Director's Blog

You say goodbye, I say hello.

Our six hour trip from Battambang to Phnom Penh was mostly uneventful. I've gotten pretty good at conveying across the countryside kids and luggage in our van — a 12 passenger, 2 liter diesel that can't exceed 63 mph — dodging cows, kids, bikes, tractors and the occasional monk. All was well until we hit construction traffic about 30 minutes outside of Phnom Penh, where we blew a rear tire. Thankfully, our staff had prepared the car well, and within 45 minutes we had found the tools (under the front passenger seat, of course), dislodged the spare and changed it out for the badly flattened original.

We took only a few minutes to relax at our hotel before heading out to our Prek Eng campus about a half hour outside the city. More driving than I'd have preferred for one day, but my family's time in Cambodia was limited, and we wanted to get as many minutes with our staff and kids as possible. Exhausted from the day's transit, I unwisely left my camera at the hotel, and thus missed some really sweet times of fellowship, including a feast provided by our staff and enjoyed on the front porch of Prek Eng 1, Sopheng and Somary's Home.

The next day, we spent the entire afternoon and evening with the staff and kids, visiting each home, playing games and returning to Phnom Penh for dinner. And then on Tuesday, it was time for one last opportunity to see all of the kids and staff. After breakfast and lunch in the city, we headed to Prek Eng and enjoyed the kind of long, summer afternoon evening with friends and family that kids remember wistfully for the rest of their lives.

As the afternoon turned to evening and then to night, I knew we had to get our kids — especially the little one — back to the hotel and into bed. But it was hard. Although we'd visit the homes one more time the next day, many of the kids would be in school and that this was, for a lot of them, goodbye until next year.

Yesterday morning, we got up early and grabbed breakfast at a reliable favorite, The Feel Good Café. It's easily the best coffee in Phnom Penh, and it's run by Marc and Jose, two men whose business ethics I admire greatly. I could write a whole post on them, and might do that later. At any rate, after a filing breakfast, we headed out to Prek Eng. A surprising number of kids were home from school — I wonder if some of them were there specifically to see us off. 

After enjoying a delicious staff lunch at Prek Eng 6, Samnang and Son's home, we gathered all of the kids and staff together and spent the next 20 minutes mugging for the cameras, and hugging for the memories. It could have lasted for hours, but frankly, I hate long goodbyes. When I felt like we'd reached our threshold for sad adieus, I announced, "Okay, guys. Time to go." It took another 15 minutes to actually get into the car and exit the gates.

We were mostly quiet for the rest of the afternoon. We reached our hotel, finished packing the kids' and Kori's bags and unsuccessfully rested until about dinner time. Kori and I process these types of transitions differently. My instinct would be to spend the last few hours embracing, squeezing every drop of intimacy out of the day. Hers would be to sit quietly, perhaps even alone with her thoughts. We compromised by taking a nap. Occasionally a hand on a shoulder, a kiss on a cheek.

And then it was time.

We had to grab dinner first, and we decided on Sam Doo, a dim sum joint Pak had been bugging us to hit throughout the trip. After a preposterously difficult parking job, wherein we somehow jammed our mini-bus into a space more suitable for a Honda Civic, we plopped down quietly into the sticky white vinyl booths in the windowless first floor of the restaurant. 

The food was good. Actually, it was great. It was plentiful, too. In fact, there were dumplings left over, something that rarely happens when Dyson (I mean Pak) is in the room. For that, I partially fault my tendency to over-order when faced with a multitude of small plates. But none of us were exactly at peak appetite. 

After dinner, we drove to the airport. No real traffic, no delays. So we got there early. We were greeted by some of the kids and staff from Prek Eng 2, Narun and Sophal's house. And that was really nice. And then it was time for me to say my goodbyes. A little awkward with lots of people looking on, but I kissed my wife and daughter and hugged my son (sneaked a kiss on his cheek). 

