“Welcome to Cambodia and the Cambodian Children’s Fund. You are in for a transformative experience.” And so began the first text message I received on my arrival in Phnom Penh on Friday morning, January 6, 2023. It was from Scott Neeson, the founder of the Cambodian Children’s Fund. He continued:
“Can you join me for a community walk? I depart around 5 pm, mostly in areas where there are kids still out of school. I head out most evenings, 7 days a week, and you’re welcome to join. Pick a day, It’s helpful to understand the living situations of the kids you will teach.”
I had signed up to be a volunteer “assistant English teacher” at the CCF for three months at the start of the new school year in Cambodia. I responded as quickly as my fingers could type, and accepted his invitation.
The next day at 4:25 PM, Scott’s driver picked me up and twenty minutes later, after passing through roads, alleys, paths, and other passages of decreasing width and increasingly informal paving, we arrived at an unimposing but distinctive sign that read “Welcome to the Rice Academy,” squeezed between what appeared to be a motor repair shop on one side and a small dry goods store on the other. The “Rice” referred not to the grain but to John and Cammie Rice. John, a long-time General Electric executive, and his wife had made a generous donation to help establish this academy, which, like the Cambodian Children’s Fund as a whole, is funded entirely by donations from individuals, private foundations, and corporations. The Fund has no governmental, religious, or other affiliation or sponsorship. It is proudly independent and discourages proselytizing of any kind. I have supported the CCF for the last decade as a monthly sponsor of two girls and a grandmother.
Scott shook my hand warmly, and we were immediately surrounded by a group of CCF students. My first impression was of joyful smiles, brimming exuberance, and the general demeanor of young students anywhere and everywhere. The second impression I had was how comfortable they all felt with Scott and how comfortable he felt with them. One walked up and gave him a hug. Then two more came up for hugs at the same time. Others waited impatiently for their turns. Scott, for his part, reciprocated their affection. This man is a hugger. There was a lot of love in the air. What a great feeling and introduction for me to CCF.
I asked Scott how many kids were under his care. “One thousand seven hundred thirty two,” he replied, with an emphasis on the precision of the number. “And I know them all by name,” he said gleefully, a smile always on his face.
Scott was carrying a set of about a dozen 8”x10” color prints of photographs he had taken of the children, and distributed copies to those who were in the photos. Each child, in turn, squealed with delight at receiving a personal photo. Scott took many more photos with his phone.
We immediately moved out on the “community walk” behind Rice Academy, with an entourage of students ranging in age from about 5 to 10 years. I need to summarize briefly before I get to the details, which are important:
The two-hour walk was for me emotionally overwhelming. I knew that CCF operated in one of the poorest and most underprivileged areas in Phnom Penh, the capital of one of the world’s poorest countries, but I was completely unprepared for what I saw and experienced. Scott was correct in predicting that this walk would be transformative. The poverty I witnessed is so profound and the misery so unending that it is difficult to absorb, epitomized in the community of the Steung Meanchey garbage dump. But in the middle of (or maybe it would be better to say surrounding) the misery, I found and experienced joy and ebullience. These emotions are clearly aided and abetted by Scott. I have never met anybody like him. Scott is committed to and involved in this community to a degree that is unnerving, in large part because it is utterly genuine. He knows and loves everyone, and everyone knows and loves him. This man is a miracle worker who gives hope based on strict realism. He delivers results that vastly exceed even the most optimistic projections of what is possible for the children of the Steung Meanchey garbage dump. And his actions are all founded on the recognition of the inherent dignity and equality of every resident of Steung Meanchey. For the first time in my life, I met a person for whom there was no distance between the heart and the deed.
Scott also taught me an important lesson about the challenges involved in what the CCF does. I accepted this assignment with the idea that I would be teaching orphans and abandoned children who were under the care of CCF. How naïve I was. The challenge in Steung Meanchey is not just the children: it is the entire community, and a litany of endless and interconnected problems. History, culture, war, peace, poverty, oppressive heat, dirty water, malnutrition, homelessness, disease, flooding, climate change, joblessness, drugs, alcohol, PTSD, parents, and children in every possible situation. There are two-parent families; one-parent families; no-parent families; yes, orphans; and yes, abandoned children; but more likely, six siblings with one mother and three fathers, none of whom are present; and at least one 88-year old grandmother whose 14 (fourteen – this is not a typo) children and husband had been murdered by the Khmer Rouge in 1975.
Where do you begin? It would be easy to despair. Scott’s philosophy is to put the emphasis on education of the children. To him, this is the difficult, but ultimately the only way to pull this community out of its misery. “Remove the barriers to education that keep children out of school,” is the way he describes it. But this will take generations, not years, and in the meantime, there is much agony and misery. The answer is to do everything possible to reduce the pain of the existence of as many residents of Steung Meanchey as possible.
It would take an entire book to describe the experiences I had in my first community walk. At times I felt that I was watching a film of a novel by a Cambodian Charles Dickens. At one point I asked one of Scott’s colleagues who joined us, “Does he really do this every day?”
“Yes, and he never skips a day. Three hundred and sixty-five days a year.”
“And is this a typical day, or am I seeing a highlight reel?”
“No. This is a very typical day. It happens like this every day.”
