during this four year period. Members of the upper, middle, and educated classes, along with suspected enemies of the Khmer Rouge, were all victims of the genocide. In 1978 the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia. By 1979 they had seized Phnom Penh pushing the Khmer Rouge into the jungles, ending the genocide.
Pol Pot and his followers were wanting to create a utopian society, taking everyone back to "year zero." A time and place where everyone lived and worked in the fields; sharing everything and following absolute orders from their leaders. No one would be "smarter" or "more educated" than another. All of the educated - teachers, doctors, artists, skilled tradesmen, wealthy, etc., were killed. After the Khmer Rouge's atrocities, the new leadership worked to preserve what was left of the skills, the medicine, the disappearing arts and literature of Cambodia that were nearly extinguished by Pol Pot's policies.
4. Traditional Cambodian Dance show - After learning about the great efforts Cambodian artists are putting forth to keep their Classical dance and music culture alive, I was more excited to support and enjoy a cultural dance show. The show opened up with a video presentation that explained the ways that the few remaining and aging artist are teaching a new generation of musicians and dancers. How important it is for them to have audiences like us so they can afford to continue to encourage these budding professionals. We participated in a delightful evening with engaging dancers, an interesting story line and impressive costumes.
5. Spending time in the Lindalva Learning Center - Since education is still in recovery mode in Cambodia, 35 years later the force of educated teachers is still too few in number to teach the growing population of children. Teachers double up on classes and local school children only go half of the day.
Linda reached out to help fill a huge gap in one particular area of Phnom Penh - the Pochentong Industrial Zone, where the entire community is built around housing factory workers. In these neighborhoods, the children are left unsupervised all day while the parents work in the factories from sunrise to sundown in order to survive, earning less than $100/month. Her mission has been to provide shelter, food, education, supervision and safety to these children who would otherwise be placed in an orphanage, or would be wandering the streets of the housing complex, or would be locked up in their one room, windowless apartment for safety.
Linda has greatly supported and helped the Lindalva Learning Center to thrive. Her latest contribution was to achieve funding for a moblie school tuk-tuk. It is now available to help transport children safely to the learning center, or take educators to the children who don't have the means to get there. The learning center is now run entirely by Cambodians and overseen by the Daughters of Charity foundation. It provides education, a meal and a place of safety for 132 children ages 2-15.
This is a charity that our family has donated to for many years, and it was fantastic to finally go and see the fruits of AKUN's labors. Not only were we able to meet and play with the children, we were also able to sit and talk with the director and hear of the frustrations and problems that arise in their situation: tirelessly trying to make a difference in the lives of so many people affected by poverty. It was an eye- and heart-opening experience, for sure!
If anyone wants to spend some time (days, weeks, months) volunteering in a daycare/learning center that is truly making a much-needed difference in a small corner of the world, I would highly recommend this place!
(Again, no pictures with the children in the center are allowed to be posted publicly)
6. A girls' trip - I LOVE traveling with my family, but I also really love a girls' trip. Thanks to Anna, Jen, Emily and Linda for sharing in these days with me! I love visiting new places, finding ways to serve, dining on ethnic cuisines, enjoying inexpensive massages, walking and exploring new neighborhoods, learning about new cultures . . . and making fantastic memories with great people. A quick shout out to my fabulous friends, 2 sisters and mom for some incredible past girls' trips to Paris, Iceland, Greece, Spain, Morocco, Turkey, London, Tanzania, Portugal, New York City, and now Cambodia! Anyone up for a girls' trip in 2019????
Plan? What plan?
Our first Gap Year was a fabulous "2017-2018 School Year" of travel: from the Netherlands to Jordan to Texas to Hawaii to Mexico to Central America to London and back to the Netherlands. Our "2018 Summer Vacation" took us all around Western Europe, back to the USA on a transatlantic cruise, a road trip through New York and into Canada, and ending up in Utah. We have now kicked off the "2018-2019 School year" with a trip to Asia. Follow along with us on our visits to new places, as well as revisiting some of our favorite places from our time living there. It's going to be great!!