And then there were a few tears. I hugged Xiu Dan, and I felt her shoulders heave as she buried her head in my chest. I kissed her head and told her, "I've really enjoyed traveling with you. We have memories that will last a lifetime. I will see you very soon. You can FaceTime me any time you want, day or night. I love you." And I gave my wife one last hug and kiss and then stepped back. The Asia's Hope kids stepped back too, and blew kisses as my family walked toward the security guard at the front door of the international departure lounge. And then they were gone.

I drove back to the hotel and turned on the TV. I turned it off immediately when I realized it was all U.S. election coverage — as if saying goodbye to my family isn't discouraging enough. I took a shower, read a chapter in a book and went to bed. I didn't really sleep soundly until I'd gotten the text from Kori confirming they'd reached Bangkok and had gotten checked into their transit hotel.

I woke up feeling okay. I have a few hours of solitude, wherein I plan to buy a pair of glasses, maybe look at some shoes (mine are not appropriately dressy for the meetings I have scheduled with officials later in the week) and get ready for a month of back-to-back (to back) visits from sponsoring churches and funding partners.

I am, to be honest, a bit melancholy this morning. But I've given myself until lunch to reflect on how much I miss my family. After lunch, I'll start getting excited for the arrival of the first team — one from The Chapel in Akron, joined by my dear friend and fellow board member, Ron Biddle. The Chapel sponsors our Prek Eng 1 and Battambang 6 homes, and they're underwriting support for our new school in Battambang, opening August 1! I can't wait to welcome Pastor Tim and his team, many of whom are visiting Asia's Hope for the very first time. 

Along with a contingent of staff and kids from Asia's Hope, I'll meet them at the airport around 10pm. The staff will drive them to the hotel, and I'll stay at the airport to welcome Sam and Rachel Cobb, owners of Real Wood Floors. Real Wood sponsors our school in India, and is expanding their production facilities in Cambodia. They'll join The Chapel team for the first few days, and we'll have a chance to compare notes about the kind of big, blue-sky thinking they're proposed for corporate involvement with Asia's Hope.

Even typing all that is lifting my spirits. I love this part of my job — showing off the accomplishments of our amazing staff and kids, boasting in God's power and love for his people, dreaming about changing the world with and for orphaned kids. I probably need a nap first, but I think I'm ready for this. Almost.

Thoughts on a fine summer evening in Cambodia

I remember one specific summer night as a child in Ohio at our friends, the Hoppers', farm. I can still smell the bonfire and taste the strawberry ice cream churned fresh on the clapboard porch. I remember playing hide-and-seek in the high grass, relishing the freedom to run and roam while the grownups chatted in the kitchen as the sun set at the stars stretched out across the night sky.

No, our lives weren't perfect. We didn't have much money; I felt perpetually misunderstood by my parents and alienated from my siblings. But on that night, everyone was happy. Everyone ate their fill. We all played nicely with each other, and for a few moments, I even felt like I belonged with the older, cooler kids.

I haven't thought about that evening for many years. But tonight, the memories flooded back as the blazing heat of the Battambang day slowly gave way to a balmy dusk. As we wandered around the campus this evening visiting each of our homes in turn, stopping for cookies at one, a game of corn hole at another, I felt a profound sense that, at this place, children are safe. They're loved. They're included.

Even among the teen boys — engaged in a mighty struggle against a local high school's soccer team — a spirit of camaraderie not conflict prevailed. Younger boys looked on admiringly as their big brothers settled the score with a shootout; girls of all ages cheered on their siblings and admired the lithe athleticism of the visitors who lost graciously before waving goodbye and riding off on their motorbikes, vowing good-naturedly to fight another day.

The lives of the kids at Asia's Hope aren't ideal. These kids were once orphans, after all. They've experienced loss and alienation that I can only imagine. They're here because there's no other safe place for them. Their extended family either can't or won't care for them. But tonight and in this place, they're building memories of security and acceptance that they can treasure for a lifetime.

This place is not entirely unique — there are many wonderful towns and families one can grow up in. But for the orphaned and vulnerable children of this world, this is an extraordinarily rare environment. Many children who have been permanently separated from their parents by death or abandonment live each day on the edge of absolute disaster. Of starvation. Of exploitation.

