I was stationed in a very small community of around 2000 residents about an hour and a half away from Phnom Penh. The bulk of the village rests around the periphery of a gorgeous wat (Buddhist temple) in the center of town.
The program that I volunteered with was unbelievable. My project site used to serve as an HIV/AIDS hospice for very ill children. Children would be sent there if orphaned for being HIV positive or if their parents were HIV positive and passed. At one point, only a few years ago, two or three children would die a week. This used to be an extremely somber setting. However, since Anti-Retroviral Drugs (ARVs) have become available for essentially all infected persons (about 2 years ago), the community has changed from one of despair to one of hope. Today, there are roughly 60 kids, ages ranging from about 3-18, living at the orphanage. About half of the kids are HIV positive while the other half are negative, yet have no family support. The director of the orphanage has done a phenomenal job in protecting these kids, giving them food, shelter, clothing, and most importantly, a life. What most people don’t realize is that ARV’s can potentially add 40 years to an infected life. I looked at pictures from the community a few years ago, and I saw decrepit children on the verge of death. Today, all of the kids look perfectly healthy. Aside from taking a multitude of drugs every morning and every evening, these kids lead normal lives. They go to school, they play with one another, they strive to be accepted as normal kids.
Life in the village was unbelievable. I tutored a few monks for an hour everyday (along with a couple of other local villagers) and could see improvements everyday, which was pretty cool. The temple in the town was beautiful. Every Saturday night, the village would host a 45 minute Buddhist ceremony, which was one of the coolest ceremonies I have ever witnessed. All of the village kids were in attendance and their chanting was amazing. It is hard to imagine 60 or so kids sitting still for over 30 minutes, but their patience was unreal. Embedded within the service was a 15 minute meditation period, and once again you didn’t hear a single peep from any of the kids. Meditation was a huge deal there, and Buddhists use it as a way of cleansing the mind. The Buddhist culture remains very fascinating to me.
There were some really unique kids that I worked with. All of the kids at the orphanage had a story pertaining to HIV. Many kids were HIV positive themselves, while others were orphaned after their parents passed away from the virus. One of the kids there, Pesei, was 18 years old and was a very good artist. He grew up in a wealthy family until his father went away on business, slept with an HIV positive prostitute, and contracted it himself. He then gave the virus to his wife and passed a few months later. Unable to support her daughter and son, Pesei’s mother sent him to the streets begging for money. Barely living on anything, Pesei, his mother, and his sister, Srey Lak, moved to the village. His mother passed a couple of years ago, and Pesei’s artwork reflects the relationship he had with her. I think that what I enjoyed most was spending time with the little kids. There was a group of about 6 little girls who enjoyed jumping all over me and having me spin them around in circles. They tired me out and were the reason why I slept so well at night.
It was difficult saying goodbye to everyone in the community. The head monk who I had been working with, Poohr, improved considerably with his English proficiency. The orphanage director approached me on the last day to tell me that the once very shy Poohr was openly speaking to him in English, something he had never done before. It was very nice to see that my efforts have had positive benefits on many of the village residents.