27 December, 2013


The year Two Thousand Thirteen has been full of changes.  We have had a record number of children come and go.  We had an infant briefly, and 2 preschoolers, who all ended up going back home.  Four came to us because a parent was sick and the healthy parent could not care for the sick spouse and the children too, the father got better, the kids went home.  Parents died and an overburdened Aunt just could not care for 3 young additions to her already growing family.  Those three left us after a grandmother came into the picture.  Where was that grandmother while the parents were dying of AIDS related complications? Who knows, but regardless, when we told her we were not in a financial position to pay her $25 dollars a visit to come to see her grandchildren regularly, she took them in. 

Another family of 3 older teens came to us and we were told the father was blind, family poor and the children live too far away from the local school.  Come to find out the father was partially blind, the family had money and the children did indeed have an opportunity to go to school in their home village, but the parents thought if we took care of them, then we would put them through university.  Sigh, we sent them back as well.

Our main concern is the well being of the children going back to biological family, obviously.  But a close second is education.  Illiterate children have very little chance of future long-term happiness.  The girls stand little chance of being more than a young wife and mother and most likely not having the opportunity to choose her spouse or how many children she will produce.  Or chained to a possible abusive garment factory, with a worse case scenario of being sold into child prostitution.  Illiterate boys are ripe for the gang scene and most likely a bleak impoverished future with a wife and children of their own to start the cycle all over again.

This is not a pessimistic view; but a statistically realistic one.  Yes, yes, there is the one child that will overcome poverty and carve out a nice life, but I prefer to look at the masses instead of unrealistically basing my views on ‘the one that made it’.  Maybe that’s the difference from having a couple children to concentrate on versus my current total of 57 to care about.

Care – that’s another reason…I do care with all of my heart.  One of our boys started mentioning a family – a grandmother, a sister…now we don’t have much information on him other than he was given to another orphanage about 5 years ago and transferred to us soon after that orphanage tested him and found out he was HIV+.  We had our on-staff psychologist look through his paperwork to see if there was anything he could do.  Dara knew where the village was but had no way of locating family without names.  Long story short, he ended up finding the former caregivers of the now 14-year-old boy.  The parents were dead, but godparents were alive and wanted to see him.  There is confusion as to why he was given up by the godparents in the first place, why they couldn’t find him over the years although they said they tried.  It could all be legit and their stories true.  People change, as do their situations.  All we know is the young lad came back after 3 days with an expensive phone (well, nicer than mine!) and some new clothes and some snacks.  On the phone were all the god families phone numbers with instructions that they will see him again the first of the year.

I bring up this particular story because this little guy is so very loving and cannot get enough attention.  He is ALWAYS ready for a hug and behaves best with lots of positive compliments and reinforcements.  When his god-sister left, he came over to me to show me his new things.  He said he had a good time, but then quietly asked me if I missed him.  I grabbed him and gave him a big tight hug and said I missed him every minute!  I told him I was very happy for him to find the family he remembers, but that he must also understand that Wayne and I will always be family to him no matter where he is.  He said he is a very lucky boy because he has so many parents!  Over the next few days he talked about his god-brother coming to visit as well as another godmother.  But he also needs to hear that this is his home and will always be, regardless how many family members he meets up with again; that Wayne and I love him and he will always be our son.  When he asked me if I love him now even though he went home, my heart sank!

The idea that we wouldn’t want him if he found his family was running through his mind.  Maybe it’s because we have had some older teens recently go home to live with family members and he thought we would force him to do the same.  I told him that I’m the luckiest mother in the world because I have soooo many kids.  I have room for them all in my heart and I am happy to share my kids with whoever wants to be a part of their lives.  That seems to satisfy him for now and he giggles when he says, “Melinda likes to share.”

It’s tough, though, for that damn beating organ that resides behind my left breast.  I don’t know what’s best for all the kids although I will always believe a good home that can provide an education is the best place for a child to be in.  Is that home in the middle of the slums?  Doubtful.  Is that home in an impoverished area?  Possible, but again, doubtful.  Could that home employ a full staff, have a lot of land and many children to care for.  In our case, YES! 

