Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Lasting Impact of Five Kids

Wrote an article for the SM Observer on the chaperoning 5 Cambodian Kids for a week for the Cambodian Children's Fund.

The Lasting Impact of Five Kids:

Chaperoning the Cambodian Children’s Fund

Imagine you went to the moon.   And imagine that it wasn’t the scientific moon of today, but the moon of a hundreds years ago: a fantastical land full of abundance where every whim and desire that you ever had appeared before your very eyes, and land where anything was possible.  

Now imagine instead you grew up in Cambodia. A country that where between 1975 and 1979 one-quarter of the entire population, 2 million Cambodians, were killed in genocide.  A country with the highest under-five mortality rates in Southeast Asia (with 141 per 1,000 live births.  In America, by contrast, the number is 8 per 1,000).   A country where 45% of children suffer from malnutrition. A country where 38% of the population is under the age of 15.

Now imagine for two weeks in August you left Cambodia and went to the moon.  But instead of calling it the moon just call it the United States of America.    

A couple of weeks ago I had the honor of chaperoning five kids from Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF) around Southern California for a week (I was their English chaperone since they also had a Cambodian chaperone that came over with them).  Five kids who had some of the biggest, and humblest, hearts I’ve ever seen.   Five kids who equally marveled at the expansiveness of supermarket and the Pacific ocean (most were seeing the Pacific ocean, really any ocean for the first time).  Five kids who up until six years ago would have thought the chances of them going to Disneyland were pretty much the same as going to the moon. 

Now how these five kids came to America was mainly due to magic, the magic of opening your heart.  In 2003, then Hollywood executive, Scott Neeson first set foot in Cambodia.   On holiday from work, he was making the transition from being the president of 20th Century Fox International to an executive at Sony Pictures; Neeson was traveling through Southeast Asia on a five-week backpacking trip.   When he arrived in Phnom Penh (the capital of Cambodia) his intention was to travel to northern Cambodia to visit Angkor Wat (a Cambodia’s famous 12th century temple, considered to be one of the wonders of the world).  

Instead Neeson discovered teams of orphans and families living at Steung Mean Chey, the largest (and most toxic) trash dumps in Southeast Asia.  Eight football fields wide and 100 feet deep Steung Mean Chey is composed of trash and medical, industrial and human waste.   It is also home to 600-1200 families, to 2000-4000 children. 

From sunrise to sundown, these children would forage for scraps to sell in the hopes of earning enough money for food for themselves and their families.   All the while breathing in methane fumes and contracting illness such as HIV, Hepatitis, Respiratory problems, and skin diseases.   These twelve hour days usually resulted in somewhere around fifty cents, enough for a bowl of rice.

Neeson returned to Los Angeles, but not for long.  

In less than a year, he traded a booming career, a house, and a boat to make a safe haven for these kids to learn and live.  In June 2004, Cambodian Children’s Fund opened its doors.   In the beginning the boarding school revolved around the health and well being of 45 kids. Today they provide food, housing, quality education, medical/dental care and cultural enrichment to over 700 children in five centers.  Unlike many non-profits CCF believes that for optimal development and healing the children in their care must remain connected to their families and communities.   Thus along with the five schooling centers CCF runs a myriad of community services (a daycare, a vocational school, well-baby support, women's empowerment classes, and job readiness and placement) that offer the strongest safety net for the kid’s families. 

For the last three years five of CCF’s top students have attended Global Youth Leadership Summit hosted by the Anthony Robbins Foundation and then spend a week seeing the site of Southern California such as SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo, Disneyland, a taping of Modern Family on the 20th Century Fox lot, Griffith Park, and the Santa Monica Pier.   It was during this time I had the honor of chaperoning these five kids.   And everywhere we went magic seemed to happen.  

Everywhere we went we met people who had a connection to Cambodia (which truthfully up until this experience I couldn’t even point out really well on the map… and if you’re wondering it’s on the Indochina Peninsula boarded by Thailand to the northwest, Laos to the northeast and Vietnam to the east).  My absolute favorite story: after a ten hour day at Disneyland (which was by far the kid’s favorite experience… it’s good to know the love of Disneyland is truly a universal experience, although the need to buy overpriced souvenirs does not translate as well) we were waiting in line for the People mover that takes you to the parking garage.    Exhausted beyond believe I was totally zoning out when I noticed the kids were pointed to an All American looking guy standing behind us in line.  They kept pointing to the extent that I wondered if he was a pop star of some sort that the kids recognized but I was completely unhip to (pop stars are also a universal experience with Taylor Swift and Katy Perry being at the top of these kids list of favorite artists).   

All of a sudden one of the girls went over and began talking Khmer (the official language of Cambodia) to him.    Similar sounding to Thai, Khmer is like a verbal version of the old Atari game Pong on the highest level.  And to the astonishment of the CCF employees he started talking back.  It turns out it’s a small world after all (a joke that was repeated numerous times in the telling of this tale).   Having volunteered in Cambodia two years prior at CCF Mr. All American knew the kids by name.   And to top it all off he doesn’t even live California, he was on vacation with family from Utah.    If you start thinking about the odds they are astronomical, which is why I can only chalk it up to the magic. 

We sometimes forget it but we have so much magic in America; magic that comes in the form of opportunity.  For weeks after chaperoning all I could say is that I finally I realized how my problems, the things that I spend day in and day out bitching and moaning about, really weren’t that big.

A good amount of this country seems to forget these days how much we have.  I sometimes think that Americans feel it’s their job to talk about everything.  To talk, and talk, and talk about our problems while never really taking real action to change the world.  Happiness, like everything else is attainable, but to do so we need to reset priorities.   We need to understand that the conduit for happiness is gratitude.       

We don’t live in a land where the only way you’re going to learn how to read and write is if you bribe the teachers (which is the standard at most Cambodian public schools).  In Cambodia, elementary enrolment rates are high, but so many children repeat grades that it takes on average more than 10 years to complete primary school. Less than half of all students make it that far.

These kids, who previously spent 12 hours a day picking trash from a garbage dump for their dinner, will happily spend at least that many hours going to school.  These kids first attend Cambodian public school from seven till four, and then at English and Khmer cultural classes at CCF till ten or eleven at night.  And once these kids have graduated and gone to college what do they want to do with their lives?   Most of them want to help other people; most of them want to be doctors.  

These five kids hearts had a nuclear impact on each of us that interacted with them.   As the week progressed I noticed how the Americans just kept trying to give the kids more and more stuff.   “We have so much,” I heard over and over again, “please take some more.”

We live in a land where whatever you want to be you can be.  It just so happens that these days I get the feeling that what most people want to be are pessimists, people who complain about how “hard” their lives are.  And then you meet five kids whose lives are actually hard and they have some of the biggest hearts I’ve ever seen.  These kids had so little and yet they were constantly creating and giving.  Each of the four girls made an intricately braided bracelet for me.  At token that meant more than anything bought in a store ever would.  

I learned so much from these five kids.  Yes I learned about Cambodia and its culture, but more so about perspective. 

We have so much.    More than we could ever hope for, but only if we can open our eyes and see how much we can give.  For the biggest thing I learned is that the real magic comes when you open your heart.   

For more about the Cambodian Children’s Fund please go to:

Kat Thomas is a writer.   You can check more of her creations at and

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