Many years ago, maybe ten, my Cambodian friend Chanthol Sun told me about an organization called the Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF), which worked in one of the poorest districts in Phnom Penh. Founded in 2004, CCF had created and now maintains an ecosystem that supports families and provides schooling to the children. He described the good works they did and specifically mentioned about sponsorship. He told me about the program that allowed donors to designate their gifts to sponsor individual students. He said that he was sponsoring three girls on behalf of his three daughters, who in turn exchanged messages and spoke with the students from time-to-time. Very clever. Of course I had no choice but to sponsor two girls on behalf of my two daughters. Little did I know then about the happy trail this soft solicitation would lead me to follow. Later, Chanthol told me that the CCF had created a “Granny Program” to help the elderly widows of the same community. Of course I then immediately sponsored a Granny. The cost was embarrassingly low: $150 per month for a student and $50 per month for a Granny. For $350 per month I made a difference in the lives of two students and a granny. Fast forward a decade (perhaps more) and here I am in Phnom Penh, volunteering as an “assistant English teacher” in one of the CCF academies. Today I met with “my granny” Yat and then had lunch at a Burger King with Vutey and Somphase, the two girls I sponsor.
Granny Yat is eighty-eight years old. A long time ago she had a husband and 14 children, all 15 of whom were murdered by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. It has been 44 years since the Cambodian people were freed from the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. That means she was 44 at the time of the liberation. She wears glasses, but her unaided hearing is better than my aided hearing. When I asked about her health, she said that she was “ok,” except for her left knee, which bothered her if she did not move it frequently. As we spoke, she chewed on a leaf to which she had administered some Chinese medicine. Granny Yat’s wits are still about her, and she showed considerable interest in the photos of my children that I showed her. She asked if she could keep a few of the photos, and I gave her the best two. She explained that she wanted to frame them and hang them on the wall of her home. Since she is only 13 years older than I, we agreed that I would call her “elder sister” rather than “granny.” She thought this was pretty funny. The CCF sponsorship officer named Mony had suggested that I give her some fruit, milk, and other groceries, which I did. I was the first American that Elder Sister Yat had ever met. Here we are together in Phnom Penh:
Voutey and Somphase have classes until noon on Saturday. They joined me after their last class finished. Elder Sister Yat returned to her home in the Granny Village.
Voutey is 14 years old and is in the 8th grade at the Neeson Cripps Academy, one of the academic divisions of the CCF, where she has been a student since the 2nd grade. I was the first American she had ever met, and she was clearly self-conscious and nervous about what I would be like and how I would behave. It was difficult to tell how proficient she is in English, since she was reluctant to say anything and relied on the sponsorship officer named Sophea to translate everything. But she had a warm smile and expressed curiosity to meet a person whose nationality was a mystery to her. In response to my question, as translated by Sophea, she said she enjoyed studying geography the most, but responded that class today had been “as usual.” She seemed like a normal teenager, but I had to keep reminding myself of the environment in which she lived, as opposed to the environment in which I met her. In response to another translated question, she said that her goal was to become an accountant but that she also wanted to teach part-time. We ordered a big meal at Burger King, but Vutey ate very little. Everything left over she carefully packed into a box to take home. At $27.10 for the four of us, this was an unimaginable amount of money for her, and an indulgence she would never be able to afford in the absence of a rich American who paid the bill. It forces one to reconsider what “rich” means, since I am certainly not rich in American terms. I wondered about her inner thoughts on the vast chasm that separated us. Here she is:
Somphase is 16 years old and attends the 10th grade at Neeson Cripps Academy. She has been under the care of CCF since 2011. Entry into the 10th grade is significant for a Cambodian student, and marks a notable academic achievement. She had recently been promoted to the 10th grade, a matter of great pride to CCF. Somphase was overcome with shyness during our time together, and had some difficulty responding, even in Khmer, to my questions. However, I did learn that she enjoys biology the most of her subjects in school, and expressed a career interest in becoming a doctor. While such an ambition in an American 10th grader would be a cause for satisfaction, that a girl from her background could even conceive of such an ambition defies the imagination. She is the eldest of three children in her family. For Somphase, as for Granny Yat and Vutey, this was her first experience meeting an American. Like Vutey, her smile is disarming. Here she is:
And as quickly as we had met, we parted ways, probably forever. I left to return to my condo; the girls left to return to their homes in Steung Meanchey. I could not stop thinking about my community walk with Scott Neeson a month ago. These girls live in one of those homes. According to staff at CCF, the chances are better than even that they are subject to physical and mental abuse, or at least stress, in their home environments. Whether it is through poverty, the drug or alcohol addiction of the adults in their lives, unemployment and idleness, or simply the complete lack of hope that surrounds them, their futures would appear to be stuck in an endless loop of despair. Whatever the causes (and they are always multiple), I cannot help thinking about the discrepancy between all that they lack and the surfeit of all that I have. I know that giving them money will make little to no difference. The only solution is the educational marathon that Scott Neeson and the good people of CCF are running. It works, and can succeed, but how tenuous, how fragile, how evanescent even, their efforts are. So much can go wrong; so much depends on Scott. What are my responsibilities? What are the responsibilities of my dissolute, profligate, but rich fellow Americans, who feel so entitled to be selfish, wasteful and disdainful of those who are different by virtue of history, language, culture, material poverty, or skin color? My conclusion is that the best anybody can do is to join Scott’s marathon in a supporting role. As my friend Dawn Hines said of her efforts at supporting the agricultural value chain in Senegal, “There are no quick fixes.” Above all else, we must not despair. These are smart, ambitious, diligent children and they must not be left behind. CCF proves that many infinitely small lights, burning together, can illuminate the darkness. My responsibility now is to maintain my small light and make sure it is placed with the many other small lights that are slowly changing the world.