22 September, 2017

Inadvertently in the News

From the Wat opot website:


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This week Wat Opot found ourselves in the news – and unfortunately not for the right reasons. On Wednesday, we woke to a series of emails from concerned friends and supporters alerting us to the fact that ABC Radio in Australia had broadcast a piece which contained some biting criticisms of orphanages and voluntourism. Not unusual – but this time they had publicized the piece on their website and Facebook with a photograph taken at Wat Opot, featuring Melinda.
Suddenly Melinda was the face of selfish voluntourism (7 years of dedicated service and care is certainly a long time to be a tourist!), and Wat Opot was the illustration for a piece suggesting orphanages are places where “some of the children are subjected to abuse, exploitation and slave labour.” Nobody had sought our permission or our input, although our contact details would have been easy to find by any journalist or researcher willing to Google for 30 seconds.
Let’s put aside how personally hurtful it is to find your photograph used without permission in this way, and how unfair it is to smear Partners in Compassion and Wat Opot by association with the bad practices that absolutely do take place in some orphanages. Instead, let’s consider how this incident illustrates how easy it is to get things wrong in a heated media climate like the one surrounding the anti-orphanage debate in Australia.
The interview itself was responsible journalism. The radio presenter was investigating a genuine news story (the decision by a travel company to stop offering short-term voluntourism opportunities). They interviewed an expert who was passionate and persuasive about her concerns over orphanages. When she talks about the recruitment of children into orphanages as money makers, we share her disgust. She talks about the need to reintegrate children into families wherever possible, a belief we share and put into practice.
Our concern is the fact that ABC used Melinda’s photograph without permission and without any effort to establish whether we are indeed an organization which relies on volunteers financially (we do not) or recruits or exploits children (we absolutely do not). As the people who support us know, most of the children who live here come from backgrounds of extreme tragedy, usually relating to HIV and AIDS. Some are “true” orphans, whose parents are both dead, while many have been abandoned or rejected by their extended family because of their HIV status.
These are not children who have been pulled out of loving family homes – they have lost their families or been pushed out by them. They came to us because social workers and other Cambodian experts were deeply concerned about their vulnerability and their future, and knowing our excellent reputation and standards sought our help. In a country without any real welfare state, what would have happened to these children without the loving and safe environment we have provided?
As for Melinda, could there be any worse illustration to a piece which attacks voluntourists and the fact that kids can be damaged by short-term attachments, than a woman who left behind her life in America and after seven years continues to provide care for the children here? To many, she is the only constant, present and positive maternal figure they have had in their lives.
We don’t want to shut down debate over orphanages and the alternative arrangements that can be embraced moving forward, we want to be part of it. We work hard to keep families together or reunite them wherever possible, and our Cambodian director uses all of his considerable experience in social work and his degree in psychology to achieve this.
We certainly don’t disagree that there are many terrible orphanages or children’s homes which do lasting damage to the children that come into them. We would like to see children leave residential care to live in loving and safe family environments. But this change is going to take time in a country where many thousands of children are in residential care and all of us – campaigners, donors, providers of residential care, social workers and Government – will need to work together.
But here is the problem. The anti-orphanage debate has become so heated and one-sided that it mostly refuses to acknowledge that there may be children’s homes doing good work, who can make a positive contribution to improving standards right now, as we work towards long term solutions for the future. It’s a debate which rarely seems to understand the full complexity of real family lives on the ground here in Cambodia, where poverty may be just one of many factors placing a child at risk. It rarely acknowledges the existence of children who genuinely have no alternatives at this time. Nor does it recognize that there are people working in residential care who are fully aware of the risks of institutionalization and dedicate themselves to providing the long-term love, care, and support that can reduce some of these risks. Black and white thinking blinds us all to the shades in between.
It’s this polarized and hostile climate which leads to someone taking an old photograph of Melinda teaching kids some Math and believing that since Wat Opot is an “orphanage”, it is fair to use it to illustrate a story attacking appalling practices which we have always rejected. It would have been so simple to reach out to us and ask for our side of the story, but nobody did that, as airtime is almost all reserved for those presenting one side to the story. But – much more seriously – it’s this same climate which impedes real dialogue and co-operation between those who campaign against orphanages and those of us providing registered, safe and loving homes to some of the most vulnerable and abandoned children in Cambodia. This doesn’t help any of us in our common goal of trying to improve the lives of Cambodia’s children, and it needs to change.

18 August, 2017

Miss Mattie

My dear Miss Mattie died in March of this year; a month after her 16th birthday.  This is the last photo I have with her.



