Dear friends and partners,
Its Christmas time again and the excitement is building. For Miriam and I the excitement is tenfold for after 5 more sleeps my journey with breast cancer will be over – well, not completely, but the intensive treatment of the cancer will be finished and we can go home. The prognosis looks good and the daunting process is no longer so daunting. We are so very thankful for that.
My staff is marking off the days on the calendar till we meet – now they are counting hours. I prefer the days, it sounds so much shorter than hours. Several bus loads will meet us at the airport and the celebrations will begin. Life is good.
While in Singapore I have met so very many of the volunteers who do so much for us. They touch my heart – I met a young lady of 9 raising money to build a school – every weekend she sells baked goods – sometime she gets tired but she doesn’t quit – I am touched by her dream. A seven year old gave me his birthday money to buy a pig for one our families, another child saved to buy two wells – two other children are writing and selling children’s books so that many other children in Cambodia can eat three meals a day -so many women here put in hours of their time to sell the products, and to raise funds. I enjoy the camaraderie amongst them; I am somewhat mystified by their passion yet thankful they have it. I am encouraged by volunteers from all our Foundations and the stories they share of what’s happening. It is like we have Christmas each and every day.
I talk with my staff each day – it’s our busy time of the year – every week at least 4 teams of volunteers arrive from all parts of the world to build houses – 318 houses in just the 7 weeks I have been gone – they send me pictures of three schools completed and three new ones started – they have dug 150 wells with 300 families doubling their income- they talk of our families being able to buy animals such as pigs and chickens, of new clothes and food for the little ones – they rejoice in the number of mums who are eating three times a day– meals that have more than just rice. It’s like we have Christmas each and every day.
There is a new gift beginning this Christmas – it is the gift of hope, of grace, of health to the women of Cambodia. It is not an easy gift, nor will it be an instant gift – but a gift that needs to begin and to strengthen and to grow. Nokor Tep Women’s Hospital is about one more step in the development process – one that will ease the pain and suffering of the poorest women in Cambodia for whom health care is almost nonexistent.
Christmas is about life and love and laughter – it is about the gift of grace – a gift underserved and unearned yet given freely. Each of you have made Christmas real each day of the year for so very many people in Cambodia. I thank my God for that gift.
On behalf of my staff and our families, we wish all of you a Merry Christmas not just for one day of the year but for every day of the year. May 2011 be a year of the blessings and joy you have given to so many.
Nov 24, 2011
It’s been a hard couple of days for all of us at Tabitha and for Cambodia at large. On Monday evening a stampede claimed the lives of 378 Cambodians and injured more than 700 people. The news left all of us bewildered and worried as we waited to find out news from all our staff and workers and families that we work with. Two of our staff lost young relatives from the countryside – both were young women, one 19 years of age and one 23 years of age. These young women, like so many young people in Cambodia travelled to Phnom Penh to celebrate the Water Festival.
For so many, it is the first time to come to the big city, to see so many new things like street lights, and shops full of wonders – they all came to see and feel the excitement of so many fellow Cambodians celebrating all together. For a long three days; they walk the streets of a magic kingdom – many clamor for the chance to see the King and the Prime Minister as they arrive each day to view the boat races – others crowd around the many free concerts put on in the city – all of them flow past the river and cheer on their favorite boats. The thrill of seeing so much food for sale in so very many venues – all of them count their money again and again before purchasing a treat here and a treat there – it is all so very good.
And yet this time it is all so very sad. Young people whose lives have been wiped out in the blink of an eye – whom will no longer dream of the big city and all its magic. Our hearts go out to all who lost a loved one – who mourn the loss of a young person – just beginning to live their lives – their dreams gone in the twinkling of an eye.
In this process of mourning, I have the privilege of meeting another young group of Cambodians – 9 young scholars here in Singapore on a scholarship at an International School here – UWCSEA. As we talked today of both the loss and fear – we also talked of their hopes and dreams. Several have come to Cambodia on house building trips. They have big dreams – dreams of getting an education that will allow them to return to Cambodia and help their country. They, too, have seen the lights and the shops full of food here – they talk of helping their own country – of relieving the suffering there.
