Yesterday I went by tuk tuk to Wat Opot Children’s Community to visit the staff and children and get another fix at one of the world’s most magical places. I will never know how, in a nation so impoverished and challenged, anyone was able to create a place with so few resources, rising from the misery of AIDS suffering and deaths which permeated Wat Opot in the early 2000s, but today seems infused with magical fairy dust. Sitting at around 50 children, amidst the throngs we met a couple of young men who grew up at Wat Opot and now work and live in Phnom Penh or elsewhere but who return “home” regularly.
One of Wat Opot’s main activities is working to return children to families as possible. This may mean giving widowed mothers time to re-establish themselves; helping with funds to fix grandparents’ shacks to make them safe; dedicating time and energy working to locate family of an orphaned child and assess if anyone is able to take over their care. Meanwhile, children find themselves in a safe, stimulating, structured, happy environment on a 1km-square piece of rural land scattered with various purpose-built buildings, such as a pre-school room, boy and girls’ dorms, volunteer dorm, large activity hall, kitchen, music room, art room, etc.
Various sponsors have involved themselves over many years in funding different areas of Wat Opot. Most recently a Taiwanese philanthropic group provided funds for a fenced saltwater swimming pool which staff love and hope to use to offer swimming lessons to the whole village as a way of contributing to prevention of drownings. Anecdotally about two children per year die in this village alone, from drowning, in ponds, rice fields and the many hundreds of other water sources that saturate rural Cambodia, particularly in the rainy season. Within the past fortnight, amidst talk of drug dealing, police arrived at the local school. Three young boys ran out of the classroom with police in pursuit. All three jumped into a pond and when police arrived on the scene only one was caught. Some time later, their prisoner finally informed them that his two accomplices were in the pond. Both drowned.
UNICEF estimated in 2012 that each year 2,200 children drown in Cambodia, which translates to approximately six children per day, so about one child every four hours. However the limited surveillance system in place for counting these deaths means that in reality this number is probably much higher. These deaths are a direct result of poverty as children are left in the care of frail grandparents while parents leave home to search for work to feed their family; resources to protect children such as teaching swimming or health promotion such as Australia’s “Kids Alive, Do the Five” campaign are non-existent; and multiple other factors all directly resulting from the challenges that everyday Cambodians face with almost no structural supports in place.
Wat Opot rely on foreign volunteers for many of their activities. A returning volunteer has built new playground equipment over the past three years; the children have learned to play music on a piano, guitars and drums; they have painted and built sculptures which take pride of place on the grounds, all courtesy of visiting volunteers with musical and artistic skills. Most recently there have been no long term volunteers meaning that a tiny number of permanent staff, responsible for the community’s everyday operations such as meals, hygiene, school attendance, homework, pre-school activities and bed time routines, have no assistance and the children have no structured diversions. Volunteers skilled in art, music, teaching, sports and especially, swim teaching, would be welcomed with open arms. Anyone volunteering at Wat Opot has an exceptional experience, as evidence of returning volunteers who come to know the children over many years and who continue to stay in touch and contribute in various ways, demonstrates.
As often happens when I visit Wat Opot, criticisms of orphanages and voluntourism, such prominent subjects today, was up for discussion. The children at Wat Opot and the village they belong to, benefit immeasurably from young volunteers offering from between two to twelve months of their time to this community. Children arriving into care with no English become bilingual at surprising speed when they are immersed in a community of Khmer speaking children who communicate in English with their American “father” (who founded Wat Opot as an AIDS hospice in 1999) and “mother” (who has lived here for over seven years), as well as with the volunteers who pass through regularly. Children separated from families for all sorts of reasons, such as parental death, neglect, abuse, family dysfunction, illness, economic instability as a few examples, do not only benefit from Wat Opot but many have survived because of Wat Opot. They then thrive thanks to the opportunities Wat Opot offers. Criticising all children’s homes or all volunteering activities is based on narrow minded thinking without viewing the bigger picture. Anyone with a desire to volunteer in a developing country should do their homework and ensure they are contributing in a responsible way. Wat Opot is an example of the opportunity to volunteer responsibly, contributing to a worthwhile cause.
We returned to Phnom Penh by 3pm and with my Khmer speaking friend it was an opportunity to visit “Boat Baby” who is now in Phnom Penh with his young parents. We rang the number that grandma provided when I visited her in Kampong Cham last week. Baby’s father spoke to my friend, suggesting we meet at the Bokor lights. This is the intersection where a political activist was assassinated in 2016. Tuk tuk met moto and followed him through the streets to a tiny little room with a single bed and a toilet in the corner, where Mum, Dad and baby are now living, across the road from Dad’s workplace, a tiny little restaurant squeezed between various other business endeavours on a busy street. He earns $160 per month, $60 of which goes to rent for their room. Mum and baby, both severely vision impaired, stay in the little room all day. Baby has no toys, relying solely on his mother for stimulation all day everyday. I put my state of shock down to being a first worlder experiencing the raw suffering of the third world, until my Khmer companion announced that “the couple with blind eyes made my heart broken”.
When I contacted my friend at Wat Opot to thank her for another great day, mentioning Blind Boat Baby, she promised to go through their baby toys and contribute something when I see her in town later in the week, also offering financial support as possible if we can find a way to improve their situation. Baby is due to travel to Siem Reap again next month, for follow up of his eyes. The hospital do not charge for their services but when you have $100 for three people per month, the bus trip, accommodation and time off work seem prohibitive. Yet another example of tiny help from “my” world making a big difference to this “other” world.
Below is a brief example of the work Wat Opot Children’s Community do, funded by the smell of an oily rag and often using the staff’s own savings when they see a need and cannot raise the funds to support it.
When the now-single mother of two children placed at Wat Opot had managed to develop a small endeavour with pigs and chickens, she was able to keep the deed for her tiny plot of land beside the river. The only thing keeping her from offering a safe home for her children now, was the “house” she was living in with her ailing mother. Wat Opot raised the funds to build a new home. Once it was constructed, the two children were able to return to their mother’s care with support for high school fees continuing to be offered by Wat Opot. Contrary to fashionable arguments of today, Wat Opot is an example of a residential home working to keep children with their families.