There are just some places you go to, and people you meet that you never quite recover from. They leave an indelible mark on your soul. They change you immeasurably. And you marvel at how people you spend such a short time with can nudge the needle on your inner compass to a truer North.
In 2009, I made my first trip to Siem Reap to volunteer in an orphanage run by a lovely Australian couple called Wat Preah Yesu. I’m more partial to secular aid, but am very cognisant of the fact that sometimes, it doesn’t matter why people do good things, as long as it makes the world a better place. As someone who sees aid and charity work as a core goal in life, I struggle with vetting potential organisations, rampant corruption, deciding what form of aid is best, and constantly evaluating if the projects are really helping these people in the big scheme of things. I’m still chipping away at all of this, and learning as I go. But at the end of the day, you learn to question only to a certain point. Because once you allow paranoia to set in, you will lose heart. And without it, we are but animals.
I want to share the story of two children who have changed my life. Everyone, meet Sert and Neng.
The sad reality about orphanages is that people always have their favourites. And it’s often the healthy, cute, or the bright ones that get showered with love and attention. And Sert and Neng were some of the only HIV positive children in the orphanage at the time. Neng was only 3 years old when we met, and her brother Sert, was 12. Neng was adorable and was always laughing. But because she had many open sores on her skin, they constantly hurt her. She had to shave all her hair off so it would be easier to clean her wounds. And sometimes, she cried from the pain. Understandably, people avoided contact with her for fear of infection. But it didn’t stop her from being affectionate. She had run up to me with open arms and I instinctively scooped her up cuddled her as much as I could. Her brother Sert peered shyly from behind a tree, or kicked pebbles nearby, constantly keeping an eye on his baby sister.
Older children were generally ignored in favour of the more adorable, impish little ones. But I was moved by Sert’s protectiveness. Their parents had both passed away from the illness and they only had each other. I stood up with Neng and she led me to him, giggling like she had a little secret. I ruffled his light brown hair, took his hand and smiled. And even though we didn’t understand each other, Sert never left my side in the four days I was at the home. I constantly reminded him I loved him and that he was a good brother. He always had a shy grin although he barely spoke. But on an unexplainable level, we understood each other. I’d speak to him in English and him to me in Khmer and most of the time, we’d be laughing as we played our own silly version of charades. He didn’t understand the words, but I’d like to think he knew how much I cared. The image of his smile and the kindness in his eyes will never leave me. Four days soon passed, and we parted teary-eyed and with heavy hearts.
I went back to Siem Reap another four times over the next few years to work on various projects with the local community. On one of these occasions, I found out that Neng had passed away from a terrible infection, and that Sert had left the orphanage to find a job. I can’t put into words the sense of pain and loss I felt at that moment. How alone Sert must have felt. And I was so angry at myself for not being able to find him or offer him any help at a time he needed it most. It was an unbearable mix of regret, indignation and a burning desire to make a change.
Since then, I’ve been trying to help out Morn who runs the Children’s Development Organisation (CDO) with their bills and providing books and laptops so they can learn as best they can. And with the amazing generosity of my family and close friends, we’d raised more than USD$10,000 to build a school so the Government would send teachers down to educate children in the very poor and inaccessible Leap Chas Village. Sean gamely made one of those trips with me which included a 6-hour bumpy motorbike ride to and from the rural village to check on the building progress. And it’s because of all this support, love and kindness that hundreds of kids have graduated from the school since. Many have found jobs in the city and brought their earnings back with them to make a better life for their loved ones. All this came simply out of time spent with two children who had so much love to give, and a belief that we could make a difference, however small.
I’ve never really shared this with anyone before because I didn’t really see the need to. But over time, I’ve learnt from so many I’ve met along the way that the best way to make a change in the world is to share so others can join in, feel encouraged to start their own projects or at least hear the stories of those who are suffering. I believe all of us want to help and make a difference. And I believe we all can do more together.
If you’ve always wanted to do something to make someone’s life better, don’t overthink it. Just jump right in and figure it out as you go. And when you do, please do share your stories with me. It would make my heart sing. (: