Heather Cherry first became a CCF sponsor back in 2006. She and her husband have just returned to the U.S. after visiting their sponsored child, Sreythea
Anyone seeing Heather Cherry and her five companions walking around Aeon 2 shopping mall in Phnom Penh on a Tuesday afternoon might well have imagined they were just out on a family trip.
In a way, the six are a family. But a very special one. Their link is CCF, which has brought them together in unexpected ways.
There was Heather, an American from San Francisco, and her husband, Peter, their CCF sponsored child, Sreythea, aged 15, her best friend, Sreythea’s CCF foster mother, and lastly the older woman she calls her granny.
After a lunch of fried chicken - the girls’ choice - this unique ‘family’ unit headed to the mall for a wander round.
“It was exactly like a friend of mine’s daughter at that age when the girls hit the mall. They were walking 20 feet ahead of us - just completely engaged - and I was walking with the grandmother,” says Heather.
In other words, they were just like any other family on an outing together.
Heather, who lives in California, has been sponsoring Sreythea since March 2016 and has travelled to Cambodia to see her twice, the most recent in June, with her husband, who was visiting CCF for the first time.
But Heather’s journey with CCF actually began in early 2006, back in the early days when the organisation was in its infancy with around 100 children, lessons held in makeshift classrooms and a handful of staff, and no real inkling of how big it would become.
She first came across CCF and founder Scott Neeson by chance while on a trip to Cambodia as a tourist.
“I just loved it and wanted to stay connected, so I was looking for some way of doing so,” says Heather. "Many of the NGOs that I saw were either religious or they were top heavy; there just wasn’t anything that sparked my interest.”
Watching television back in San Francisco in the early hours one morning, Heather happened to see by chance a slot about Scott and CCF on the PBS Religion & Ethics Newsweekly programme and realised it was what she had been looking for.
“It wasn’t a program looking to raise orphans away from their family but rather one born of trying to do something in the community, on the ground,” says Heather.
“I also realised when I was in Siem Reap that I was spending on breakfast what a family was earning in a day. Here was someplace where that amount of money, for a coffee and a croissant, can actually do something and make a difference in somebody’s life.”
Heather, who works as a legal secretary, discovered that she could afford to sponsor a child.
“I was a secretary - I didn’t finish school myself - and I didn’t want to make a commitment that I couldn’t sustain. I realised I could sustain this and that it wasn’t one individual child, that it was supporting the programs, which would then support the community. But there was an opportunity to have a relationship with one child and I chose a girl who was older because I knew that, unless she stayed in school, her options were going to be really dire.”
Heather first sponsored child, Samphas, was 12 years old. They kept in touch regularly, emailing back and forth every few weeks.
“Her English was building as she was going. She came into school with very little education when she started as an older child and that was, again, part of why I was interested in sponsoring an older girl, to give her opportunity that she would otherwise not have,” says Heather.
“The CCF school was just getting on its feet at that time and so the feeling of sponsoring was that you actually were making a big difference.”
When both Samphas and her second sponsored child - another older girl - left the CCF program for different reasons, Heather had no hesitation in agreeing to sponsor a third CCF student. On 3 March 2016, she began sponsoring Sreythea, then aged 12.
In 2018, she visited Cambodia again and travelled to Phnom Penh and CCF to meet Sreythea in person, building on the bond formed over email correspondence and Skype calls, slowly learning about each other’s lives.
“I really wanted to visit her to make that personal connection with her,” explains Heather.
She visited again this year, this time with her husband, Peter, who met Sreythea in person for the first time.“It [Heather’s sponsorship and relationship with Sreythea] is a central part of our marriage,” says Peter.
“I really wanted to experience myself the joy, as well as the challenge, this represents.
“When I arrived [at CCF] Thea saw me, her face lit up and she smiled and said ‘Peter!’ just as she does on a Skype call. Then she came up and gave me a hug, which I thought was really wonderful.”
Peter already had a strong connection with Sreythea, joining in Skype calls when his wife got on the line to Cambodia, and reading emails between Heather and Sreythea.
“In her communication with Thea, Heather would talk about me and her mother too. Her mother was a real presence in Thea’s life,” says Peter, who met Heather in 2010 when she was already sponsoring her first child, Samphas. “Heather theorised about this, that what she was offering Thea was the sense of a bigger family than just her.”
His wife agrees. “That was a huge part of it because Thea is in the unusual situation of being an only child without a family in the community,” says Heather.
“So I include my family as strongly as possible so that she knows that more people care about what she does."
Providing stability for Sreythea - who like many CCF children, has a had difficult start in life - can be exhilarating and demanding.
Sreythea, who has just turned 15, was struggling with rules when Heather first started sponsoring her, but with her own desire to stay in school, and to do well, and with her sponsor’s support and consistency - and some life lessons in boundaries and accountability - she’s firmly back on track.
“Consequences are an important part of learning, but the chance to take direct action to make good on mistakes, to earn back trust and self worth, are also key," says Heather.
"CCF gives the children huge opportunities to build self-esteem through community service, big and small, and is brilliant at redirecting children into projects, from mentoring smaller children, to working with the grannies, to joining in community projects like gardening and clean-up.”
Heather believes that by offering Sreythea love, care and mentoring, she reinforces that she is not alone, and that she can change her fate. She also has the chance to be an adult in Sreythea's life, one who does what she says she is going to do, who is trustworthy, something Scott and his staff also stress above all else. In return, she gets the joy of a mother-daughter or older sister relationship, albeit a long-distance one.
“Do I feel like she’s my daughter? Yes, because I don’t have kids,” says Heather.
“It’s like having a daughter in the sense that I think a great deal about what the right thing to do is, am I acting the right way, can I find a way of helping her think something through, am I doing enough or am I doing too much, all of that.
“But it’s doesn’t have the burden of some family relationships. It’s like we both have this fresh relationship that we can make together. So yes, she does feel like family because I want the best outcome for her and there’s no question I get so much out of it.”
Being with CCF from the beginnings has given Heather an insight into how the organisation has grown up from the ground since the early days.
“I have been following CCF’s progress and the growth of programs and its amazing accountability,” she says. “By every metric, it scores absolutely at the top: responsible use of money, stewardship in the community, transparency, respect for the community and the individual, and a desire to bring back the community values that were lost.”
And being a sponsor has given her a unique perspective on the impact the Sponsorship Program and CCF’s work, supported by sponsors, has on individual children’s lives and, in turn, their families.
“If someone is looking for something meaningful to do then I direct them here [CCF] because I haven’t found anything more so,” says Heather.
“It’s [being a sponsor] been the most fun, the most interesting, and the most meaningful for me.
“You are actually doing something that matters. I don’t have children of my own so to have this relationship with Sreythea, this remarkable, interesting, honest, direct, brave, strong and smart individual is fabulous. There’s nothing luckier.
“It’s making a difference in her life and it’s making a huge difference in mine. I could not be happier.”