Let me start by saying that I am a Christian. I believe in motto’s I have learned at my non denominational church such as, “There is more to life than me” and “I am made for more”. I have received comments such as, “Are you just there to indoctrinate people?” and “Are you hoping to turn them all into Christians?” The simple answer is, no. This is simply my motivation. I believe that there is more to life than me and that I am made for more. I believe that it is my duty to help others when I have been given plenty. I also believe that I have a duty to love on others wherever they are at in life, regardless if their personal beliefs coincide with mine. I also have heard a quote that says, “It may not be who you are, but who you raise.” I have 4 children that I find to be remarkable individuals, maybe I’m biased. 🙂 I want to raise them to be people that are empathetic to others, giving of what they have been blessed with, and people who live a life of charity rather than a life of greed. So, we have set on a mission to teach our children about giving. I have also heard comments such as, “What can children do?” and “Don’t they just get in the way of what the adults are doing?” My children are now, 9-15. I have found, children can do a lot! They can help in the same ways as adults, and in times, ways that adults can’t. And, if they aren’t necessarily helpful in a situation, they can grow into our future adult helpers: if shown the need, if planted the seed of volunteerism, and if nurtured in the idea that there are others who are needing the very things we take for granted. Others have also asked, “Why don’t you just do local things?” We have and we do. We have done Feed the Starving Children, we have made homeless bags, and we have shown our children when we give money to help people in our community. They have in turn, given their own spending money to help others and been on local mission trips to reservations to help the local community. My daughter has sponsored a child from Food for the Hungry, with her own money. But, we want to show them more.
Trip One: We did a home build with an organization called 1 Mission. This is not a completely free opportunity, so I won’t spend a lot of time on it. It is similar to Habitat for Humanity. The families must spend 200 hours of service for a 1 bedroom home and 400 hours of service for a 2 bedroom. The organization is very much in helping the community. Those hours can be spent helping on another home build or teaching a class. Classes include things such as gardening, sewing, cooking, or jewelry making. These are all things that can help the community begin to be able to provide incomes for themselves. The homes are no longer weekend builds; they came up with a better, more sustainable design: that allows the home to be a better structure, have electricity and water connections, and become an actual asset that the family owns. My children spent 3 days shoveling dirt, sifting rocks, mixing concrete, hauling wood, and driving wheelbarrows. But, we wanted bigger.
I wanted to take our family out of our comfort zone. I also remember a service where the message was, “For it to be giving, it has to hurt.” If it doesn’t really affect your daily life, it’s not true giving. I went to church one day and we were told about an organization that collects shoes for homeless people. We were asked to leave our shoes at the door. 4,000 shoes were left and I’m sure Payless made a lot of money that day as people stopped to get new shoes to get home. 🙂 I will not lie, my husband went to an earlier service and called to warn me not to wear my favorite Harley boots. So, we all left our shoes and that financially hurt, and being Arizona in the summer, the walk to the car physically hurt. I wanted my family to give in a manner we hadn’t done before and get out of what made us comfortable.
Trip Two: I started researching and found that Southeast Asia is pretty cheap. Sorry, I’m a teacher and my husband works for the county, we were looking for cheap for a family of six. I had originally looked at IVHQ. Wow!! It is really expensive to volunteer your time. I finally found the group of “Volunteer Overseas for FREE” on Facebook. I was prepared to spend money, but I needed something affordable. I was contacted by a couple of people, but came upon one organization, Wat Opot Children’s Community. I was also part of another Facebook group that talks of the dangers of orphanages. I read it all and Wat Opot is not that! Concerns are that children are intentionally left in poor conditions because it makes a better picture for volunteers, orphanages make money off having volunteers, and the children are marketed off of or used for the organizations purposes. As a mother of 4 and an adopted child myself, I took these concerns seriously. I can not say enough, this is not Wat Opot. What I was able to find is an organization where the children are loved, cared for, schooled, future-oriented, and protected. The other part of Wat Opot is that the majority of children are affected by HIV. Wat Opot started as a hospice for people in Cambodia, with HIV, to die with respect. Eventually, medications became available and it became a place for the living, for the children. This is where I wanted to take my family! The cost is minimal, $200 for one month. This only covers the cost of food and housing. We were only planning on staying a little over a week. People asked what we would do. I had no idea. I knew that we weren’t going to meaningfully impact a community in that time. We focused on helping the volunteers who were actually there full-time and maybe giving them a bit of a break. We had no preconceived ideas. I talked my family into just going.
Day One: Cambodia is hot! It is about 90 degrees and about 90 percent humidity. Wat Opot shuts down from noon until 2. We arrived at noon for a full property tour with Wayne. This took awhile and my 9 year old daughter was crying about 45 minutes in. She wanted to go home. All of us would have moments where we just wanted to go home. There are a lot of bugs and as I climbed into my mosquito net for the first night, I wondered what I was doing here. All of us also had moments where we wanted to stay forever. All of the negative ideas about orphanages were shattered. These kids were not props, they were intentionally loved by Wayne and Melinda, a volunteer of 8 years. These kids were not left in poverty, they were schooled and financially helped after high school to attend trade schools and university. These children were not sad little pictures on a brochure, they were thriving kids who ran around and danced and laughed, a lot! There is a pool on the property and swimming with the kids made my daughter want to stay.
