The Cambodian spirit, a glimpse

A human development and family sciences major at Oregon State University, Molly will over the coming months assist Pathways with child sponsorship reporting, grant writing and other tasks that will benefit from her native English skills.

In September, Molly MacGraw arrived in Phnom Penh for a three-month, IE3 Global Internship with Pathways to Development – Holt’s partner organization in Cambodia.

A human development and family sciences major at Oregon State University, Molly will over the coming months assist Pathways with child sponsorship reporting, grant writing and other tasks that will benefit from her native English skills. In turn, she will have the opportunity to immerse herself in the work of a small nonprofit serving children and families overseas.

Here, Molly describes her first trip to Takeo province, a rural region where Pathways helps struggling families to care for their children. To learn more read Holt International’s Our work in Cambodia (pdf).

Getting There

This past weekend, I traveled to Takeo province for my first work trip with Pathways to Development. Takeo is a province 2-3-4 hours southwest of Phnom Penh and is among the poorest provinces in Cambodia.  (I say 2-3-4 hours of travel because depending on how you get there – bus, motorbike, van – transportation in Cambodia can be quite the challenge and you never know what you could get.)

A sponsored child waits to receive her backpack during Pathways’ annual school supply distribution.

There are several communes within Takeo made up of many villages, but Pathways focuses on and serves two communes. This work trip was important to me because it allowed me to see what my organization does and how they help and who they serve.  Now that I am back in the city, I have a much better understanding of what I can do to help after seeing the faces of those who need our assistance.

Starting off, I felt a bit nervous because I wasn’t sure what to expect.  A co-worker and I started our journey on Thursday afternoon, arriving in Takeo just before dinnertime. From the small town of Takeo, we took a Tuk Tuk through the muddy and unstable roads into the villages. The scenery was absolutely beautiful, with miles and miles of rice fields, palm trees, and a few hills in the distance. Once our little Tuk Tuk couldn’t slog through the muddy roads anymore – we gave the driver a big tip! – we decided to walk the rest of the way to our home-stay.

More children waiting for school supplies.

Seeing Pathways and Holt Services at Work in Takeo

We stayed with one of the outreach workers who has worked for Pathways to Development for years. As is common among Pathways’ outreach workers, she is native to the village in which she works. Outreach workers directly work with the families that Pathways and Holt serve in Cambodia. They teach English and catch-up classes, meet with the families and educate them on sanitation issues, and they stress the importance of staying together as a family. The workers also run the rice banks where Pathways distributes emergency rice among families, and several other community events. Overall, they look after the wellbeing of the sponsored children and their families.

Before I met the outreach worker with whom I would be staying in Takeo province, I learned of the hardships she has persevered through over the years, such as losing her husband, losing cows to theft, debt, etc. I felt tremendous respect for her as she walked over to me and bowed, and said hello with a smile.

Her house, like many others in the village, was a traditional Cambodian-style home, raised on stilts.  People in the villages sleep upstairs, and eat, cook and live downstairs along with the cows, chickens, and dogs. Once I got settled into where I would be sleeping, I joined everyone downstairs for dinner.  We sat cross-legged on a low standing table made of bamboo and shared a dinner of rice and some veggies.

The rice bank where Pathways outreach workers distribute rice to families.

For the next two days, I had the chance to observe activities at the community rice bank, visit families and children at their homes and hear their stories, visit the primary and secondary schools where children use the trees and fences as a playground, and visit and learn about the rice fields.

Visiting the families of the children who are in Holt’s sponsorship program gave me many feelings that are difficult to identify. I met parents who are HIV-positive and too weak to work; families struggling with large amounts of debt, their houses falling apart; and children grappling with the early death of their parents. However, every single person I met smiled and had an attitude that blew me away. The Cambodian spirit is defiantly strong and positive no matter where you go.

Most of the Takeo residents work the land in order to make a living.  Their living is largely based off of how much it rains and if they can harvest enough rice to last them the rest of the year. As the rainy season came late this year, many villagers are worried about feeding themselves and their families for the rest of the year.  Although the rice bank gives a small amount of security, Pathways is not able to help everyone — only those with the lowest income and in poorest health. I noticed the drastic difference between the people who have had a decent year with their crops, and those who have had a poor year. Most people were amazingly skinny and malnourished, to say the least.

The outreach worker’s home, where she provides English and catch-up classes for sponsored children.

Supporting Education, An Amazing Feeling

On the last day of my trip, Pathways to Development conducted their annual distribution of school materials to the children of the villages. This felt like a celebration with speeches from the commune chiefs, older children, and the Pathways executive director.   This was the highlight of the trip by far because of all the smiles and excitement the children exuded once they received their backpacks full of gifts! To be a small part of contributing to the thing that plays a large part in making our world go around – education – was an amazing and fulfilling feeling.

I was exposed to things I would have never expected and I do have to say that spending four days with the villagers was a huge mental challenge that taught me patience, a new concept of work and money, the importance of education, and again how lucky I am to have the privileges I do.

Although by the end of my trip I was ready to go back to the city, I found it hard to leave at the same time. I became close with my ‘host mom’ through smiles and hand gestures we used in an effort to communicate with each other.  I said my goodbye and walked to the van that would take me back to my comfortable apartment in the city. I looked back several times to wave to her as she stood at the end of her property, waving back.

The Road to Takeo.

Processing this experience and my interaction with my ‘host mom’ will take time, I suspect. In a few weeks, I will return to Takeo to gather more information about the families and children that Pathways and Holt support in this community. I am excited to go back, get to know the families, conduct interviews, and say hello to my ‘host mom’ once again.

Learn more about Holt’s history and current projects in Cambodia.

Sponsor a child in Cambodia or another country where Holt serves children and families.

This post originally appeared in The Cambodian Spirit, A Glimpse on the Holt International Blog