There are moments during my days where I remember an incident, child or experience that I had long forgotten.
This morning an empty hammock, made for our toddlers and infants, brought back the memories of little Sopheap. He was just 2 years old when he arrived and one of the reasons we started our nursery.
Sopheap came to us with just 3 days to live. He had leukemia and had been discharged from hospital to allow him to die at home. That's not unusual here. However the mother had no home, so she brought Pheap to us. His arms were as thin as my fingers and he had that haunted look of a child who knows they are not long for this world but are too young to understand the what that means.
For someone who has worked in the high ranks of the corporate world, made big money solving complex problems, having such a young child, whose life was soon to end, brings up some serious issues. In short, it was a painful realization that in the big, real world, I was as powerless as the next person. It was a terrible experience. I spent so much time just holding Pheap, like the solution would come through osmosis or something.
On the other side of the community, at one of our residential facilities, we were having our weekly kid's meeting. A new child had arrived and, as was common, one of our students offered to sing a "welcome" song to the new child. Everyone would chant along and clap. I loved those times, seeing the new child brighten at the warmth of their new home. I don't know the song but I'm sure a Khmer here could tell me: phonetically, it sounds like "Happy-ya-ya-ya" and it is rhythmic, welcoming and calming.
It struck me that a recent visitor had left behind a teddy bear with a voice chip, allowing a parent or whoever to record their voice for their child.
The idea hit me like a hammer on the head. I ran down to the car, brought up the teddy bear and recorded the full "welcome song" onto the the willing teddy.
Back down at the nursery, I gave teddy to Pheap and showed him that if he squeezed a paw, then 100+ of our beautiful kids would sing, chant, calm and welcome him into their world. I sat next to him and we listen to the chants. He squeezed the paw endlessly, especially when in pain. I left batteries for the nursery staff when I left and came back that night. I heard the chanting as soon as I open my car door, well before I saw Pheap and his hammock.
I remember falling into a contented sleep that night with the "happy-ya-ya-ya" going through my head. I felt good, that I had helped, admittedly in a small, small way.
The next morning when I arrived there was no music, no song. From a distance I could see that Pheap's little green hammock was horribly still. There were no overhanging skinny arms, no motion. I went over to where he once lay and the hammock was empty, except for a silent, lone teddy bear.
I don't know the moral here, if there is one, but I learnt a lot about humility. I learnt that we can't make or break people; we can choose to act with kindness and love. And when making that choice, it matters not one bit whether you change the outcome or receive acknowledgement. It only matters that you did it.
(The photo here is not Sopheap and it's the work of the very talented Ron Haviv).
You know those too-rare magical moments, where everything lines up with such beautiful, one-in-a-million precision, that it can't be just luck or chance? I had one of those moments today.
OK, the first image here (a series of three, taken from a video) is from November 30th, 2006, exactly 7 years ago. That's me with little Pich, then 11 years old, on the garbage dump. I'm talking to her about coming to school.
Pich had never been to a school and worked and lived on the garbage dump. It must have been a surreal moment for her - the offer of an education when she never expected to ever to set foot in a classroom - but even though she listened, she never stopped picking and scavenging, knowing the consequences of stopping work, even for a moment.
Needless to say, she started with CCF the following week. Pich is now in high school, loved by all and very shy. That alone would be a good story, no?
But as luck would have it, the skateboarding legend Tony Hawk became her sponsor!
As any CCF sponsor knows, you have to write regularly, you have to engage and participate, and you have to care. Even by these standards, Tony excelled. He writes, cares, video-Skype's each Christmas, remembers her birthdays and Tony can tell you more about Pich than her own parents.
But in all those years, they never met.
That just changed. Tony is on tour and made the trip to Cambodia. Yesterday they met for the first time. It was magic. Pich was all tears and shyness, all overjoyed and not-quite-believing it was happening.
Today was Tony's media day. Take a look at the photo above. Who could have guessed the world was capable of creating a moment of such perfection? For a once-forlorn child of the garbage hills, hers has been a seriously wild and wonderful ride.
Back in 2007, during a regular tramp across the garbage dump of Steung Meanchey, I came across a teen girl who had left school in Grade 4 and, with few other options to survive, scavenged the waste for food and recyclables. Her name was Srey Mom.
Too old to return to school, her dream was to learn to work in the garment industry or to train in hairdressing and make-up. We had a just started a small hairdressing and garment vocational centre, so Mom and her cousin left the horrors of the garbage dump forever and started on the path to their dream.
As you'd expect, they were just about the happiest teens you could find. With their families cared for, 3 meals a day, learning their dream vocational and making life-long friends. But something gnawed inside me. Seeing them so happy and contented was wonderful... however I had an ongoing sense that somehow I was failing them.
It took me 2 years to figure it out. Their dreams were confined to their limited view of the world and, most of all, their own belief in what they could achieve. When you work 7 days on a garbage dump, garment work appears as a dream. I wasn't fulfilling their dreams as much as enabling them to remain within their confines. These teen girls had such inner strength from their former lives, the compassion to raise younger siblings and so much ambition. Most of all, they had the courage of lions.
So we all met one afternoon and made a deal: give me 12 months of your life to show you your potential. I promised to put them well out of their comfort zones and, at the end of 12 months they could choose to return to vocational training - or choose an altogether new path.
So began CCF's Leadership Program. Each girl - 22 of them at that point - went through an intense cycle of community & leadership programs, including child care, early childhood development, nutrition, social work, health care, gender rights, communications and public speaking. In the evenings they studied English and computer classes and helped launch our food programs. They became active mentors to nearly 100 young teens. Nearly 3 years on, none have returned to full-time vocational training.
And Mom. That's her in the 2nd photo, flying to London this week, as one of BBC's "100 Women". She's speaking on women's rights, debating gender issues with her peers and mapping a better life for the next generation of girls - on national TV.
I still can't take it all in. I'm so grateful to have been part of her journey, to help Mom find her true self. I am in awe at what she has become - Mom, the fearless, beautiful, generation-changer - and can only imagine what she can do in her lifetime.
You know how some kids have that sense of intensity about them?
Down here, it's largely through taking on adult responsibilities too soon in life, like being the caretaker of an infant or being required to earn an income while still a child.
That intensity in someone so young used to unsettle me, I think because I felt that I had failed them, having found them too late for them to prosper.
Not so much anymore. That intensity can be a powerful resource for a child who wants to succeed, especially one who has fallen behind in their education or who lacks the confidence to join/rejoin school.
It's raining outside, with thunder and lightning and the communities around our schools become wretched. Most families pull over canvases or whatever plastics they have to keep the rain out. Some find a place to watch TV, others sleep and a few even play in the rain.
However our little man here, so much smaller than the photo implies, leaves home every night, 6 nights a week, for the walk to our school. He fought hard to get into our education program and he doesn't waste a minute of it. During the day he hops the CCF bus to public school. In the evenings he studies English with at one of our Community Schools.
In my nearly-9 years living in Cambodia, I have learnt so much about life and values.
There's so much that we (in the West) can learn from the ways of life here. Things of true value, that we lost in our busy, progressive, developed world-ways, still thrive here.
A good example: I love the Khmer way of blurring of lines between family, extended family, neighbors and community.
In my first years here, an orphan - defined as a child without parents - was unquestionably in need of help, at risk and often required "rescuing". It's simply not the case. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins are all family. Neighbors and community are in the mix too.