In the summer of 2001, a friend of mine was driving down a Texas country road and she saw a flash of black and white in the grass beside the side of the road.  Following her curiosity, she stumbled upon a wee pup.  With no houses in site, it was evident someone had dumped her.  She got her checked out at the vet and besides being hungry and scared, there was nothing wrong with her.  My friend already had 3 dogs, so I took the little thing in, stating that I could find her a home easily by taking her to one of my soccer games the following weekend.

At the game I had immediate interest from players, some saying they would take her right then and there...but, I hesitated.  It was already evident to some of my soccer teammates, that Mattie had stolen my heart and was going to stay with me.  And stay she did.  Mattie and I were quicks buds and she became my running partner, soccer companion, and co-pilot, with her own wardrobe of bandana's leashes, collars, and a life jacket for floating down the river.  My old finicky cat, Circe, who really didn't like anyone, even befriended the pup.


I had the luxury of taking her to work with me when I worked for a law firm.  She spent her days lounging around in people's way so they would have to bend down to move her out of the way, thus giving her the attention she loved.



In 2006, I moved to Europe and my sister's family agreed to foster her.  She went from a comfy Texas condo dog eating expensive dog food, having home made treats, riding in my jeep with her doggles (doggy goggles - I'm not proud of this) and sleeping on my bedroom floor...







...to a Kansas farm dog who chased/played with pigs, chickens, cats and kids, ate whatever food was given to her, and slept under the stars, and loved every minute of it!  She experienced (and finally got used to) snow for the first time in her life and on my first visit to her, months after dropping her off, she ran up to me with a decomposing deer leg in her mouth.  I just shook my head...








As the years passed, and I found my way through the world, Mattie kept occupied with her busy life.  You could see the age in her graying face, but she still ran and 'guarded' the large plot of land she called home.  She hunkered down in the cool dirt under their porch steps at times and enjoyed her canine big brother Cooper, as well as snuggling with numerous dog-loving cats.



I couldn't have asked for a better foster family! When I moved back to the US in 2008 and lived in Washington DC, there was no way I could take her away from the home she had lived in for 2 years and make her a city dog again.  I also knew I was not going to stay for long, so her foster family then became her adopted one.  She lived with them getting all the love and care she deserved during her long life.

A couple of months ago, I found out about an animal rescue agency in Phnom Penh that had a puppy up for adoption.  When I saw his photo, I knew it was a match made in heaven.  

Benji is her Cambodian twin.



08 August, 2017

Little Helpers

I’ve been a vegetarian for over 10 years, vegan for 2 of those.  It’s not unusual for me to say no to chicken…but it goes further than that.  When I say, “I don’t like chicken” it not only means in the gastric sense, but as a whole, I do not like chickens.  They seem like dirty nasty stupid creatures who cannot be taught.  They look dorky when they run crookedly.  They seem to have not received the memo about the quickest way from point A to point B is a straight line.

In 2014 a couple of chickens who lived at Wat Opot gave me an egg everyday hidden somewhere in my room.  That wasn’t so bad as we take care of the unwanted young regardless of where they come from.  Those chickens came in quietly left me an unborn offspring and left just as quietly.  No drama, no fuss.

In 2016 we had to rehome our dog Lucy because of her obsession with killing chickens.  Destroying the nasty fowl at Opot and in the village (for sport) was not making her any friends.  That’s actually an understatement because she had death threats out on her.

Now it’s 2017 and for the past 6 months I have dealt with chickens again…chickens and their shit!  Now I’ve written about baby shit and my frustration with it’s daily occurrence, but chicken shit is way different.  For one, the children as a general rule do not do it on the floor, nor do they poop all over the kitchen, living room, laundry room and bedroom floors of the girls dorm.  Toddlers no, chickens yes.

To make a short story long, the chickens running rampant on our property decided to roost in our storage room which is easily accessible to them by open barred windows and door.  Unbeknownst to me, they had decided to roost on top of our port-a-crib.  Our wonderful little bed that has been the night time sanctuary for quite a few over the years.

With the 1st and 2nd graders home from school for the day, I put them to work deep cleaning the bed.  But ‘work’ is a pretty flexible word around here...especially when it involved soap and a water hose.









I kept the momentum of playing with the hose going and had them clean the colorful little chairs in the girls dorm moving along the grass as not to flood one area.  Like the bed, they had no problem cleaning them.






It's an ongoing chore to keep everything in order, but with so many helpers, my job is a bit easier especially if the chore involves the hose and soap!

So, a few days later, I had nothing but volunteers when I needed to clean the mats the preschoolers sleep on.