The three little boy's father is out of prison and has come with their mother to visit a few times.  I know they will go back home possibly sooner than later.  I have good feelings about the parents energy when they came to visit and believe they do love the boys and want to be a family again.  An NGO in Phnom Penh is helping them find/build a suitable home and we were told the father is employed.  Maybe they can now financially care for the boys.  Maybe they can give them a safe environment to grow up in.  Maybe they can give them a healthy environment to grow up in.  But maybe, because they are illiterate themselves, they will not understand the importance of education.  How learning to read and write will give their sons a head start towards a more productive future…

I have no say about the boy’s future and that’s perhaps the part I am most saddened by. Not being able to provide a strong academic base for a young child to build upon is so hard to except.  I am speculating at this point about the family.  Maybe the NGO who is working with them can help them keep the 1st grader in school and let his 2 young brothers follow in his footsteps…who knows…

I am exhausted most days, both mentally and physically, but the sheer number of hugs and little energetic bodies keep me going until I can retire late evening to the sanctity of my bedroom and a little alone time.  But tonight I didn’t want to be alone; I wanted to keep up the insanity so the little girls and I (and Sokah) hunkered down in my room and watched “A Little Princess”.  Most of the girls had never seen it.  (if you have not either, please be assured this movie is not about some ridiculous helpless young female lead looking for her prince charming - those movies have no place in my girls life!)

As one commented, “That little girl is from Africa”, and another exclaimed, “Oh, those shoes are sa’at (pretty), they from India”, or pointing to the movie’s NY scenery asked “Is that America where you live (are from)?” I had that “proud swelled-head parent moment” where at that moment I could not love them more or be more proud!  Cambodian “orphans” talking about the US, India and Africa like it’s no big deal?  How many rural children in the surrounding 30 villages know those places?  And of those who have heard of the place, how many can recognize Indian décor and dress or the skyscrapers of NY City?  My girls can!  They have a mama with a ring in her nose just like the lady in India!  Just a few days ago, they met a woman with dark skin at our WOMP Music Festival who was African and a giant of a man with light skin from the very same continent - they no longer questions diversity, color or ethnicity - they accept it!  Education is not confined to a classroom, it can be all around you, but it is very very limited if you live in a one room shack in the slums.  Wat Opot is a multi-cultural haven of knowledge and identity.  A haven for little girls who are allowed to dream of a future that can be whatever they want it to be on whatever particular day they let their mind soar.

Before I reluctantly laid Sokah down in his bed for the night (I don’t know how many more nights I have with him), I had him make a round of kissing all his big sisters.  They also know his days at Wat Opot are limited and like me, will miss him and his brothers like crazy.  They will be sad and then move on and continue to live life in the present as they have always done.

I can only learn from them and also move forward -present in the moment- and not dwell on the past that cannot be changed or long for a future in which I have no control over.

27 November, 2013

Quality is a bad word?

If you think Walmart has bad quality items, Cambodia's inexpensive footwear and backpacks are ridiculously cheap - using both meanings of the word!  They make Walmart's items almost worth buying...not really, but you get the point, right?  We were given about 20 backpacks that some gracious organization bought in Cambodia for us.  They are so cute, little Angry Bird plastic backpacks, soooo cute until they started breaking within 2 weeks.  A strap here, a zipper there.  Ah, well, what can you do.

Shoes are another source of anguish.  Mostly the kids 4th grade and under do not wear shoes.  It's like it's acceptable for them to run about everywhere barefoot because they are kids. Young adults and adults on the other hand ALWAYS wear shoes and when I zip over to the kitchen or playroom without bothering to slip on my flip flops, it never fails that someone will ask me "Did you loose your shoes?"

I guess going barefoot when you are older is reserved for Monks and impoverished street people.  Isabel went to the primary school with one of our staff to see it and since they went unexpectedly, she didn't go to the dorm to get her shoes (although she mostly wears them).  When they entered the classroom, the teacher asked her to come back the next day to teach an English class to the 6th graders.  As he glanced down at her uncovered feet, he mentioned "Tomorrow when you teach, you can wear shoes." 

