Dan and Laurie Roundtree have been part of CCF student Sokleang’s life for 17 years and love sponsoring so much, they’ve just started again with another child
When CCF university student Sokleang finally passed her pharmacy degree after five years of study and a final exam delayed by two years due to COVID, no one could have been prouder than Dan and Laurie Roundtree.
The couple have been part of Sokleang’s life for 17 years, starting when they sponsored her as a shy 10-year-old Cambodian Children's Fund student who could not speak a word of English.
Now they are celebrating her achievement as much as they would for their own two children.
Dan and Laurie consider Sokleang as part of their family.
And Sokleang, now 27, views them as her mum and dad, providing the parental love and support that was missing in her life.
I want Sokleang to know how proud we are of her and the amazing, caring and loving young woman that she has become
“I hope Sokleang has felt our unending love and support all these years because we certainly feel that way about her,” says Laurie.
Their worlds are far apart - a girl who began with nothing living in the most impoverished part of Cambodia and a couple living a comfortable life near Los Angeles more than 13,180km away.
But an extraordinary bond has been forged between them despite of - or perhaps because of - their differences.
“The ability to see the world through the eyes of someone halfway around the world, and learn more about their culture, the experiences of somebody that is just nothing like my world at all, that’s been really meaningful,’ says Laurie.
“I want Sokleang to know how proud we are of her and the amazing, caring and loving young woman that she has become.”
Dan and Laurie were among the first people to become CCF child sponsors.
They were there from the early days when CCF had just a few outdoor classrooms and around 50 kids enrolled in the program.
They began sponsoring Sokleang in August 2005 and continued from primary school to university.
Cambodia was not on their radar at all beforehand.
Dan, a financial planner, got to know Scott Neeson, the founder of Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF), through work. At the time Scott was president of 20th Century Fox International, overseeing the release and marketing of films such as Titanic and X-Men.
When Scott announced his intention to quit Hollywood and move to Cambodia to help children and families he had seen living and working on the landfill of Phnom Penh, Dan’s initial reaction was shock.
“But after he described what he had seen and what he wanted to do, I was all in,” he says.
Rather than just being involved through donations, the couple wanted to invest themselves in CCF, not just money.
Sponsoring a child would enable them to have a link that would grow over the years.
Back then, the initial Sponsorship package was a physical video sent through the post with Sokleang saying a few words in broken English, “Hi Laurie and Dan’.
“It was lovely, really special,” says Laurie.
Their relationship developed through regular emails and swapped photographs.
Eventually, Sokleang began writing little bits of the emails until - as her English language skills improved - she could do the whole thing.
It was probably one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had
In 2009, Dan and Laurie made the journey to Cambodia and met Sokleang in person.
From the balcony of their home in Westlake Village is a sweeping vista of the Santa Monica Mountains.
It was a very different view they had in Steung Meanchey, the area of Phnom Penh where CCF works.
There they looked out on a sprawling mass of garbage stretching over 100 acres where thousands of children and adults toiled away night and day at ‘Smokey Mountain’, the nickname given to the landfill by the children due to the toxic smoke that often rose from the mountains of rubbish as fires smouldered beneath the surface.
“It was probably one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had in going to not just the dump, but Phnom Penh, and seeing the reality,” says Dan, pictured on the landfill.
“As a kid in America you see various countries who are having a hard time but when you physically walk the dump and see three years olds walking barefoot, picking up trash, it’s something else.”
Dan and Laurie spent time in the community, meeting children and families helped by CCF.
Seeing this and being able to give Sokleang her first hug from them, strengthened their belief that they were doing the right thing.
“I couldn't change the country of Cambodia but [through sponsoring], I can participate in helping change the life of one child,” explains Dan, who is now retired.
Dan and Laurie have been a constant presence for Sokleang, offering guidance and mentorship, encouragement and love, and a reassuring word when needed.
Their two children, Brandon and Kendyl, now 34 and 29, grew up with Sokleang as part of the family and call her their sister.
They were able to meet Sokleang when she visited the U.S. with CCF as part of a young leadership camp.
With Dan and Laurie, I can feel the love very well
Sokleang says she would never have achieved the heights that she has without the family’s support over the years.
“With Dan and Laurie, I can feel the love very well,” she says. “When I chat with them, every time I write an email to them, I feel warm, I feel family love, parent love, from them.”
We love her, she’s just part of the family
Dan and Laurie say they feel privileged to have been part of her journey - and intend to continue being by her side for years to come.
“We are so proud of her,” says Laurie.
“We always try to be supportive and to be her biggest cheerleader. We love her, she’s just part of the family. And we will continue to be there for her forever.”
To see Sokleang overcome challenges and push herself hard to finally graduate university, gives them so much joy.
“It’s amazing, it’s just unbelievable, what CCF was able to provide for her and for us to help in that endeavor to get her there. It's so rewarding and moving and heartwarming,” says Laurie, 65.
Dan talks of how their sponsorship is helping not just one child but a generation break free from the cycle of poverty.
“Scott [Neeson] is trying to recreate the next generation of leaders. We had one person in that whole redevelopment of a generation called Sokleang, who is a girl who had no opportunity, none, and she’s now a pharmacist and to have been involved..”, his voice cracks with emotion.
Dan and Laurie are starting the process of changing a life again.
At the end of last year, they committed to sponsoring another CCF child, a boy called Piseth.
“Sponsoring has been such a joy,” says Laurie.
“It’s been lovely hearing about Sokleang’s progress, or her worries or her fears, her accomplishments. That she has been able to share these things with us has really been a joy.
“We got a lot out of it in so many ways. We got another family member.”