What will we do? We had no clue what we would do there. There is a large pool that Wayne spends 2 hours a day cleaning. My husband and sons took that over for him. They have a small preschool for the 5 children that don’t go to school, one with autism. Melinda wants to expand that to include community children. I am a teacher and I have spent time in an autistic preschool. We spent time looking over how that could work in their community and a daily schedule. We cleaned out the current preschool and rearranged furniture to make a community preschool work. We were able to keep the art room open for kids that wanted to come in and make jewelry. We spent 2 days painting a room that could be a new little girl’s room. We burned garbage. We played with the preschool kids. We hung out with older kids. I saw kids in Cambodia do the “floss”. We went to a zoo and chaperoned the littles. A lot of times, I think we just gave Wayne and Melinda, Americans they could talk to you when everyone they are typically surrounded by speaks Khmer. We talked, and we learned. We heard stories about the kids. We understand more about their lives and we have opened a place in our hearts for them. We have also learned more about volunteering. We learned that it means sacrifice to really give, but it is so worth it. We learned that we want to volunteer more and we are looking for our next adventure.
Here is what myself and my children had to say about the adventure, posted by Wat Opot.
This is how 13 year old Courtney described the experience, and it may be one of our favorite things anyone has ever written about life here.
Because of Wat Opot, I got mosquito bites.
Because of Wat Opot, I got a sunburn.
Because of Wat Opot, I sweated – lots.
Because of Wat Opot, I tried new food, experienced a different culture, saw toads and lizards and cows, met some amazing people, and had the best week of my life.
Here’s Alex, a very wise 11 with a very positive outlook:
Wat Opot was a life-changing experience. It was amazing to see how happy and kind everyone was. It was a blast playing with the kids who don’t have much, but are still really happy. It made me realize how much we take for granted and we don’t need. I love the community and environment. I love Wat Opot.
This is mother, Rosalyn, with her amazing 5 lessons learned:
5 Things I Learned at Wat Opot
- Every day is a good day.At the end of each day, as children gathered for meditation, Wayne would say, “Thank you for a good day,” and all of the kids would clap. I wondered if there was ever a day that clapping didn’t happen. Were there days when Wayne just skipped that part? I can’t imagine him saying, “Thank you for a good day yesterday, but today sucked.” When you are at Wat Opot, you realize that realize that every day is a good day. You spend the day in an accepting community, you go to a school that you might never have attended in the not so distant past, you have all meals hot and ready at the correct time, and you have people that care for you and love you. That is a good day.
- You should run around in your underwear if it rains.We are busy people. We have schedules, jobs, kid’s activities, calendars, and cell phone reminders. At Wat Opot, when it rains (and here, when it rains, it pours) life stops. The bigger kids run and dance in the rain, the little ones just strip down to underwear and run around. You realize that everything else can wait, what truly matters is what is happening in the moment. We miss so much of life while we wait for it to happen.
- You are more than your profile.There is a profile book at the volunteer dorm that I read every day. I kept going back to it as I would see a new face or hear a new name. A profile is really just a simple statement to distinguish between the children and give you a basic idea of each one. One profile reads, “X came to us from a Christian children’s home who didn’t want him to live there once they found out he was HIV. He has hearing problems.” What his profile doesn’t tell is that his smile is contagious, his laugh is wonderful, he makes amazing bracelets, and he’s really good at doing girl’s hair. In this world, we often judge people by their sketched profile instead of their hearts and who they really are. At Wat Opot, you meet the soul behind the picture.
- HIV is just three letters. At Wat Opot, there are children with HIV, and there are children who have lost family members due to HIV. At Wat Opot there are beautiful children who have been ostracized, banished, rejected, and experienced discrimination due to these three letters. At Wat Opot, none of this matters. These are just children with three letters that can’t hurt you with a hug, with a laugh, or by sharing a meal. They don’t need your fear or pity, but they appreciate your understanding, your compassion, your friendship, and your acceptance of them as normal kids.
- Bugs happen everywhere.At Wat Opot there are a lot of bugs! They freaked me out and I won’t lie, they made me want to leave before 24 hours were up. But here’s the thing, which of us is perfect? We all have “bugs” that make us a little less desirable; maybe we carry extra weight, maybe we could have a softer voice, maybe we could use smarter words, maybe we could have better manners, maybe we could be more well-read, or maybe we could have more wealth. These things are overshadowed by our intentions and deeds. I’m grateful to be judged by my heart and acts instead of my bugs.
Keri, age 9, had this to say
I had a lot of fun at Wat Opot. I made a ton of friends who kept being funny, nice, and great people. Because of Wat Opot Children’s Community, children are having better lives with tons of brothers and sisters. I missed everybody as I left and was sad to say goodbye. Thank you all for being so kind and letting us hang out with you.
And finally, here are the beautiful words of the eldest child, Jacob, age 14:
Wat Opot was an absolutely fantastic experience. To be completely honest, the first day or so there, I really didn’t enjoy it. It was hot and humid, and there were bugs everywhere. As my brother and I were setting up the mosquito net in our bedroom, I was thinking to myself, “I have no idea how I am going to survive eight days here.” But, as I later discovered those were only temporary roadblocks. On that second afternoon, the first time we went into the pool, I began to see past my original discomforts. I met some of the kids and began creating relationships with them and getting to know them. The food was good, the work was satisfying, and hanging out with my new Khmer friends began to make me really enjoy the stay. As the days went on, I began to really enjoy Wat Opot! I made great friends and ended up having a blast, I just had to get beyond my original roadblocks.