One lazy afternoon, I decided to walk down the road with a handful of our shoeless kids.  Everyone had them not to long ago, but they either broke or were lost and the little ones said their teachers want them to wear shoes to class, so away we went.

Walking down the road in search of a little local shop which can sell anything from shoes, to laundry soap to gasoline in pepsi bottles; Wallah, we found what we were looking for!  6 pairs of shoes for under $7.00.  Great Bargain?  Only time will tell...

Mission accomplished for the boys so it was time to head home.  The girls are a little more particular about their footwear and unfortunately, like everywhere, female attire is more expensive.  I wouldn't let them buy the shoes they wanted because they are more fashionable than durable.  Cute little bows, lace and accessories probably wouldn't have stayed intact for more than a few days.  They will have to wait and go to the 'big' market to get theirs.

20 November, 2013

Tea anyone?

We received a little glass tea set in the mail from a family who visited us a while back.  Knowing that putting it in with our other ‘toys’ the fragile pieces would become broken rather quickly, I put it in our café and when the ‘coast was clear’ (i.e. only seeing a few kids hanging around) I motioned for them to quietly come into the café.

Once in, I guided them to the table where I had filled the glass items with tea, sugar and milk.  Shushing their squeals, I motioned for them to sit and have their tea party.

As usual around here word spreads, don’t ask me how anyone found out since the only people who knew this was happening were all inside a locked café. I honestly think these children have mental telepathy, seriously! 

I limited the tea party to 4 at a time and after a few hours; I think most were able to share in the fun as I hurried to keep the little tea pitcher, milk pitcher and sugar bowl filled!


30 October, 2013

Hectic is an understatement.

The new school finally started about 3 weeks ago (yes, this post is late!!), although for most of you, school year 2013/14 started months ago.  To say our summer vacation from school was hectic would be an understatement, so to recap our summer…let’s see;

well we thoroughly enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) our new ZipLine.

We tried to stay awake for the nighttime DVD,

which proved difficult because during the day we played

And played...

and then, low an behold we started our beloved SUMMER SCHOOL!  With the addition of our recent year long volunteer, Isabel, I was able to plan and implement English class for all the kids.  Last year we focused on math, but this year the kids were begging for English class (even the high school kids).  After the kids were tested, I was able to put them in to different classes depending on their level.  Although our kids understand and speak English, most do not know the basics of sounding out words and reading, so with most of them we are starting from the beginning. 

I remember going to school for the first time at Colwich Grade School.  During that first year with Sister Macrina, we did alphabet books and I LOVED doing it.  I remember it distinctly, but alas only my uber saving sister, Vicki may still have hers after all these years.   I wanted to do something similar here.  I went to the good ole’ internet and shifted though the hundreds of educational sites looking for something similar.  I found lots of fun projects, but I needed something to fit this country and culture.  I mean, sure the kids will understand A is for Apple and B is for Ball, but I couldn’t find whole alphabet worksheets that had the items the kids experience here.  For example, rural Cambodia does not have Canaries or Firetrucks.  Nor do we have cupcakes, horses, or snow.  I decided to make my own updated version that took quite a while to create (I’m up to “J”), but the books went over very well!

Other classes were a bit more advanced and used English books and some are able to work at their own pace with minimal help.  I also incorporated a weekly vocabulary test. I hated those when I was young, but it is such a good way to learn words.  We had the words posted around Wat Opot and it was normal to hear the kids standing around debating how to spell candle or black or bear. 

Our two Khmer 3rd year sociology students left us after spending 2 months at Wat Opot. They were an amazing summer addition; we got the extra help and they got valuable practical working and educational experience.  Dalin and Suyly taught Khmer and Math to our 4th – 7th graders. 

During their time with us they lived at Wat Opot, so they were around playing with the kids and we even got them on the ZipLine – something Khmer young ladies would probably not do, but anyone who knows me knows that I try to keep male/female distinction to a minimum.  I want boys that cook and girls that play soccer.  Gender roles are not so strong in some ways here, at least while playing. I posted in the past about the them dressing up, and just look how pretty some of the boys made their roads and houses.