While we talk, we are surrounded by an under 16 team of young Cambodia women here to play football against a number of local teams. My daughter Miriam is part of the group to help translate and to make the young women feel welcome. Young women full of dreams – who are bewildered by the bright lights and the new sights they have seen yet hopeful for the future. All of us are saddened by the loss of the dreams of those who died yet hopeful of the dreams yet to be fulfilled.
Cambodia is my adopted country – a country of sorrows yet a country of dreams. Once again I am reminded that life is so very precious – even more so when one is so young. I thank my God and all of you for allowing us the opportunity to grieve for the loss of so many and that you mourn with us. I thank my God and each of you for the privilege to live with the hope of so many others and the dreams yet to be lived.
Oct 26, 2010
This past week saw the flooding in Cambodia finally receding and highways open so that I could travel. A few weeks ago was the beginning of the new school year here in Cambodia. Like all things, education for the children is an education for all of us at Tabitha. When we started building schools in our communities several years ago, we were not aware of how few of our children actually attend school. For primary school children, about 20% attend at least two years of primary school – sometimes three in their lifetime – at secondary level this drops to less than 8%.
For me, it’s an awakening to another reality. I keep thinking what if I couldn’t read – something I take for granted – or I couldn’t do any math other than rudimentary forms – what would it be like if I didn’t know my name in letters – or I could never read what officials put out on in my community – simple directives like upcoming elections. What would life be really like?
Last week we traveled to a new school in Sen Jay that was just opened. The community had invited me to come and talk with them a year ago. The parents talked of how life had changed in their community with savings, wells and houses – and they now wanted a school for their children. I talked of how I expected all school age children to attend – regardless of school uniforms - I talked of how I expected the parents to support the teachers and their children in this process. Solemn promises were made and the process started. A donor was found and the 12 room school was built.
Getting to Sen Jay is always a bit of a travel nightmare – with the recent floods parts of the highway were still under water but we made it through – turning of the path towards the community we were met with mud – lots of it – and the end of the Tabitha vehicle. Last time I came the Tabitha vehicle was also stopped and we had traveled part of the way by caribao and the rest by rotor tiller and wagon. None was visible and I shuddered – walking is not my favorite pastime- walking in mud even less so- walking ten kilometers in heavy mud was not my idea of a good time. We were blessed this time as the commune chief had sent a 4 x 4 and driver and we slid and bounced our way to the school. It was worth every jolt.
Parents and children met us and we made a tour of the school. We had mandated that only 35 children should be allowed per classroom so that learning would be a bit easier. In Cambodia schools are used to the fullest capacity – two sets of students each day – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. I was bit dismayed to see 40 plus students in each room but what am I supposed to say. Last year only 20 kids attended school under one of Tabitha’s houses. I can read, write, do numbers and ever so much more – who am I to deny another child that opportunity.
We opened another school last week – in a village called Leap in Kompong Thom. Children there didn’t even know what a school was. For these children, school is a mystery and the squiggles they see on the blackboard something very alien. But they are excited – they like hearing about new things they have never heard of – simple things like letters and numbers – they are not yet used to holding a pencil or making the pencil do what it should. It’s very humbling to see a sixteen year old struggle to make sense out of it all.
This month – we are very blessed – we had 32,526 children attend school for the first time in their lives. I thank my God that this is so – I thank all of you for making it so. Happy reading to each of you.
Dear friends and partners,
This week is Pchum Ban Festival in Cambodia. Pchum Ban is equivalent to the Christian holiday of Christmas in significance for the people here. It is the time that Cambodians have to honor and remember their parents and grandparents who have passed away. There are very specific ceremonies that need to be completed in the 15 days prior to the actual Pchum Ban day itself. The belief is that people must honor their parents/grandparents by going to seven different pagodas and bringing gifts of food to the monks. On Pchum Ban day itself, everyone must bring a variety of cooked foods plus a variety of dry foods to the pagoda before 11 o’clock in the morning. At that time, all offerings must be completed and the monks sit down to eat.
The belief is that deceased parents sit down with the monks and eat the food as well. Why seven pagodas – basically, the parents are wandering souls and are looking to see if there children are honoring them – if they cannot find the offerings of their children, the souls of the parents become angry – and the children will suffer from nightmares and problems at home. A secondary problem is of course, the amount and variety of food a person brings. A small offering of just rice would not satisfy the hunger of the parents nor sustain them through out the year so pressure on families is immense.
