Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Cambodia 2012 - Maybe I Was Born to Work with Children After All...

One of the things we take for granted in the industrialized world is the abundance of food. Whenever we see fit, we can go to the grocery store or McDonald's and grab a bite to eat. If we are short on money, there are so many programs that help feed the hungry. We have food stamps. Homeless shelters. Soup kitchens. For the most part, we don't have to worry about being hungry.

That's why, when I volunteered at a local soup kitchen yesterday, I couldn't help but feel overwhelmed by how selfish and ungrateful I've been for all my life. We always say "just be grateful you have food on the table", but I don't think you can truly learn what that is until you see someone who eats only 4 times a week.

The kitchen I worked at was run by a guy named Gasol. Great guy. He's a 30 year old Cambodian who is working to open up his own restaurant, and 4 times a week he cooks lunch for the locals in town. Today, it was only myself, him, his mother, and another US lady, and we were feeding about 75 people. 

It's a remarkably simple process. They grab as many vegetables and eggs as they can get and cook a vegetarian soup, stir fry, and egg omelet for as many people come. There are no strings attached to come and eat here. If you are hungry, you can grab a meal.

Prep time took the majority of the morning, which mostly consisted of me getting scolded by Gasol's mom because I was cutting the pineapple too thick. We would cook on these propane cooking stoves that were clearly donated from abroad. Our cutlery was an assortment of mismatched knives, and we had some industrial-grade pots to cook the soup and stir fry in. Everything here was a product of aid from the Western world, all coming together to empower a local Cambodian to make a difference in his community.

Even still, I couldn't applaud charities for what they were doing. We spent a great deal of the morning talking about NGO's and the local humanitarian groups and the sheer mess they are creating in Cambodia. Many of the orphanages are exploiting their children for money. Aid is getting thrown at so many different things. Approximately 50% of the Cambodian budget is allotted for foreign aid.

What is happening is the Cambodians are learning to rely on the West to support them, all the while these foreign NGO's are profiting from the donations that you make through the television or wherever you donate. Basically, it's a business. A business meant on using money laced with good intentions for personal profit and gain. 

It's a game we had to deal with in Africa. In fact, the whole purpose of "Roots of Happiness" was to change that way of thinking. You can't blindly throw money at issues. You have to do something on your own. You also need to know where it's going and fully trust the organization that your money is going to. Better yet, go volunteer and see what they do! Make sure it's something you believe in.

This soup kitchen was one of those organizations that I believed in. They never asked me for money, just my time. And I reaped the rewards when the children would come up and, in their severely broken English, thank me as they stuffed their bellies with the one good meal they would have for the next 2 days. For ethical reasons, I decided to not take any pictures. This was for my own personal joy and happiness, and seeing those kids happy solidified in my heart why I love what I do.

After lunch, I sat with two young girls and helped them with their English homework. They must have been 8 or 9, very young and tiny. They would leave school to eat here because they didn't eat well. Their 1 uniform, which was what they wore all the time, was brown and dirty with days of soot. They each had one pen and one mechanical pencil, which was used over and over again with care and precision. 

They were dirty, but when they smiled I could tell that they weren't broken. They still had hope. I could tell just by the way they studied with me. They tried so hard, and when they would pronounce a word correctly and I would congratulate them, you could see their eyes light up and see that fire burning in their heart. I know they have such a hard road ahead of them, but I hope and pray for the best. I know that studying with them was better than any gift I could possibly give them. Even as I write this, I am tearing up a little. People spend a lifetime looking for that kind of beauty and joy, and I've been fortunate to be working with them for years now.

I'm going to volunteer again on Saturday, when we go to one of the outlying villages to bring the food to those who can't walk into town. Gasol told me of an older lady who can't buy food because she can't carry it, and many of the villagers don't have the money to help her. A bag of rice costs about $20, so I'm going to buy her some rice, sugar, flour, and maybe some cutlery. Apparently she's an amazing cook and can bake cookies. I might have her teach me some things ;)

Tonight I do ask you that, when you're having dinner, you please be thankful for everything that you do have. Don't just say it in your mind…feel it in your heart. You are lucky and blessed, and that spans whatever religion or belief you might have. Not everyone has the opportunity to see what I've seen, and my words can't do these moments justice. But I have to try. It's my job as a storyteller and adventurer.

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