A Life-Changing Experience

“Can I have a dollar?” This is how Jamie Amelio – the founder of the Caring for Cambodia (CFC) – was approached by a skinny 8-year-old girl while she was visiting the magnificent Angkor Wat temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia. J. Amelio had traveled there as a tourist, with the intention of having a great time, but she could not help noticing how different that question was compared to the other numerous approaches received from local peddlers that same day; therefore, her reaction was to ask the little girl – Sri Lan – what she needed the dollar for. The girl answered in perfect English that she needed the dollar to go to school, and it was in that moment that J. Amelio understood that Sri Lan “was not asking [her] for a dollar, [but] she was asking [her] for hope.” (J. Amelio)

That same year, in 2003, Jamie Amelio founded Caring for Cambodia, a charitable organization with the goal of securing a better, brighter future for the children of Cambodia through education. Since that day CFC has built 21 schools and secured an education to thousands of children – children that would have otherwise found themselves alone, and in some cases even sold to dirty brothels.

I had the fortune to work with CFC as a volunteer myself, and travelled to many schools in Siem Reap during the course of three weeks, doing my best to help those incredible children. My role was to teach them English and help with the infrastructure of the schools (building the pavement, painting furniture…). It is hard for me to describe how wonderful this experience has been for me, so I will let some of my diary entries speak for me.

June 11th

“I have waited with excitement the whole year for this trip, and now finally I am here: Cambodia! I ultimately realized my destination when we took our last flight – a prop place – from Bangkok to Siem Reap. During the landing I looked out of the window, and the closer we got to the land, the more I distinguished wrecked houses and huts, immersed in a dry plain littered with tall, thirsty palms. That desolated landscape reminded me of many scenes from movies set in underdeveloped countries, where people live in poverty, in their houses made out of dirt and trash. However, this time it wasn’t a movie, but reality. And the thing that made me reflect the most was that it wasn’t my reality, but the one of someone else, born and forced to live in those conditions, without any option. Once I got off the airplane, I realized that the more I witnessed of this new culture, so different from mine, the more I developed a sense of awareness of the fact that I had come as a spectator of this reality, so surreal, but so tangible at the same time... I felt like in another dimension. Not that I didn’t know about the rampant poverty around the globe, but it’s just so true that witnessing things with our own eyes is completely different than hearing stories.

In the afternoon I visited with the rest of the group one of the Caring for Cambodia schools, the Aranh School. I didn’t expect it to be this big. It has students of all ages and I was surprised in seeing how sociable and curious they are. For these children, CFC schools represent a hope for a better future, not only for themselves, but for the country as a whole: it’s education the solid base for a new beginning.”

June 13th

“This morning we taught English to little kids in the Aranh School. The children are absolutely adorable, and their enthusiasm and curiosity made me understand what school is like for them: an opportunity for a brighter future, as opposed to how most western children unfortunately perceive school. A great flaw of western culture is in fact that we take everything for granted, as everything should be given to us. Because of this, we often forget the value of the things we have and forget what’s really important; seeing how well behaved and involved these children were in the classroom reminded me of the importance of education and of my luck of having had an excellent one.

In economics I’ve studied that one problem with the development of countries is the lack of paved, viable streets. With all of the problems a developing country might face, this one doesn’t seem like much of a priority, but only now I understand the barrier that this problem can represent. Every day, to reach the school, we have to go through a bumpy, unpaved road with the van; it takes us 30 minutes just to travel a few kilometers. The real problem appears when children are physically unable to reach the school because of the absence of roads. In fact, many of them cannot go to school because there is no road for them to travel on. Again, this is something that makes me realize how many things we take for granted, including streets.”

June 15th

“Another hot day in Siem Reap. This morning we had to wake up at 5am in order to serve breakfast to the students of a different school. Their breakfast consisted in a simple bowl of soup made with vegetable and beans. The children slowly ate their breakfast, and left in an orderly manner once they were done, one at the time. In the afternoon we returned to the Aranh school and spent some times with all the students, from high school to elementary. Now the children recognize me and know me by name. Seeing the children running towards me, pulling me, hugging me, laughing and playing gives me feelings that I cannot describe, because some things just need to be lived. The braver ones even give me cute kisses on my cheeks. Watching them in their innocence is a priceless sight. I hope I can give them at least half of what they are giving to me; the more I stay here, the more I want to help.

Today we also painted some desks and stools. At one point the kids arrived, along with their curious looks. I handed the brush to one of them, to let him play for a little while. With great surprise, all of the other children took a brush and started helping our group until there was nothing left to paint. They used their entire recess time to help us, but the most surprising thing was the way they did it: all of them were extra careful not to stain themselves or their friends with the paint, and their job didn’t look like the one of a kid playing around with brushes, but very well done instead. I noticed a great sense of collaboration among these children: their help is genuine, and they want nothing in return. I’ll miss them when I go back home, it’s going to be heartbreaking to leave without knowing what future reserves them. In Cambodia it’s hard to imagine a brilliant future for someone even if they went to school… but we are here to give hope!”

June 16th

“This morning, during the small breaks in between classes, we played with the children, and I kept receiving small bouquets of flowers they picked from the fields. It’s incredible how a simple gesture like giving a flower is filled with love and spontaneity. What struck me most of these children is their generosity despite the little they have. They are extremely polite and respectful, and very clever too. It’s sad to see that this kind of behavior is rare among children where I live and normal here in Cambodia, and it’s even more sad to see that children here don’t have even half of the opportunities children in Europe have. Unfortunately it is impossible to transfer on paper the feelings these children are transferring me. Despite my attempts I’ll never be able to fully convey the idea of what the kids are giving to me. Emotions are so intangible that there is no other way to know them besides feeling them, and to do so, one must live and experience what I’m experiencing here.”

I wanted to be part of the Caring for Cambodia project because I wanted to make a change, I wanted to help change the lives of as many children as I could, but in the end… who changed the life of whom?

Make a change and let yourself change: volunteer! http://caringforcambodia.org/

Monica Landoni

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