For families in Tabitha programs, Pchum Ban becomes progressively easier as their incomes increase. When SokLee joined Tabitha 4 years ago, she lived in a small thatched home with her husband and seven children. During those years, we often talked with this family about getting a field well and using their land to better use. SokLee had lost all her family during the Khmer Rouge years – she met her husband who was also considered an orphan, the sole surviving member of his family. Over the 18 years of their marriage, bearing children was one of the few things they did well, sadly several of their babies died before they were a year old. When I would ask them, why they didn’t dare change their lives, SokLee would talk of being bad – she would re-iterate again and again, we are suffering because we are bad – I lost my family, my parents, my land, my right to go to school, my right to earn a living, my right to be a Buddhist because of the Khmer Rouge. My children die or are always sick. I have bad dreams – my parents come to me and ask me why I am so bad. I cannot think anymore. I cannot do anymore.
Their home was small and decrepit – her husband was often away trying to earn money from jobs on the border – their children would go to bed hungry. Malnutrition is a disease that weakens the body and tires the soul. Encouraging this family, like so many others takes hours of talking. Peuw, who is our project manager got increasingly frustrated with this family so last Pchum Ban, he took SokLee and her husband and 9 other family heads on a day trip to Tanong, - he did it by force – threatening dismissal from our programs unless they came and saw. In Tanong we have several hundred hectors of land under continuous use with vegetables and rice. Both groups met and talked and talked some more. They talked about being bad; they talked about being of no worth, of not being able to think anymore. They talked of the nightmares. Then our Tanong families talked about changes – about dreaming and thinking again – about working their land – about working together to make sure everyone did well. They talked about learning the markets and growing off season vegetables which results in more money for their crops. They talked about growing rice three times a year and never going hungry. The men talked of no longer needing to leave home to earn money for their families; they talked about the health of their children and the schools they are attending. They talked of the homes they have rebuilt and how good it all is. Then they talked about Pchum Ban, how the nightmares had gone and how their parents were at peace.
SokLee and her husband listened – and he did the unthinkable – he wanted a field well. It’s been 10 months since that field well was installed. The change is remarkable – this family grows mushrooms, and cucumbers’ and they make rice wine – their income has increased to $20 per day – each day. Unbelievable! But the biggest change is in them – SokLee and her husband laugh a lot – they are eager to have me come – they are eager to feed me good food, to show off their achievements, to brag about their children. They are eager to show me their neighbors and all that is going so well.
For so many of our families, Pchum Ban is no longer the feared holiday of the year. The nightmares are leaving, their parents are at peace. How good that is.
I thank my God, that I am so blessed and unafraid of life – I thank my God that all of you are a part of the healing of so many. May all our Pchum Bans be seasons of joy and thankfulness because of the peace we bring to others.
Dear friends and partners,
It’s been a remarkable week. Every so often I get to see the fruit of what I have done. Back in 1995, I and June Cunningham took over Cambodia House, an orphanage that had been abandoned by the person who established it. We had 32 children from under 1 to six years of age. As Tabitha was just beginning and Cambodia was still very unstable, we decided that running an orphanage was not what was best for the children and so we started a process of adoption. Over the next two years we placed all the children in adoptive families around the world.
In the ensuing years, many of the children and their families have returned to Cambodia for reunions and house building. It was good to watch these young people grow and mature. This summer marked another passage for these young people – they are either finishing high school or their first year at university. They came for a reunion – they came to house build.
In the past, a number of these young people would talk about their desire to return to their birth country and work with the people here. They knew firsthand about the poverty and the suffering of so many. As they would say to us as parents, this could have been us. This summer was no different except that they are now young adults with a vision in mind. Several are training to be teachers, architects, contractors, etc. Their adoptive siblings are also young adults who have caught the vision. What was clear was that house building was no longer enough. They wanted to continue impacting their birth country even while they were studying and developing skills. Over the past 6 months, these young people had done fund raising themselves and they had raised enough money for twenty houses. For them and their families it was fun and it was concrete. We talked about what they could do.
We talked about Theoun, one of our children, who had died in a tragic fire a year ago. We talked of his legacy, a school for impoverished children in Kompong Thom – a school that will be finished in August. They talked of their desire to also build a school. And so that is what they will do.