Where do I begin? Maybe with a feeble attempt to describe the physical environment. I have visited poor neighborhoods in poor countries. I have even lived in an impoverished neighborhood in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, for three months. But I have never seen a neighborhood such as I visited during my community walk. Trash and garbage is everywhere. This is the overarching theme, and it is inescapable. Children are also everywhere, some clothed with rudimentary footwear, many others barefoot, some naked. I looked for but saw very few adult males. Illumination after dark is sporadic, with a single lightbulb serving some homes, although CCF has strung street lights. While it was difficult to tell, because wherever we went everybody came out to see us, my guess is that the district has a very high population density. There are few paved roads, and no systematic layout to the “streets.” People and vehicles lumber over dusty (this is the dry season) potholes and uneven surfaces.
Living quarters are clustered, jampacked together. There is no architectural style: homes are slapped together from corrugated steel sheets, carved out of concrete structures that must have been made for some other purpose, or simply built from scraps found around landfill. Most are at ground level, and entranceways are only occasionally fitted with doors. Many were fully exposed to rain and flooding. The temperature was quite mild on this walk, and I could only imagine how it must be in these unventilated, claustrophobic dwellings when the temperature reaches three digits, an occurrence which climate change has made more frequent. As I will recount later, we often walked down narrow alleyways, not two feet in width, to visit a one-room home with six people sitting on the floor in the darkness. There are some exceptions: CCF is building elevated homes for families, and these stand out for their style and distinctive design. As I re-read the words I have written, I realize how difficult it is to convey the reality that can only be understood by being there.
From my perspective as a first-time visitor, the crowds of children became a blur, but to Scott they were all individuals, and he knew every child’s name, his or her story, his or her parent or parents, and what challenges were faced in getting that particular child into class. But the one constant amid this blur was joy coming from squealing, happy children, oblivious to the misery of their lives because they had never known anything else. They did know, however, that Scott loved them,
We turned off the beaten path into a field strewn with trash, rubble, and garbage. A pickup truck with a pop-top on the bed pulled up, driven by a CCF staff member. The pop-top opened to reveal a cornucopia of precious gifts. A crowd of at least 50 children and adults crowded around the truck. They knew what was going to happen. Scott reached into the back of the trick and pulled out… a backpack, which he handed to the smallest and shyest child. He reached in again and pulled out… another back pack… and a third… and a fourth.
“There is a company here that makes back packs for export. They give us the ones that are slightly imperfect, and do not yet have a logo,” he said over his shoulder to me as he pulled out a bright fluorescent yellow back pack and gave it to another small child.
Next he started pulling out 5-pound bags of rice, which he handed to the women who moved to the front, replacing the back pack contingent. A woman holding a new born, then an elderly woman with a cane, hobbling painfully but then clutching her bag of rice tightly. I counted a dozen bags of rice distributed this way. But I also saw Scott wince each time he pulled a bag of rice out of the back of the truck, and each time reached down to clutch his lower back. He never complained or slowed down, but it was clear to me that he was in a lot of pain. His ibuprofen was the smile on the face of the recipient of the gift.
We entered a large room, dimly lit by a few naked bulbs. There were at least a dozen men, women, and children living there, surrounded by dirt and trash. The room had a high ceiling, and must have originally been a store room of some kind. Scott knelt down next to an old woman lying motionless in an adult version of a crib.
“She is nearing the end. It is so sad to see her go. We had good times together, but she is 97 years old,” he said with emotion, showing me a photo of him with the women a few years ago when she was still active. It was the most emotionally wrenching moment of the walk. Scott stayed next to her bed for fifteen minutes, showing her photos, caressing her forehead and hair. She never spoke, but a faint smile revealed the comfort these simple gestures brought to her last moments. I marveled at Scott’s emotional resilience.
After standing up, Scott moved deeper into the cavern, stopping by another bed, this one mounted on a platform. A young girl, no more than 6 or 7 years old, sat on the bed. She was disheveled, clearly uncomfortable, her face red with fever. Scott sat next to her for ten minutes speaking soothing words (he claims his Khmer language skills are still rudimentary, but he seemed to be completely fluent in his ability to communicate with all whom he met) and holding her hand. Above all else, it was the way Scott touched, both physically and emotionally, all whom he met, that stands out in my memory.
The children are without exception emotionally needy. As Scott explained, their parents have such difficult lives that they have little left to give to their children. Here I was, a total stranger, and at least a dozen children held my hand; others asked for a hug. I held hands and gave hugs willingly, but couldn’t get quite as involved as Scott.
A barefoot girl with a frown on her face, one of only a very few who did not smile. But she followed us for the full two hours, trying to stay close enough to touch Scott. He remarked, “I am worried abut her. Many of these kids get smacked around by parents with drug or alcohol abuse issues. It is a real problem in the community.”
“What is the profile of the average child in Steung Meanchey” I asked.
“Too many children with only one parent present. And the single parent may take drugs. Too many broken homes. Multiple children from multiple unstable marriages. I know one woman who has six children with three different husbands. The kids aren’t necessarily orphans or abandoned, but in some ways the conditions are even worse. Kids who are neglected don’t go to school, don’t get health care, don’t get enough to eat. Severe malnutrition. They are often abused. It is an immensely complex ecosystem with no single cause and no single cure.”
As I begin my teaching responsibilities, I am confronted with an existential question. How far can I expand my circle of compassion? The challenges in this assignment are much more complex than I had naively assumed when I made the decision in the comfort of my home in the richest country in the world. This will be a challenge unlike any I have undertaken in my life. At the same time, I am deeply grateful for the degree of difficulty. I think that I am compassionate and that I care about others. I certainly talk about it a lot. But now I have accepted the challenge to eliminate the distance between my heart and my deed. Talk is cheap. The Cambodian Children’s Fund will be an excellent test of the true extent of my commitment to the ideals I espouse.