But it doesn't have to be that way. I'm sure of it. We can expand the work of Asia's Hope to include other children. More importantly, we can describe, disseminate and distribute our model to poor communities from Ukraine to Uganda, from the Burundi to Bangladesh. Will you help?  Please consider making a donation that will allow us provide high nurture, family-style care for even more of the millions of orphan kids who will go to sleep tonight without shelter, without food and without the loving home enjoyed by the children at Asia's Hope in Battambang.

God bless you.

Pu'erh and Pizza

Yesterday we got up and walked a couple of blocks to the Feel Good Cafe, purveyors of Cambodia's best cup of coffee. It's also a darn fine place for eggs, pancakes and other Western breakfast staples, and after about a month of Asian breakfasts, we decided to indulge.

We ran into the team from Central Vineyard Church and invited them to join us on a visit to the Q. N China Brand Tea Shop, one of our favorite stops when in Phnom Penh. Kori, my wife, doesn't drink coffee, doesn't really care about clothing, doesn't need any more Asian souvenirs and doesn't wear much jewelry. So I'm always more than happy to drop a few bucks on some high quality teas that would cost four times as much in the States or Europe.

After a delightful hour of sipping and selecting jasmine, fresh oolong, dried oolong and ancient pu'erh teas, we drove to a nearby branch of The Pizza Company and met 20 of our university students who have graduated from Asia's Hope in Prek Eng. Oh, how I love those kids.

These are bright, hardworking students. They put in hours of study that would horrify most American co-eds and they're involved in ministry at their church and with the kids at Asia's Hope. They're relentlessly positive — I spent two hours with them and despite some good-natured teasing among the kids, there was never a hint of snark or cynicism. They love their country despite its imperfections, and they're all committed to working for its good as lawyers, teachers, doctors, economists and entrepreneurs.

They are the first fruits of our ministry here in Cambodia, and are the living proof that residential orphan care is not only not intrinsically harmful to kids, but with the right leadership, proper funding and a family-centered model, can be absolutely transformative. 

After lunch, we headed out of the city, over the bridge and through the rapidly developing side streets that were just a few years ago nothing but rice fields and banana farms. Arriving at our Prek Eng campus after spending the previous hours with our university students, I was struck with the encouraging yet daunting prospect providing for the dozens of kids who will be joining their ranks in the next few years.

Upon returning to the city late in the evening, I spent a couple hours reflecting with some of the members of the CV team. "How are you going to pay for all of those scholarships?" "What can we do to help?" 

Good questions.

Thanks to the generosity of our church partners, we have a certain portion of our university fees already committed. But we need a lot more. It currently costs about $1,500 on average to fund a full scholarship for one of our 82 university students in Cambodia and Thailand. That includes tuition, books, fees, technology and underwrites a portion of transportation costs. 

That's not bad when you compare it to the cost in a Western country. But when you look into the not-to-distant future and see that we'll have more than 200 college students in less than 5 years, you see the size of the bills we're facing. And if you factor in anticipated cost increases and the fact that we'll soon have dozens of graduates in India, where university is considerably more expensive, you'll understand why we need to raise significantly more funds for our scholarship fund.

I wasn't planning on making a fundraising pitch, but it's hard for me to think about our university kids without thinking about these needs. So if you want to see these kids reach their full potential as their country's next generation of leaders, will you consider making a generous one-time or monthly investment in our scholarship fund? I can assure you that your money will play a vital role in changing communities and even entire countries.

Goals

We arrived in Cambodia yesterday morning, having spent an uncomfortable and mostly sleepless night in the Bangkok airport. After checking into our hotel, we decided to walk to a restaurant nearby where we ran into the team from Central Vineyard Church. Kori, Xiu Dan and I were too tired to visit the Prek Eng homes that afternoon, so we arranged for Pak to go out with them for the evening. Kori, Xiu Dan and I joined Pastor Savorn's family for dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Phnom Penh.

After the team returned from an afternoon and evening of fun with the kids of Prek Eng 2, they brought Pak back to our hotel, and Kori and I went out with a few of them to a cool rooftop lounge down the street. We relaxed and caught up on their trip, and on our recent doings in India. Conscious of our waning energy and a big day ahead, we all got into bed at a decent hour and got caught up on most of the sleep we'd lost over the past few days.