My daughter Miriam is part of this process. She came home so very emotional about the impact of this past week. Mum, these are my brothers and sisters, she said. That’s what we call each other – we are all Cambodian, we are all adopted. We all want to help our fellow Cambodians. And their families mum, these are also my family. We know each other, we understand each other, and we take care of each other. I wondered at her maturity. I want to be a doctor mum, or at least a nurse – then I too can come back and help.
As a parent, I often wonder if I am doing the right thing. As Cambodia House Chair I often wonder if I did the right thing. As founder and director of Tabitha I often wonder if we keep doing the right things– this week, I know it is right.
I thank my God for the privileged life He has granted to me. I thank Him for these young people and their families for being a part of their lives. I thank my God for Miriam and her life. I thank my God for each of you – for being a part of all of this – for these young people and their families are also yours. We are doing the right thing. How good that is!
Dear friends and partners,
It’s a bit of a hard newsletter this morning - I have been diagnosed with early stage breast cancer - prognosis is excellent - but the process is a bit daunting. What it all means is that over the next 3 months - my life will have its moments - it also means that the Tabitha staff are stepping up to the plate and carrying out all the work with renewed vigor - I do have excellent support from Dr Doug and Jude, Tabitha Australia and from AnLee and Valerie, Tabitha Singapore, my family in Canada and my doctor, Laura here. In short, I am very blessed with excellent medical care and support.
Miriam is going through it with me - has pointed out that she too has lumps in her breasts and her neck - I am happy she is verbalizing so much. What do I need from all of you - your prayers and positive vibes - and continuing support for Tabitha, my staff and all the great accomplishments they are doing. If you are on the teams coming this summer, bear with us - I may not be able to serve you personally as I would like but my staff will do what I am unable to do. I will keep you all apprised of the progress of this particular journey as it evolves.
In other news, Tabitha’s growth and strengthening of their families is truly amazing. As news continues to spread about field wells and the impact they have – more and more of our families are beginning to see a way out of their constant poverty – thank you all for making that possible.
As some of you may know, we have added the building of schools to our programs. The need for schools comes from communities who have progressed out of their deep poverty and are moving towards a more sustainable life. Their immediate needs of food, clothing, water are being met – and their attention starts to turn towards education for their children. This current program year, we are building and completing five schools. What a delight and honor that is.
I thank my God for each of you – without the extended Tabitha family – my personal problem would not be resolved so quickly – without each of you – our families that we work with – their problems would not be resolved either. Thank you for making that happen.
Dear friends and partners,
Happy Khmer New Years everyone. You know Khmer New Years is one of the big holidays here, a time when all Cambodians travel home to be with family and friends. A time when those who came before and have passed on our remembered and honored. It’s a time for festivities, eating and dancing and buying new clothes. Khmer New Years is a very important time of the year for all Cambodians.
For the families in our program, Khmer New Years is often a time of sadness and despair. Despite the expectations, many of our families are unable to buy new clothes, eat a variety of foods, welcome and visit with family members – and so they don’t join in with the festivities.
A week before Khmer New Years – our community development staff and I met. We talked about how things were going. I heard stories of families who had received field wells – these are wells that provide enough water for several hectares of land. The best account involved our families in Battambang and Pursat projects – families who had received wells and ponds over the past 6 months – they were earning up to $12.00 a day for their produce – unheard of for us – miracles for our families. Their Khmer New Years would be good.
Last week, the week after Khmer New Years we had visitors who wanted to see the impact of the field wells they had so generously donated. I too, wanted to see what was happening. So we went to Kandal province. As we were driving through the area, we saw sporadic fields of green rice and vegetables. They were from our field wells. We stopped and talked with 15 families who had received these wells. They were growing summer rice, green tomatoes, spring onions, etc. It was fun to chat with the families, their eyes spoke of their joy. The men folk were all present – proud to give us some of their produce – proud to show us what they had done.
As we turned to leave one of the women spoke. She said, “This is the first time, we had enough food to eat, enough money to buy clothes. For the first time, we could sing and dance with everyone – we could celebrate. But what is best is that, after all that celebrating, we still have food to eat, work to do and money to earn. Thank you for that.”