Perhaps one of the most exciting things for the kids is the addition of educational technology devices!   I am becoming one of the biggest advocates for Leapfrog.  Longtime WOCC supporter and WOCF secretary, Deb, sent us some leapfrog products; learning games and Clickstart first computer over a year ago.  I kept them in storage for a long time because we just didn’t have the supervised space needed to keep the kids from misusing or accidentally destroying the expensive games.  With a revision of the CLC from a play room into a learning room we were able to create an environment conducive to learning as well as keep the supplies intact.

I bought more Leapfrog devices at Toys and Me in Phnom Penh – expensive yes, but I believe detrimental to what we are trying to accomplish with educating the children to the best of  our ability.

The Leapfrog electronic books are especially useful here because it’s just not possible to read a bedtime story to everyone and we haven’t been able to organize ‘story times’.  These electronic readers not only tell the story, but by holding the ‘pen’ over any photo on the page, it makes sound, songs and the like.

I'm not a huge advocate for electronic games, but these are 'educational' not only in what they teach, but the kids have to understand English to be able to play them!  A double leaning experience.  

Another 'bonus' is that with 30+ primary age children, and only 7 electronic learning devices, they have to SHARE!!!

Hope you enjoyed a small glimpse of our Summer, 2013!

26 September, 2013

I'm still here

I’ve been out of touch…I have not blogged in a very long time.  This is not due to things being stagnant or boring, but more a lack of motivation on my part and I apologize…

I have had such a wonderful outpouring of donations big and small lately that I am humbled by the genorisity of my family and friends as well as those who may only know me by name.  To hear that someone donated for the continuation of my ability to live here just because they knew my dad warms my heart and brings tears to my eyes.  Those who give because they know my family, but not me, personally are a sheer testament to the beauty of the people who I am honored to love.

Mushyness aside, a little information on what’s been going on is in order.  In a nutshell, I have been overcoming the childhood illness, Fifth Disease.  It’s been almost 3 months now and I’m still not back to normal.  This illness moves in and out of a child within a few days, but like chicken pox, it affects adults with vengeance.   There was a point when I could not get out of bed, because my feet and hands swelled  to the point that I could not walk and something as simple as taking off my glasses was horribly painful. It was humbling to say the least when I couldn’t even change Sokah’s diaper without wincing in pain.

I kind of pulled into myself and went about the daily grind a bit emotionless.  Of course it’s hard not to smile when surrounded by the children’s love and happiness, but many evenings, once Sokah was safely asleep, I broke down with frustration.  It’s just something that time heals, and as of now, I can move about pretty much normally; although my joints still ache when I sit for more than 10 minutes in one position.

Now that that’s said and done, Wat Opot has been ever changing.  We just received 5 new kids, three siblings roughly aged, 12, 14 and 16 and 2 little brothers around 4 and 6 years.  As always, new kids bring about adjustment, not only to their lives but to ours as well.  Adding one male and one female highschool aged teens to our family created new dynamics which we are keeping our eyes on.

Sokah still tends to be an ever-present figure in my day.  He still sleeps in my room and I struggle with the knowledge that he will be returned to his parents once his father gets out of prison.  As a nanny, it was easy to keep my emotions intact.  I loved all the children in my care, but did not become emotionally attached.  I knew those children will grow up in safe happy homes once it was time for me to move on.

Contrary to the anti-orphanage movement such as “No child should be in an orphanage” or “Every child is better off with their biological relatives” there is not one ounce of my being that believes that many of our children should have stayed in their unhealthy, unsafe environment.  Fostering 3 little boys makes my heart swells, nothing nor no-one could ever ever make me think differently.  I may nap with a child and awaken with them looking into my eyes – patiently waiting for them to open, or poking me awake with sheepish grins on their faces. I may shower with little ones squealing outside the bathroom door watching the water splash underneath as I set new records for getting clean. 

I planned to come to the city today to accomplish 2 things.  One – to buy enough school supplies and uniforms for our 55 children and Two – to introduce one of our university students to a potential money making art project.  As things happen, number Two turned into number Three as no sooner did I set up one appointment another art opportunity emerged causing me to extend my time here for one more day. 

