One Way Ticket
Personal stories are hard to write, especially when you know you have really stepped away from the norm in a way that will leave people feeling one of two things. Reading this, I imagine, you will either feel confused, uncomfortable and distant from what I am about to share, or deeply inspired to take a big leap of faith in your own life and dream bigger than ever before. Although I would love you to feel the latter, I really do understand if you feel the former.
In 2009 I set off backpacking just for the fun of it. I was eager to explore new cultures, meet new people and perhaps learn more about myself by subjecting myself to a year of things outside of my comfort zone.
A few very happy months into travel I had been making an effort to be more open minded in every way. I felt increasingly aware that I had grown up in a spiritually frugal culture that is quicker to choose disbelief in the hope that science will later come up with the answer, over risking the exploration of a spiritual dimension to the world that I’m increasingly sure affects us all beyond measure.
A serendipitous U - turn
The morning I set off to explore Cambodia’s largest lake took a u-turn for the better; it led me to meeting the children that would change my life forever.
The original plan was to explore the lake by boat, but the setup didn’t have a good vibe, it seemed to be a bit of a tourist trap, so we u - turned and headed down a dirt road. As we meandered down, intrigued by the throws of local life on the lake, we felt drawn into a dirt yard. This dirt yard had a rusty metal shack that we later discover was the closest thing 24 very precious children had to a home.
We began to meet the smiling, love filled children that were trying to survive in this place. Their situation was beyond anything I could comprehend. We returned the following day with bags of of school supplies, rice and my friends Scottish shortbread. We had an afternoon of playing games with the children and with the help of our tuk tuk driver we learned a little more about the children’s situation.
With the help of the tuk tuk driver, we discovered that the young Cambodian couple living with the children had been doing everything they could to home and feed orphaned and abandoned children in the area. They couldn’t afford to feed them every day, but had done what they could to build them a shelter out of scraps of metal.
It was one of the most heartbreaking and heartwarming days of my life.
I had lost my way with God a little in my early twenties, well a lot actually. I was highly aware that I had grown up in country built on Christian values and tradition. I had convinced myself that the only reason I had ever believed in Jesus was because he was the one we get told about in the West. As a teenager I had been part of some amazing and enlightening Christian festivals and events where I was sure I had experienced the presence of God and indeed been deeply inspired to live my life in a more meaningful way. BUT, as I entered my twenties I wanted to try new things open my mind and experiment spiritually. A big part of travelling through Asia was to discover and better understand other religions, especially those based around Eastern philosophy.
This is why I was so shocked when I got back to my bamboo room.
I found myself praying to God, God as I had always pictured him, a loving father figure that actually took an interest my life. I had been surrounded by Buddhist temples, teachings and imagery for months, I was nowhere near any Christian festival ambiance, yet I felt overwhelmed by a love that I trust to be the feeling you get when you truly take time to sincerely draw close to God. My heart was racing, I couldn’t stop smiling and I knew something was changing. I felt an overwhelming sense that God was saying I had to come back to Cambodia.
I was so eager, I just wanted to stay, but the feeling that overwhelmed me was that I had to leave and return. I couldn’t see any reason to do it this way at the time, but the wisdom and reason became apparent over the following months.
I went through a season of giving up the job I had waiting for me in England, letting go of securities and possessions, letting go of a relationship and most difficult of all, hurting my family.
It is a hard thing for your loved ones to hear that you are taking a one way ticket to a developing country for an indefinite amount of time.
But, If you don’t start, how can it begin?
Giving my notice in at school I worked in, turned into been given 4 months work there, exactly as needed to save something to set off with. Knowing I was going to a corrupt country at the same time as feeling honoured and humbled that people were giving so lovingly, I decided to register the charity. Even though what I was doing was tiny by charity standards I wanted to do it right. The staff and students were incredibly supportive and together we were able to start some initial fundraising for the children in Cambodia. Many friends and family and even people I hardly knew gave very lovingly to the cause.
I went on an intense personal journey on the run up to leaving. I spent more time in prayer than I had at any other point in my life; I felt truly alive.
I could see both peoples kindness and God’s provision in everything, even down to a very unexpected situation that I still can’t fathom; I just know that my flight got paid for!
Alongside this, I also experienced a lot of heartbreak with my family, as I could see what I was doing was deeply scaring them, but I knew I had to go. Although many were encouraging, I also encountered a lot of doubters and haters, that did what they could to discourage and belittle what I hoped to do.
At times the doubts about never being able to pick up my life again as I knew it flicked through my mind. I had doubts about my safety, the thoughts of being alone and running out of things I needed, let alone actually being able to make a difference and be able to provide anything for the children I was going to help!
I didn’t even know for sure that the children would still be there, I had no way of contacting them; even messenger pigeon can’t go that far.
Every time a slither or ton of doubt and fear kicked in, all I had to do was pray and I knew God was with me and that every little thing would be ok.