I felt so humbled by these people. They work so very hard and they have so little. They are grateful for the water you all so generously donate – yet it is they, who work so very hard – who struggle so very much. It is I who says thank you to each of our families for showing me what the human spirit is – to work with joy and thanksgiving – to be able to celebrate with song and dance and to be grateful for each blessing.
I came back from Khmer New years and my emails spoke of grade 1’s who had done chores, of Grade 5’s who had a jump a thon , of other Grade 5’s who did a walkathon, of a mum who had written a children’s book about “I hate Peas” and donated all the proceeds to Tabitha, about 28 other mums who came with a gift of more wells – and the stories continue. Because of all of you, so many more of our families will celebrate Khmer New Years.
For me, I celebrate each day because my God has sent each of you into our lives. And I am humbled because you give with joy and thanksgiving so that others can live with joy and thanksging. Life cannot get any better than this. Happy Khmer New Years everyone.
Dear friends and partners,
Every so often we have one of those moments in Tabitha. Yesterday, I had several of those moments. Srei and I traveled to Banteay Meanchaey to see the progress in the new areas. The visit was anticipated by Kameak, Long and Touk, our staff there. They had gone through several frustrating years of working with families who had been slow to respond – primarily because the areas were next to the Thai border and troubles kept flaring over the disputed temples. A sense of fear and insecurity kept the families away.
The new areas were far from the troubles and work had begun in September. We have learned that water is the quickest way to move people from poverty on the road to prosperity. We all knew that we had to convince people that they had to earn income from wells that we installed. The staff took it to heart and began installing wells soon after the program started.
Often the Tabitha staff mention how much they had to talk before people would begin to respond – Banteay Meanchaey was no exception. But there in lay their excitement. The talk had worked. We stopped at Khun’s home. He and the neighboring family had received a well. Khun was taller than the normal Khmer so it was rather a pleasure to look up at him while he talked. He proudly showed me a stand of corn he was growing. I was rather pleased as the corn stood taller than I. I admired his work and asked, so when will you harvest? He smiled and shrugged – I don’t know, said he – do you know? I was a bit perplexed and looked at the staff. No one looked my way; rather they were studiously looking at the ground.
What do you mean, you don’t know - asked I. Oh, said Khun I have never grown corn in my life. Srei found it hard to keep from giggling – no one has ever grown vegetables here –said she. I was bit dumbfounded. So how did he know what to do? Kameak gave a grin and said, we didn’t know either – we just told him to make the ground ready and then throw seeds on the ground – and it worked. Srei mentioned that she had told Khun to cut a few stalks so that each plant had a bit more space. Over my shoulder, other vegetables were growing in abundance – too many in too small a space but they were eating and selling from their small plot. As I was admiring the handiwork, Khun kept asking when his corn would be ready – too me, who also didn’t know – I guessed another month would do it. He left it at that.
We visited a number of families – each one growing small fields of vegetables – none of them knew the first thing about growing vegetables. All of them were learning things the hard way – through trial and error – and it worked. Lek with her husband and 3 sons had learned how to plant several varieties of vegetables. They were on their third cycle of growing food. Lek found carrying the water to the plants rather burdensome and she had devised a unique way of transferring water by garden hose from her well. She was being innovative out of need and desire. It was fun.
As we visited various families all learning new skills, I marveled at my staff. They had talked people into trying new ideas without understanding themselves the growing cycles of the various vegetables. They were so proud of their families, so proud of the progress. We talked of the innovation taking place and of other innovations that we could try to make this a bit easier for the families.
The families in our communities are desperately poor – their life style is fraught with hunger and despair – I look at the huts they live in, their meager possessions open to all who could see – I look at bodies, worn with hard labor and so little to show for it – I look at the staff and marvel at how hard they work – how much they must talk – to change just one life – and I marvel at how much change occurs simply because all of you and all of us – talk a lot about how to help without fully understanding the impact of what we say.
I marvel that my God talked to me about how to help – and I talked with all of you and all the staff – and how all of us talked with others so that people like Khun and Lek can look at me with shining eyes and ask me – when do you think I will be able to harvest the corn? Speaking of which, I must close now and look up the growth cycles of corn.
Thank you for standing and talking with us.