Jeremy Slagle, Deb Woods and Stacy Keyerleber joined Kori and me at a rooftop lounge just down the street. A cool breeze and some great views of the city.

This morning we enjoyed a wonderful church service with the kids and staff of Asia's Hope in Prek Eng, and then the staff took us out for a very Cambodian lunch in a cabana beside a lake. We had fried fish, roasted chicken and Khmer hot and sour beef soup. I've been coming to Cambodia for about 15 years — this is something like my 27th trip — and it always feels like a family reunion. 

After church I returned Kori and Xiu Dan to the hotel and I drove out to meet Pak and a bunch of the older boys. We rented a football field for a couple of hours and they boys worked up a good sweat. Such great kids. It's been a privilege to watch them grow alongside my own sons from little boys into young adult men. It was also a bit overwhelming realizing that almost all of them will be going to university in the next couple of years, and that we have a lot of fundraising to do to make that happen.

After a dinner with just my family, we dragged ourselves back to the hotel, where Xiu Dan is now sleeping, Kori is reading and Pak is chuckling over some web video. I've used all my energy putting these thoughts onto paper and editing these photos. Tomorrow is packed as well. Good times, I tell you. It's nice to be home.

Dal, baby.

If you've spent much time at all with me, you know that I love to cook. A perfect day for me usually involves a long bath, a good cup of coffee, a trip to an ethnic market, hours in the kitchen and a meal with friends.

Four outta five ain't bad. After procuring a stopper for the bathtub at our hotel, I took my first actual bath since leaving America three weeks ago. And while good coffee is impossible in this town, I settled for some delicious Darjeeling tea. 

Yesterday was a market day in town, so Pak and I walked down the hill from the Silver Oaks hotel through the crowded streets of Kalimpong with Sunil and Amber, Asia's Hope India directors, into the Himalayan hill station version of my hometown's North Market. 

Spices for sale in the Kalimpong market.

My staff here has been working hard under often-stressful conditions over this last year, and I wanted to make them a meal as a tangible expression of my appreciation. I wanted to do something "American," and ruled out pizza pretty early in the game — none of our kitchens have ovens. Hamburgers seemed trite, and so I opted for tacos. 

Indians and Mexicans alike love chilies, limes and cilantro, so I figured I could find most of the ingredients. I must admit I was a bit overwhelmed by the options offered in the countless spice stalls, green grocer carts and butcher stands. But at the end of the day, I had burdened my companions with satchels of spices, bags of vegetables and newspaper parcels of meat.

Meat.

We returned to the kitchen of our Kalimpong 1 Children's Home and began prep in earnest after dinner. Shambolic mise en place aside, I was able to get a dry rub on half of the meat and a wet marinade on the other half thanks to the effort of various kids, moms, dads and aunties. We whipped up a couple gallons of pico de gallo, sautéed some mirepoix and chopped up a few bowls full of cilantro, chillies and shallots — just in case. I built a savory pork bone broth and soaked a couple kilos of red beans for what would become what I told them was "Mexican dal" (dal being India's iconic and ubiquitous lentil stew).

Applying the wet marinade.

This morning, I arrived at KP1 shortly after finishing breakfast with my family, fired up the two-burner propane stove and started cooking the meal with the assistance of Punam and Radha, wives of Sunil and Amber. As noon rolled around, a couple dozen staff members, a relative or few and a handful of kids who had finished school for the day assembled to taste my approximation of authentic Mexican grub. I didn't have time, energy or ingredients to make tortillas, so we made do with chapatis. 

After demonstrating how to fill, roll and eat a taco, we prayed and dug in. To be honest, this wasn't a culinary masterpiece. Each dish was only about 70% as good as I had hoped. In my own kitchen, I know where everything is and how it all works. And when something doesn't taste right, I can reach into my own pantry and find whatever it takes to bring it into line. Today, I had only what I bought at the market and a few ingredients I didn't really know how to use.

But it was honestly one of the most satisfying meals I've made all year. All present expressed sincere appreciation of my efforts and curiosity of my methods. And though I suspect some of them merely feigned enjoyment of the actual food, everyone understood that I was doing it to serve them, to thank them. 

The rest of my day wasn't nearly as exciting — meetings with lawyers and a few hours of research. But I'll go to bed happy, knowing that I've enjoyed something wholesome and meaningful. May God bless my family, here and at home. Good night.

"So many stories of where I've been..."

As our plane took off from Kolkata for the short flight to Siliguri, I put on my headphones, cranked the volume all the way up and played a song that, for whatever reason, is always the first one on my playlist for this portion of the trip: The Story by Brandi Carlisle. 

A chill ran across my shoulders as the guitar intro rolled.

"All of these lines across my face tell you the story of who I am. So many stories of where I've been and how got to where I am."

And as the second verse hit its stride, "I climbed across the mountain tops, swam all across the ocean blue..." waves of emotion swept over me. "I crossed all the lines and I broke all the rules, but baby I broke them all for you." I buried my head in my hands and bit my lip.

The second song on my playlist, "Set Me Free" — an old Vineyard worship tune — was one of only two songs (the other was "Break Every Chain" by Will Reagan) I could bear to listen to as I was enduring a particularly dark three-week period almost exactly a year ago.

"Fall on me, every so gently. Washing, washing my filthy stains. Shower me with your love. Breath on, breath on these dry bones. And break these chains and set me free."

As the song rolled into the chorus, I came undone. And although I didn't cry as hard — or for as long — as I did last June, it felt as if something broke loose inside me. And if I hadn't been on an airplane where my histrionics were likely to cause distress in my other passengers and the flight crew, I probably would have crawled into a fetal position and sobbed. And those who know me well probably know that I'm not especially lachrymose. 

So why all of this emotion? Well, I can't really go into all of the details in this forum, but my return to India was not a foregone conclusion as of this time last year. And this year, we had some concerns about our visas that caused us to wonder if we would be entering the country or returning to Thailand to activate "Plan B." Or "Plan C," if you're really counting. Even now, as I lie securely in my bed in Kalimpong, this visit is freighted with all kinds of intense feelings.

We drove up to Kalimpong from Siliguri this morning and arrived by lunchtime. Despite heavy rains in the early morning, we didn't encounter any landslides or washed out roads. The trip was relatively uneventful; the only delay was caused by a very slow moving train blocking our path about a half hour outside of Siliguri.

After enjoying a room service lunch and a brief nap, we headed out to visit each of our five homes (a sixth one is on the way; the kids are living among the other homes while we iron out funding to rent a house of their own). I surprised myself at how many of the kids names I remembered — I'd guess at least half of them. Considering that we now have more than 800 kids across Asia's Hope, that's not too shabby. 

Although I time was short at each place, it was a pretty joyful reunion. We finished the evening with a dinner at Home 1. I got some tips that should improve my chapati making, and I promised to make lunch for the staff later in the week. I'm thinking tacos. 

By the time we got to the last two homes, it was already getting dark, so I didn't get many pictures. But as I told the kids, I'll be here for a while. 

Tomorrow is church. I look forward to worshipping with these dear families tomorrow. And I hope I hold it together; I'm not sure the kids would understand 'why is John Uncle a blubbering wreck.' Tonight I'm thankful to the staff of Asia's Hope India and to those who work so hard to support these amazing families: Lake Forest Church in North Carolina, Transform Construction, Narrow Road Church, Scarlet City Church, Sacred Space Church, Vista Church and Life Church in Ohio and Real Wood Floors in Missouri. You guys — along with the many people who contribute to Asia's Hope — are my heroes, and are a blessing to me and my family.

Jaimashi! (Jesus wins).

"Every nation, tribe, people and language"

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” — Revelation 7:9–10

Inaugurated eschatology is the belief in Christian theology that the end times were inaugurated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and thus there are both "already" and "not yet" aspects to the Kingdom of God.