While walking to my usual $6 a night guest house, I passed by a shop and I wandered inside.  As I glanced around the shop, I was drawn to these wallets made from recycled tires.  I thought about my very worn out one that I bought in Nepal years ago and decided it was time for a change  and laid down the $10 for a more eco-friendly model. 

I looked up and saw that the organization who support the shop trains vulnerable youth in beauty treatments and thought; well what the hell, I’m going to get a manicure.  Now if you saw my hands and ragged bitten nails, you may think the last thing I would want to do is show them to anyone, but since it has been about 10 years since my nails have seen any form of pampering, I decided to go for it!  One time my mom treated me to a pedicure and the woman looked up at me and asked where in the world had I been! 

Well, I was feeling pretty good knowing I had put down money well spent on the wallet, as I sat down to await my manicure.  A man approached me with a young woman and said, she cannot hear, but she will do my nails.  I glanced up at her big smile and watched as she proceeded to get my hands ready.  As she did the best she could with my practically non-existent nails, I motioned with fingers to my teeth that I bite my nails.  She smiled as she tried in vain to find anything to clip!  During this time I saw the other 2 young women who were giving pedicures ‘talk’ to her in sign language.  I thought, WOW, not only did they give this young woman the training to be self-sufficient, they required their staff to learn how to speak to her. After the manicure one of the girls came over to look at my nails and smiled and said “you eat your nails”; I smiled and nodded, then thought “hey, those girls were silently talking about me!”

As I left the nail place, I headed to ‘my’ hotel and then stopped.  I thought “I’m only here for one night, maybe I can stay at a place closer to where I was since the next day I had another meeting around the corner.”  I let my feet wander and stumbled upon a small but beautiful guest-house.  The cheapest room was $25 so I turned to leave, then had another ‘what the hell’ thought and turned back around.  As I walked past their outdoor garden with a fountain and tables, then up an old winding staircase that opened up to another beautiful lounge area, I realized I had made the right decision.  

When I opened the door to my room not only did I notice the great looking bed, I saw the bathtub in the adjoining bathroom and cried out loud “I can have a bath!”  After unconsciously clapping my hand over my mouth, I looked behind me at the open door and saw that no one had heard me.  Probably not ironic that just the other day I had jokingly told someone that it had been over a year and a half since I had a bath. (showers and bucket baths, yes, bathtub baths, no).

I rested a bit, went downstairs and had some Greek food and then back upstairs to enjoy that bath!  Busy day tomorrow, but assumingly I’ll be well rested and ready to take on the day and then head back to love on my children that did not come out of my body.  

I can't guarantee that my posts will be more frequent, but I will certainly try!  At least you know I am still alive and kickin’.

05 August, 2013

Rain Rain won't go away.

The rainy season is upon us.  Generally it rains every evening and early mornings with a brief downpour in the afternoon.

When I was growing up, it was the norm to run for cover during a rain storm...here at Wat Opot it's the opposite.  The children run outside and proceed to play, sing and generally act like children!

The rains are welcome as it cools everything off and the dust levels subside.  Other than putting a damper on an organized outing, or slipping on the slimy ground, you get used to the daily rains and sometimes during a longer downpour, it's nice to just cuddle up and watch a DVD or take a much needed nap.

16 July, 2013

Living day to day by the grace of others.

A month or so ago, I joined a Yahoo Online Group of Expatriates living in Cambodia.  It’s like a vast information gathering portal where you can also post items you have to sell or want to have.  With little Sokah with us again, I was in search of a bed for him. 

Sokah is a mover!  When he sleeps he is ALL over the place.  I tried him in bed with me the first time he came but after a sleepless couple of hours, I moved him to a mat on the floor.  The problem was that he didn’t stay on the mat, or sheet or blanket.  He would scoot in his sleep off of it and onto the cold tile.  He wouldn’t keep covered at all.  There were nights where I would hear his muffled cry and I would be crawling around on the floor in the dark trying to locate him.

