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 d├ęcor 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.