I'm no expert eschatologist, but I know that my family experienced some of the "already" this weekend in Doi Saket. I'm grateful that some of you were able to join us via Facebook Live. 

Among our staff and kids, we have seven distinct tribal groups represented at Asia's Hope Thailand: Lisu, Lahu, Hmong, Akha, Shan, Po Karen and Sgkaw Karen. And although they live together as brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, they still recognize and celebrate their unique ethnic heritage. 

At church on Sunday, most of the kids wore clothes that represent their tribal identity. And as our truly multi-ethnic congregation lifted its voice in worship, we got to experience a little bit of God's kingdom now. May God bless all of our churches with more diversity and unity!

Pictures > words

I've been so busy over the last couple of days I haven't really had time to write. Well, I've started two or three posts and abandoned them quarter-finished, thwarted alternately by overwhelming fatigue and a manic inclination to cover all of my thoughts about the last 15 years of ministry. So tonight, I'm going to let the pictures speak for me and leave the writing for another day.

An evening at Doi Saket 1...

Morning at and around the Heavenly Rest Guest House in Doi Saket...

Strategy session and lunch with Asia's Hope Thailand leadership team…

Afternoon with Doi Saket 3 and Doi Saket 4...

January 31: Asia's Hope Battambang Secondary School dedication

Well, once again the staff of Asia's Hope Cambodia has beat me to the punch. After yesterday's marathon of activities, I returned to my hotel room to find that Savorn and the home parents had already uploaded hundreds of photos of the school dedication service before I'd even taken the memory card out of my camera.

I was determined to get the majority of the day's 750+ photos edited, but in the end, I was too pooped to pop. So I'm doing my darndest to get back on track, but it's already 9:30 a.m., and I'm barely half way through. 

To be fair, however, I'm pretty darn exhausted. My pedometer says that I walked about 4 miles yesterday. But about 3 of those miles came in the form of dancing at last night's afterparty. 

Church with friends and family at Asia's Hope Battambang.

Church with friends and family at Asia's Hope Battambang.

What a day it was. We started with a wonderful church service and ended with the school dedication, a feast — and the aforementioned dance party.

It was an honor to share the evening with my staff, my kids, guests from Crossroads Church, my dear friends John and Bobbi Campbell, and an impressive list of officials, dignitaries and leaders from around Cambodia. The governor of Battambang gave the keynote address, and took the seat of honor in front of the stage. 

P1310232.jpg

But at the risk of sounding corny, our most honored attendee was God himself. I know, it sounds like a cliche, something a pastor is supposed to say. But I felt his presence throughout the afternoon and evening. And he was smiling. He even graced us with a cool breeze and a big cloud that lingered over the hot Cambodian sun until dusk. And I felt his spirit move among us as we danced joyously under the stars. 

The governor of Battambang Province cuts the ribbon at the Asia's Hope secondary school dedication.

The governor of Battambang Province cuts the ribbon at the Asia's Hope secondary school dedication.

My speech at the event was pretty dry and formal, an update of Asia's Hope's programs, mostly for the benefit of the dignitaries in attendance. But a couple of people have asked me to post the text here. And although it's not the most engaging prose, it does speak powerfully to the mercies of God and the hard work of his people.