Walking into Cambodia
The day came when I took that one way ticket. I actually flew into Bangkok to save money and took a bus to the border where I walked across with just my backpack and a large box of tools.
As I made my way overland through the Siem Reap province, my nerves did kick in a little. The thoughts of them not being there anymore, or something bad happening to them or maybe they just wouldn’t need me anymore flooded in.
As soon as it was light the following day I took a tuk tuk back to the area I remembered meeting them in.
They were still there.
The rusty shelter was worse
They barely had any food when I arrived.
The first thing to do was find a local market and buy some food for the children. Then, the small task of planning what and how on earth to give these children a home! Walking around the rundown village area gave me an idea of how locals built, which gave a starting point for a sketch.
With very little to go off we started digging foundation with coconut shells. Using string and sticks we worked out where 12 large logs could go to make sure the home would be high above the floods that what come in the wet season. As we dug the foundations, the children jumped in with joy and helped in any way they could.
My brother helped for a whole month, day in day out, through heat, dirt and madness, he was a huge part of building the children's first home. I was never alone; people would just turn up out of nowhere, not quite knowing how they found us, but often able to help in the most timely ways.
At the stage where we were about to negotiate the best way to strengthen this 12 pillar base to make it strong enough to hold the home up, a very kind retired construction engineer from Belgium arrived by bicycle and gave the advice we needed on the day we needed it. He then visited each day as we navigated building strength into the foundations and floor. Before long we had a beautiful doctor arrive; as soon as word got out, the villagers were lining up to see her!
Years down the line, we still have the right people turning up at the right time to love and serve those in desperate need.
On a day when we completely ran out of rice , someone walked in with a new 50kg bag.
As we needed to buy the children's first beds and mattresses, people helped at the perfect time.
As we needed help unloading a huge truck of wood, a load of Koreans turned up to help us.
The day I thought it would be good to start filming what was happening, someone just gave me a video camera.
As we needed to build the roof, another constructional engineer, this time time from America, arrived just in time to help us get it right.
So many incredible people came to care for, play with and support the teaching and learning for the children.
Many people who were there from the beginning still support to this day.
From the day I arrived, everything was provided exactly as and when need.
So what does this all look like 8 years later?
There are so many wonderful stories about seeing the children learn their first words of English and applicable bits of maths. I’ll never forget their faces when Pete first taught them some rather explosive Science.
The day we bought them a mattress was deeply moving. They ran with delight, almost toppling over with the size of the mattresses, to their new home, knowing they would all have the first comfortable nights sleep of their lives.
Been able to buy them toys to play with, fresh fruit each day and all their own first toothbrushes may not sound much, but you could see it turning them into happy healthy stronger children day by day.
They now eat 3 times a day, all go to government school in full uniform and receive regular lessons at the orphanage itself. They have play clothes and school bags, they are loved and have hope for the future.
I found a friend
Whilst living in Cambodia, Pete and I fell in love and got giddy about getting married. As soon as he could, he wrapped up his life in Malaysia and did everything he could to come and help the children in Cambodia. Shortly after we were married, we flew back to Malaysia, where wonderful friends donated books, toys and clothing for the children. Armed with a compass and a single A4 print off of South East Asia, we drove through Thailand into Cambodia, all the way back to the orphanage. This mighty little machine, scarcely the size of a Ford Fiesta, became affectionately known as Alan. This small but mighty car came to life and became well known by the children and many of the villagers we served. He seemed to run on goodwill and did more offroading than most 4x4 vehicles!
Oh, how it’s grown
The longer we spent in Cambodia and better understood how it worked, the more clear the urgency to home children became. Aside from the prevalent dangers of poverty leading to sickness and death; trafficking has become a growing threat. As Thailand has begun clamping down on trafficking, sadly it has pushed it over the border and further and further into Cambodia.
We became more motivated to ensure a secure long term living situation for those that were completely orphaned and where possible worked with families to keep children in family homes.
We began building homes in villages, a few classrooms and where we could, began providing daily soya bean milk for tiny tots to help them grow strong and fight the infant mortality rates. Every child should play, so with support of many amazing volunteers we were even able to build the children a playground when we moved to the new site.
We are now in a place where we can ensure the children we care for have everything they need for a healthy AND happy life. We are only a tiny charity, but because of that we can make sure 100% of what people give goes straight into directly homing, feeding, clothing and educating the children and families we work with. With huge thanks to the amazing locals we work with, we have been able to expand a little further and are able to build a few family homes each year in addition to ongoing work with the children’s home.
Over time, things have worked so well, we felt we could move away from living in Cambodia, but of course we visit as often as we can and still completely run all the behind the scenes bits of the charity.
Wherever I wander and whatever, I do, a huge part of my heart will always be with the children of Cambodia.
I could never have foreseen the good that came from taking that one way ticket. I became so focused on the lives that I had set out to change, that it wasn’t until years in, I realised how much it had impacted my own life too. It really has been a one way ticket to a fuller, more exciting life than I could have ever dreamt of.
A little faith can go a long way.