While watching television one summer afternoon in 2012, Dave Hoover happened to come across a documentary about children living in poverty in Cambodia and their journeys to a better life.
‘Small Voices: The Stories of Cambodia’s Children’ followed five children struggling to survive by scavenging through rubbish on a garbage dump in Phnom Penh. Here, they were found by Scott Neeson, founder of Cambodian Children’s Fund, who was shown helping them escape their fate.
It was very emotional to watch. We became sponsors before the documentary had finished.
Sitting in the comfort of his home in Minnesota, in the U.S. Midwest, Dave could not believe the scenes unfolding before him on screen.
“I have never been so simultaneously disturbed, moved, and saddened,” he wrote in a first-person piece for CCF.
“I hate to see anyone in a crisis but kids who are too innocent to help themselves, the level of poverty and despair and hopelessness was more than I could imagine watching,” he says now.
“It was very emotional to watch. We became sponsors before the documentary had finished.”
While still watching the program, he researched CCF online and, with his wife, immediately signed up for CCF’s Sponsorship Program.
“At that time, I had no idea what a quality organization and highly rated charity CCF is. That’s become a bonus as time has gone on,” wrote Dave.
“I only knew that we should help a child who so desperately needed it.”
Dave and his wife Colleen became sponsors to a girl, Davan, then aged around nine or 10 years old.
In February this year, nine years after they first became sponsors, the couple decided to sponsor another CCF child and welcomed Piseth, aged 10, into their extended family.
I’m not even sure how to articulate how important this has been to me personally
“What’s been so rewarding about it, is the one-on-one connection of being a sponsor,” says Dave, of the sponsorship. “It’s not like you’re sending dollars to a pool of money that somehow gets distributed to people that you don’t even know. To know that the contribution you are making is helping a specific child and you are in contact with that child, is what makes it special for me.”
Dave, 62, and Colleen, 63, are both retired and liken the relationship with their CCF sponsor girls to that of a grandparent and grandchildren.
“And that’s what I tell our friends, especially our age,” says Dave.
“The connection [with the kids] is so intimate and personal, like a proxy for a grandchild. If you want to develop that similar style of relationship and know that you’re helping someone every bit as much, or more, as your own grandchild, then it’s something that you want to consider doing.”
The couple adopted their adult sons, Aaron and Scott, from South Korea as tiny babies so they can appreciate more than most the difference they can make to a child who has not had a straightforward start in life.
Piseth, their second CCF sponsored child, lost her mother in 2019 when she was just nine years old.
While she’s now happy and lives with her grandmother in a CCF World Housing home, having the support of Dave and Colleen, to know that there are people who care for her, means the world to Piseth.
Both girls are now seen as part of their family, says Dave.
“The thing I hope is that, at least in Colleen and my situation, that they realise the love is real,” he says.
Receiving emails from Davan - overseen by a member of the CCF Sponsorship Team - relaying all her news from exam results to her favourite things to do with friends, is always a “joy and real thrill”, he says.
On top of regular correspondence, CCF sponsors can arrange Skype calls with their CCF children and make visits to meet in person in Phnom Penh.
I have never forgotten a single detail of that day and I never will
A year after becoming sponsors for the first time, Dave made the journey to see Davan.
While his work had taken him to Asia many times, it was his first trip to Cambodia - and it was the beginning of a beautiful bond between the American and the Cambodian schoolgirl more than 13,000km (8,000 miles) away.
“Going to see her was an extraordinarily emotional event for me. It was magical,” says Dave.
Spending time together, including a trip to the mall, remains an abiding memory.
“As we dropped her off at her home, I knew that this was likely the most personally rewarding day I would ever live,” wrote Dave.
“I have never forgotten a single detail of that day and I never will. But, as excited as our sponsored child was that her sponsor came so far to visit her, I am truly confident that that day will never mean more to her than it did to me.”
In November 2018, Dave visited CCF again with Colleen, who met Davan for the first time and toured CCF’s facilities.
The connection for Dave was as strong as ever, though the little schoolgirl that he remembered from before was all grown up.
When we first met, she came up to about my armpit and now she’s taller than I am, so that was kind of a shock,” laughs Dave.
After four months, a tentative rapport is developing with Piseth and they’ve already offered words of encouragement. Many CCF sponsors see part of their role as mentors, giving guidance and feedback.
“We’ve said to Piseth, ‘Education is the most important thing for you, it’s your springboard to a good life, so please listen carefully, work hard with all your lessons and we’re proud of you’,” says Dave.
Now living in Iowa, a Midwestern U.S. state, Dave and Colleen are as committed to CCF as ever, never missing the opportunity to spread the word about the work CCF does, acting as unofficial global ambassadors for the cause.
When people ask why they choose to support a charity overseas rather than domestically, Dave is unequivocal in his response.
“I point out to those who ask that they don’t know that we don’t support local charities (they do) and more importantly, I remind them that, statistically, some people who live below the poverty line in the U.S. have their own homes, have a TV, cable or satellite, and mobile phones.
“I tell people that if they really, truly, firsthand want to see poverty, go to Cambodia or go to the western or central parts of China where I’ve been.
“Go to those places and see how poor people really, truly, live and then you may have an appreciation for why help is necessary for them and why we do what we do.”
Anyone who has an interest in helping children in Cambodia, should sponsor a child through CCF
For anyone considering sponsoring a CCF child, Dave has a message.
“All I can do is communicate to someone how rewarding it’s been to us and how meaningful it’s been for me personally and suggest they try it,” he says.
“If they get the same sense of personal satisfaction and joy as a result of helping other people, then they will make their own decision, and chances are, they will continue.”
With more time on their hands after retiring, the couple are looking at spending half of the year in Asia (when travel returns to normal), exploring the region, and would add another trip to Cambodia and CCF to their itinerary.
They can’t wait to see Davan, now 18, again and meet Piseth for the first time.
There’s no doubt the couple are in for the long haul and fully intend to be part of Davan and Piseth’s life and their journeys for years to come.
“We look at it that this is our privilege more so than us getting anything out of it,” says Dave. “All we are concerned about is what the kids get out of it.”
“Everyone should have this experience. Anyone who has an interest in helping children in Cambodia, a country still not yet recovered from the horrible devastation inflicted 35+ years ago by the Khmer Rouge, should sponsor a child through CCF.”