Emotionally speaking, yesterday was probably our most exhausting day thus far. We spent the entire day saying goodbye to each child and staff members in our six Battambang orphan homes.
It's strange. When Asia's Hope was a much smaller organization, I felt a strong connection with every single child. At one point, I knew the name of almost all of our kids, and I could rattle off biographical details for most of them.
Now that we have more than 500 kids, I'm way past that. I don't even know all of our staff members by name. I know -- and feel close to -- all of our directors, but there are many, many people in our organization that I can place visually, but know very little beyond that.
When we had two or three orphan homes, three weeks was enough time to really dig in deep with all of our kids. Now that we have seventeen, three and a half months isn't nearly enough. That said, I feel a profound affection for all of our kids, and it's clear that it's mutual.
These kids are so loving, it would be difficult to not fall in love with each one. Still, there are some kids with whom I feel a much deeper bond. In some cases, it's for obvious reasons: I've known our first kids for 8 years. I know them by name, and I think of them on an almost daily basis. With some of the others, I'm not sure why I've connected with them, but I have. And leaving them is really quite painful.
My wife Kori, and each of my kids have made special friendships on this trip. My daughter Xiu Dan sleeps with the picture of one of the girls every night. I think she'll pray for her, well, forever.
So, when we were making our rounds, saying goodbye to each of the homes, there were some very emotional moments.
We arrived at the Battambang 2 home and spent an hour or so playing with the kids before announcing that it was time to say goodbye. I made a short, informal speech, encouraging the kids to study hard and listen to their parents; I promised that we would return as soon as possible, and assured them of our love and commitment to them.
As we rose to leave, a group of young girls who had latched quite tightly to Kori during our trip to Battambang, gathered around her to give her a hug.
One girl, Nisa, began to cry. Real tears. She threw her arms around Kori, and sobbed. Soon, the other girls by Kori's side began to cry, their chests heaving, tears soaking Kori's shirt. For about five minutes, Kori just stood there and held the girls.
Then the children by my side began to cry. Srey Rath, who was my constant companion on my visits to BB2, bit her lip, looked me in the eyes, and then looked away as tears swelled in her eyes and then rolled down her face. Then Srey Horn, the responsible little girl with the curious, serious smile started to quiver, trying and then failing to keep the tears from falling.
For a minute or two, I thought I was going to lose it completely (thankfully, I held it together until later in the evening). I wondered if we would actually be able to leave. After all, we had three more homes to visit that evening.
When we finally were able to pull ourselves and our vehicle from the kids, the gate, the driveway, we waved and until we were out of earshot and beyond sight. "We love you! We miss you! God bless you!" we called as we drove down the dusty road toward the main road leading out of Battambang.
I've spent some time today reading through these kids' stories.
Srey Horn? Her father was a soldier. He died of malaria. Her mother died of heart problems. As an orphaned child, Srey Horn worked every day in the fields, trying to scratch out the very barest of existences. She's still skinny today, but when she first came to Asia's Hope, she was a skeleton.
Nisa? The one with the dimples? She was one of nine children. Her father was disabled from an injury he received as a soldier. Her mother died of a heart attack. She too missed most of her early childhood, scavenging for small fish and crabs to sell at the market for a few pennies a day, never enough to provide the food or clothing she needed.
Srey Rath's father was an abusive drunk, who beat her mother so badly that she ran away, leaving her kids with a dad who could barely take care of himself, much less two hungry kids. She saw and experienced violence on a daily basis until her father abandoned her to live with a poor relative who could never provide sufficient food, clothing or medical care.
So I don't really know what those tears really represent -- what other pain is lurking behind the surface -- but I do know that these kids love us, and feel loved by us. And I know that when we go away, they hurt. I'm both flattered and heartbroken by their extravagant affection, and I take their tears with me wherever I go.
I can -- and must -- leave. But I can never stay away. I'm already looking at my calendar to see when I can possibly make it back.
In a few days, we'll do this all over again. We never really said goodbye to the kids in Phnom Penh, because we knew we'd be returning before finishing our Cambodian adventure. I think I'll need a couple of days to prepare, and quite a few more to fully recover.