Cambodian Children’s Fund – Summary Observations

        I have come to the end of the 13 blogs I will write on my experiences with the Cambodian Children’s Fund.  I am exhilarated, not exhausted.  In the previous 12 blogs, I have described some of my impressions, experiences, and lessons.  But now I am home, having departed early because of my health emergency.  I have not run out of things to report, but I feel that I would need to return to Phnom Penh for another stint as an assistant teacher before I could feel confident in going deeper into what I was reporting.  It is a complex environment, and although I learned many new things every day I was there I still have much to learn.  The purpose of this final blog is to summarize my personal lessons and impressions of my first volunteer experience with the CCF.

          First, the easy conclusions:  The need for the Cambodian Children’s Fund is immediate, pressing, and at least so far, endless.  The remedy involves much more than providing a school, although education is what will eventually solve the problems.  The CCF has, over its 19 year history, made enormous strides in solving systemic community problems and in bringing about positive change in the lives of hundreds, soon to be thousands, of young women and men.

          Now, the seemingly obvious but exceedingly complex conclusion:  more than anything, the Cambodian Children’s Fund is the creation and continuing miracle of Scott Neeson.  It is not that he is a genius, which he may well be, but that he is as compassionate as any human being I have ever encountered.  I draw on the writing of Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term “genocide” and worked tirelessly to have it enshrined in public international law, to find an analog to Scott.  Lemkin was determined all his life to “shorten the distance between my heart and my deed.”  One can conclude that Lemkin was successful based on the Genocide Convention that was unanimously adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 9, 1948 (when I was nine months old).  But, to my surprise and everlasting pleasure, Scott has redefined the concept of this “shortening.” 

        There is no distance between Scott’s heart and his deed, and this applies both latitudinally and longitudinally.  He is involved at ground level, meeting the people of Steung Meanchey.  And he meets the children, their parents, their grandparents, and any others in their homes, around their homes, and beside their homes.  He hugs everybody.  He loves everybody.  Everybody loves him.  He has unlimited love to share and nobody ever feels that he or she gets less than 100% of Scott’s love.  This is the latitudinal dimension.  But he also does all this every day, not just on weekdays or during vacations.  Every day, year after year, going on 19 years as of the writing of this blog.  This is the longitudinal dimension.  There is no distance between his heart and his deed.

          Frankly, Scott is a challenge for me.  I am committed to following Lemkin’s example as far as I am able.  But I cannot match nor ever hope to match Scott’s boundless commitment.  I have never met anybody who could, although I have met many compassionate people who I felt did a good job of shortening the distance between their hearts and their deeds.  No, this is different.  It is both inspirational and intimidating.  Every time I stayed home on the weekend in Phnom Penh, I felt that I was betraying the children and reneging on my commitment.  Rationally, I know that this was not true and that my partial commitment was already greater than that of most people.  But the term “arm’s length” had become a slur to me. 

          What these children, and the community in which they live, need is for caring people to be present.  They want “quality time,” but this is not enough.  They also need “quantity time,” and endless hugs, affirmation, encouragement, reliability, consistency, and predictability.  Part of Scott’s genius is that he has built a team that understands and embraces this imperative.  The teachers and staff of the Cambodian Children’s Fund all do their parts.  They are wonderful, caring, and dedicated followers of Raphael Lemkin and Scott Neeson, and they have my greatest respect and admiration. 

          I learned an important lesson from Scott, to which I indirectly referred at the beginning of this blog, and it concerns the meaning of the word “compassion” and the way it is different from the word “empathy.”  They both derive from the same emotion, but the consequences of each are quite different.  At first, I could not understand how Scott could maintain his level of commitment for 19 years without burn out or “compassion fatigue.”  On the contrary, I saw a man more energized every day by the care and love he had in his heart.  I knew that Scott had originally quit his job and moved to Steung Meanchey out of empathy.  He literally felt the pain of the children and he could not stand to let them suffer.  But his superpower was that he transmogrified empathy onto compassion.  With compassion, Scott did not care less, but he was able to distance himself from the pain and change that emotion into actions to help the children, their parents, and the entire community.  Empathy is when you feel the pain of another as your own pain.  It is real but can be disabling.  And it is self-focused:  “I feel your pain and I am as immobilized as you.  I need help and it is difficult for me to give you  help.”  If all you have is empathy, you will quickly burn out and have compassion fatigue.  Compassion, on the other hand, is other-oriented, and the compassionate person does not become overwhelmed by his own emotions.  He can focus every ounce of strength on helping those in pain, and this is exactly what Scott has done.  In my first meeting with Scott, I observed that he had serious back pain, but that his ibuprofen consisted of the smiles and happiness of the children and adults of Steung Meanchey.  This is even clearer to me now than it was before.  It is clearly Scott’s superpower that he can be infinitely compassionate without being incapacitated by the pain that other empathetic people feel.  This is altruism in its purest form:  Scott has chosen, at enormous cost to himself, to help others, with no benefit to himself.

          I saw a glimpse of this transition from empathy to compassion in myself.  When I arrived in Steung Meanchey, I was worried about compassion fatigue.  I was worried about physical fatigue as well.  After all, I was soon to be 75 years old, and there were a lot of miles on my body.  But I soon found that I never got tired, even working long hours and not getting my customary nap in the middle of the day.  There is no question in my mind that my reaction was brought about – in a very small way –as a mirror of Scott.  I was so inspired by his compassion that I started being compassionate myself. 

          I also compare Scott to another of my personal heroes.  Like Raphael Lemkin, Adolfo Kaminsky is not well-known.  What makes him a hero to me is that he broke the law, not once or twice, but tens of thousands of times as a highly successful forger.  Kaminsky’s original forgery was to create fake documents which would allow Jews to escape Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied France.  His friends were worried about his health, since he slept little and was unwell.  In response, he explained that he could create 30 fake travel documents in an hour.  If he slept an hour, 30 people would die because of his inaction.  I think that is why Scott does not sleep much (I keep getting messages from him during times when most people in his time zone are sleeping):  the needs are immediate and urgent, he is aware of the fact that his intervention can make a difference, and he cannot rest while a single child is hungry, neglected, or abused.

        Thank you, Scott.  I learned more than I taught by volunteering as an assistant teacher at the Cambodian Children’s Fund.  Keep up the good work.  I will be back to support you and to learn more from you.


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