Good afternoon, your excellencies, local dignitaries, international and Cambodian guests. My name is John McCollum, and I am the Executive Director of Asia’s Hope International.
On behalf of myself, my staff and the board of Asia’s Hope, I want to thank the honorable Governor of the Province of Battambang and the District Governor for joining us today. I also thank the Police Commander, and the representatives of the Ministry of Education from Phnom Penh, the Department of Education from Battambang, the Department of Social Affairs from Battambang, the commune chief, the village chief, the commune police commander, and pastors from local and international churches. I welcome you all on this joyous occasion, the dedication of the Asia’s Hope secondary school.
Asia’s Hope is a Christian Non Governmental Organization with projects in Cambodia, Thailand and India. We are honored to enjoy warm and longstanding cooperation with the Government of the Kingdom of Cambodia. We first registered with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on October 12, 2006, with the Ministry of Social Affairs on June 27, 2007 and received our permit from the Ministry of Education on July 2, 2008.
At Asia’s Hope, we provide comprehensive family-style residential care for orphaned and abandoned children. In Cambodia, we operate 16 childrens homes — 6 in Phnom Penh and 10 in Battambang. At these homes, we work hard every day to provide for each child’s physical, intellectual, psychological, social and spiritual needs. More than that, we meet each child’s greatest need — to experience the love of a mother and father in the context of a safe and stable family. Our 78 Cambodian staff currently provide full-time care to 390 children — 212 girls and 178 boys.
Our elementary school in Phnom Penh offers a high-quality primary education to 195 students. We also offer various training and tutoring opportunities to our children in our homes and at our Battambang learning center. And we provide full university fees, expenses and tuition for 53 young scholars from Asia’s Hope Cambodia.
We have invested not only in the children living at Asia’s Hope, but in the local community as well. We have provided more than 3 tons of food — at a cost of more than 4 million riels — for needy families in surrounding towns and villages. We have also donated more than 4 million riels’ worth of assistance to children and families affected by HIV in and around Battambang. We have donated 2 computers and 1 printer to the office of the commune chief, and a printer to the Ministry of Social Affairs in Phnom Penh. And this year we gave gift boxes to 485 HIV-affected children across Cambodia.
And today, I’m pleased to announce the dedication of the beautiful building you see here, the Asia’s Hope Secondary School. At full capacity, this school will ensure a quality education for 250 7–12th grade students from Asia’s Hope Battambang and the surrounding community. This new facility will allow us to expand our existing English and computer classes and offer a wide range of training and educational enrichment opportunities.
With God’s help, in cooperation with local and national authorities and with the generous support of our international donors, we intend to provide the highest possible level of care to this generation of children and to future generations as well, providing every Asia’s Hope child with the skills and confidence they need to fulfill their dreams for themselves, their families and their country.
We believe that — despite the difficulties and disadvantages they have faced in life — the children you see here today will one day soon take their places among Cambodia’s emerging next generation of social, professional and intellectual leaders. They have the vision, the intelligence and the character. And now, thanks to your support of the Asia’s Hope Secondary School, they will also have the education they need to build a prosperous future for all Cambodians.
Thank you and may God bless you.

In the name of the Father

The last couple of days have been a blur, and it's only going to get blurrier... 

Tomorrow is The Big Day, the dedication of the Asia's Hope Secondary School in Battambang. We're hosting a variety of distinguished guests from Cambodia and abroad. 

Last night, Pastor Dave Vance from Crossroads Church (Mansfield, OH) arrived, joining a team from his church already in town. Dave's congregation sponsors our Battambang 3 and Battambang 7 homes, and it was a delight to witness his very first arrival.

I was playing games at home 3 when the team's van pulled into the driveway. The kids squealed in excitement, jumped up and ran to the vehicle. When Dave stepped out, he, Darlene and Greg — who had also arrived just yesterday — were swarmed with hugs. After a delicious homemade dinner, the kids and staff presented each visitor with a gift (even I got one!) and then we enjoyed more than an hour of singing, and dancing and sharing stories. 

Finally I whispered to team leader Jocelyn, "I think Dave is getting tired." Shortly thereafter, the party wrapped up with one more raucous tune, and all of us returned to the hotel — exhausted but thrilled to be part of the joyous occasion.

This morning, we got up bright and early and headed out with almost 200 people in a massive convoy to a mountain retreat about an hour and half outside of town. All of us filed down to the river and there, Dave, Savorn and I had the honor of baptizing 130 people in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit while our staff sang hymns in Khmer.

Of those baptized, forty five were from the towns and villages surrounding our Battambang homes — men, women and children who, through the witness of our staff and kids, have decided to follow Christ. 

What a blessing to be a part of such an amazing move of God here in Cambodia. The church here is small, but vibrant, and Asia's Hope is a  beacon of Jesus' mercy and kindness to the community at large, growing brighter by the day.

Tomorrow we celebrate the next stage of our investment in Cambodia's future. Keep us in your prayers, as some of us — myself included — are running low on energy, skirting sickness. Thank you for supporting this amazing work.