He got his head stuck under a cabinet once and another time scooted so far under my bed that I couldn’t find him.  I could hear him but couldn’t reach him...It seems he had scooted behind the only storage container I have under there. 

After that I got serious about finding a bed for him.  In Cambodia, babies don’t have beds.  Usually no one does, it’s so hot most of the time that the floor is the best place to be.  I ended up cutting about 6 inches off of the legs of my bed, so I’m closer to the floor.  Thankfully I did’t cut off more, or I would never had been able to crawl under and rescue Sokah!

I found a used baby travel bed online – Baby Bjorn brand…which means top of the line in price!  It was priced at $130.  I thought, no way can I buy that one, but I had already checked prices of 'foreign luxuries" (such as a baby bed) in Phnom Penh,and they are crazy expensive and not as good quality, I didn’t know what to do.  The seller also had a high chair which clips onto the table which I REALLY wanted as well, but she said it was already promised to another.  Currently Sokah is sitting on 4 plastic chairs stacked onto each other.  Not the safest choice for an active little boy, plus when he makes his usual mess, I have to clean all 4 layers!

I decided I would spend my own money on the bed since I couldn’t justify using Wat Opot’s money; it really was just to make my life easier.  After corresponding with the seller, she informed me that she was coming to the town of Takeo on Monday.  Wat Opot is situated between Takeo and Phnom Penh, so she was able to drop them off!  WAHOO, that was a huge relief since I wasn’t going to go into PP for a few weeks.  That was actually the problem with wanting to buy things using the online source because most people wanted the items picked up ASAP.

The seller told me that she had a portable crib instead of a travel one, which was bigger and would probably be better for sleeping.  And also that the person who wanted to purchase the chair from her didn’t pick it up, so it was available too and she would knock off $10 off of it!  She said she also could give me a bag of clothes, and some baby toys if I wanted them!!  Happy Happy Joy Joy, it was my lucky day.

She arrived by car around 5:00pm and a group of the kids were hanging out playing.  When they saw the car, I quickly informed them that it wasn’t a volunteer coming, but someone coming to bring some things for Sokah.  They were excited anyway and after a few of them took the chair to the café and 2 boys hauled the bed to my room, the bag of toys and clothes was quickly whisked away to be taken to the new nursery.  The kids were as excited as I was even though they knew nothing was for them!

When I reached into my purse to pay for everything, the woman told me that she was donating the items and that I didn’t have to pay.   WHAT!  Wait a minute....I am getting exactly what I needed, plus extra's?  HOLD BACK THE TEARS!  It’s so hard to not get emotional when you really see the goodness and kindness of others.  She told me that her children are the same ages as Sokah and his brothers, not a coincidence I’m sure.  I was meant to get these items and it doesn’t so much matter to me who you believe is to receive credit, The Universe, Jesus, Allah, God, Buddha, etc. what matters is that in a time of need, I received.

 To even further solidify that it was meant to be, is that right after I emailed her a few days ago, I found the identical bed for sale from someone else for $40 cheaper.  I quickly emailed that person, but they had a verification on their email and our internet is so slow that it couldn’t display the squiggly letters that you have to type in to verify that you are a human.  I was so frustrated trying again and again, but finally decided that my frustration is not worth the savings and I gave up and just decided to pay the higher price.

If I look back at my nanny days with a certain billionaire family, I realize I could have (and mostly did have) anything to make my life easier while taking care of their children.  Money was never ever an issue.  I flew on Private Planes, stayed at 4 Seasons resorts, drove brand new gas guzzling SUV's…but today, I am so overjoyed over a second hand high chair and port-a-crib. 

Tonight at meditation, I told the kids about the generosity and kindness of the woman and of others.  I told them that instead of driving back to Phnom Penh with a lot more money in her pocket, she was driving back with a warm heart knowing she did a wonderful thing.  She may even give her own children a little extra long hug tonight.

Looking back on the life of ‘luxury’ doesn’t always make me smile, but at this moment, looking down at Sokah getting a good nights sleep warms my heart and causes the corners of my mouth to slowly turn up.

Yep, looking back, I am happy to have had all the amazing experiences, but at this time, I can't imagine being anywhere else.