Road trips and reunions

Curtis West and I got up early yesterday morning and checked out of our room at the Queenwood Hotel. Curtis took his breakfast at the hotel restaurant, and I stepped next-door to the Feel Good coffee shop and ordered a flat white. My drink had just arrived when a white Asia's Hope van pulled up to the curb; out spilled Ravy, Savong, Narun, Samnang, Sopheng and Anh, all smiles and laughter. 

I love these guys, and it's clear that they love each other — and me.

I finished my coffee, paid the check, and we walked a block down the street to a bustling breakfast joint whose charm will, if discovered by the hordes of backpackers and sex tourists, be lost forever. As it stands, however, I'm the only white guy I've ever seen there, and I get confused glances and curious stares when I walk in.

We ordered a variety of Cambodian dishes — I had grilled pork over rice and a steamed Chinese-style bun — and each of us ate our fill. The final bill for all seven of us was less than $20; no one can accuse me of overspending my meal budget on this trip. Not yet, at least.

After breakfast, all of us hit the road and headed out toward Battambang. To everyone's relief, I declined driving duties to Narun, and settled for the privilege of picking the soundtrack for the first portion of the road trip. Before long, the conversation turned to our childhood in the 1970s and 80s.

While I was riding my bike to Lawson's to buy candy, my friends were marching barefoot and beleaguered through jungles toward labor camps. While I was competing with my classmates to see who could eat more Jello Pudding Pops in one sitting (my record was 17), my friends were literally starving, subsisting on a daily diet of two tablespoons of porridge, given twice a day. I pouted and slammed doors because my dad made me rake the lawn while my friends cried themselves to sleep at night, keening hopelessly for the parents they had lost to the murderous Khmer Rouge regime.

So, yeah. You can see why I let those guys lead story time.

About an hour outside of Phnom Penh, we found the little Cham village where Curtis will be teaching for the next few months and after some initial navigational difficulties, we dropped him off near enough to his actual destination that he was able to get himself the rest of the way there.

The rest of the ride was enjoyable but uneventful, and we arrived in Battambang mid-afternoon. Most of the dads from our Battambang homes were there to greet us at the hotel — what a blessing to serve with those men and their families. After a few minutes of hugs and greetings, they left me to freshen up, and to greet the folks from Crossroads Church (Mansfield, OH) who are in Cambodia to visit the homes they sponsor and to the school dedication on the 31st.

After an hour of rest, I headed out to our Battambang campus, which I haven't visited since before construction began on the school and athletic fields. 

My goodness.

Words can't really express how wonderful this place is. And, thanks to the unfortunate positioning of the sun directly behind the new building, neither can my pictures. But there will be lots of time for photography over the next few days, and I'm sure that I'll find some way of approximating the sensation of walking hand in hand with some of the world's sweetest kids across our sprawling campus toward our beautiful new school building. Just a few years ago, this was all farmland, home to more cows than kids. Today, it is positively teeming with life, filled to the brim with the smells of dinner and the sounds of children laughing, singing and playing.

Gone are the days when I can know every child's name. Heck, I'm about 50/50 in my guesses of which kids belong with which families. And while that represents something of a minor personal loss — I loved being able to connect with every single child on an individual basis — I watch the team from Crossroads interact with the homes they sponsor, and it's clear our these kids don't lack attention from their overseas aunts and uncles. 

So after a few hours of wandering from home to home (my pedometer says I walked 4.2 miles yesterday afternoon), I anchored myself in the courtyard between homes 4 and 5 and hosted a dozen or so rounds of "Simon Says" and "Guess The Leader." I then shared a delicious homemade meal with my staff under a thatched bamboo cabana and then headed back to my hotel, exhausted.

This morning I'm a bit under the weather, so I'm resting, writing and running errands. With any luck I'll get lunch and a nap and have enough energy for an afternoon with the kids and two days of celebration to follow.

My photography has slowed down as I've struggled to balance shooting pictures of kids with real, meaningful interactions. But here are a few. Enjoy. And thank you for your prayers, your love and your support.