“I saw a hand outstretched toward me...”

The two hours I spent under a thatched-roof bamboo cabana in Battambang, Cambodia after church this Sunday will remain with me to my last day as a priceless treasure. And not that I have any sort of death wish, nor have I been experiencing an unusually high number of fatal premonitions, but yeah. I could die now, having seen and accomplished more than any dude from Columbus, Ohio has a right to expect.

With my friend Dylan along for the ride to listen in and take photos, I met with Sengyou, the father of our Battambang 1 Children’s Home, his daughter Chhem and Chhem’s husband and baby girl. I’ve known Chhem since she was about 13 years old when, in 2004, she came to Asia’s Hope with her older sister, Samneang. Their father had abandoned them and their mother struggled with debilitating substance abuse. 

When she was a child, I only knew Chhem’s story from her biographical file and from what our staff had told me throughout the years. On Sunday, I heard it from her own mouth. There are some parts too sensitive to share, but I wanted give you just enough to understand what it meant to Chhem to be adopted into the Asia’s Hope family when she was the age of my daughter, Xiudan.

 “When my dad left us, I hated my life. I wanted to die.”

“How would I live? What would I eat? Who would protect me? My mom could not care for us because of her addiction. She didn’t provide anything at all for us. We were always hungry. We had to look after our mom, our grandmom and ourselves. At school, the other kids bullied me and called me bad names; they said I am an orphan and no one loves me. The teachers didn’t care because they knew the children were right.”

“At night, I would cry for hours because I was worried about my future.  I hated myself and I was terrified. I did not know Jesus yet, but I prayed to ‘god’ to help me. And then I began to have the same dream again and again.”

 “I saw a hand outstretched toward me. I felt it pick me up and hold me in its palm. A voice told me, ‘Don’t worry — I am holding you. Come with me.’ And after that I could fall asleep in peace. Not long after, we heard that a man had come to see us. He said, ‘We have a home for children whose parents can’t care for them. Your grandmother recommended we come and see you. Would you like to come? It’s your decision.’ Immediately I knew that this was the help promised by the voice I had heard.”

“When I met daddy, I was so happy. His face was so kind. And mommy was so nice. And the food at my new home was delicious. When I returned to school, I was so proud. When the kids picked on me, I stood up tall and said, ‘No! I am not an orphan. That is my daddy. You saw him bring me to school. I have a nice house and a mom too. You can’t talk like that to me.’

“Throughout my life, daddy and mommy have given me everything I need. Daddy guides me and taught me how to make good decisions. He and mommy have their own birth children, but I have never felt like I am second place. He really is my daddy and I really am his daughter. Every time I can, I come home to Battambang 1 and I walk with my daddy and mommy. They give me advice, they tell me encouragements. I try to encourage my younger brothers and sisters and I tell them, ‘You have to work hard. If you do, you can succeed like me.’” 

“All through my life, people have tried to tell me I’m too young, my skin is too dark, I don’t have enough experience, I don’t have the right kind of family. But my life experience has given me the skills I need to succeed in every situation. Even at my current job at a local school, I have gotten promotions faster than everyone else. At first my co-workers were angry and resented me. But now that I am leaving to work for Asia’s Hope, they beg me to stay. My boss has asked, ‘Don’t you get paid enough money? You have your own house now. You are a team leader. What can I do to make you stay?’ But I know that the hand of God has guided me my whole life and that this is his will.” 

In April, Chhem and Da will be moving their little family across the country to Phnom Penh where they will take a leadership role on our Prek Eng campus. I’ll share more later about the specifics of their role, but we’re still moving around some pieces and parts to effect the transition. 

Guys, this woman is strong. She’s confident. She, like so many other Asia’s Hope graduates, is ready to lead. As she spoke, tears ran down my face and my heart beat almost visibly through my church. I may have actually swooned. I am so proud. I am so thankful. I am beyond confident that the next generation of leaders at Asia’s Hope will be even better than the current one — and that is saying a lot. 

Please pray for Chhem and Da. Her narrative arc: tragedy > rescue > redemption > leadership is extraordinary. But it’s not unique, at least not at Asia’s Hope. I can point to dozens of young people in our care who are on the same path. God is doing something amazing here. He’s taking the lowest, most despised members of society — kids at the highest risk of being sexually and economically exploited of any demographic in the world — and he’s revoking their status as orphans and transforming them into kings and queens. I get it. That sounds super melodramatic. But you just have to see it, to spend an hour or two with Chhem. You’ll get it then.

I hope to get Chhem’s story on video some day. You’d be forgiven for suspecting that I’ve been highly selective in my editing to make her words fit our strategic communications agenda. But you’d be wrong.  “This is my family” isn’t just a slogan. It’s something our kids know and feel to the depths of their being. It’s our promise, and it’s the hope that sustains and propels them. Thank you for making it possible. We have a lot of work left to do and we need your help. God bless you.

 

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Walking together to church on Sunday morning. 

 

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The worship team praying before the service. 

 

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The band was really rocking.  [photo credit: Dylan Menges]

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The kids prepared songs and choreography for the service. [photo credit: Dylan Menges] 

 

Sharing memories with Chhem and her family. [photo credit: Dylan Menges] 

Sharing memories with Chhem and her family. [photo credit: Dylan Menges] 

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Chhem remembers her dream. 

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Sengyou, Chhem’s dad (Battambang 1 home parent) listens happily as Chhem shares her story.

 

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Chhem’s family. 

With translating help from Samuth, I preached on Psalm 23: “God sees you. He takes care of you. He always has and he always will.” 

With translating help from Samuth, I preached on Psalm 23: “God sees you. He takes care of you. He always has and he always will.” 

Making time for the “big kids”

If you’re only following me here on the blog — and not on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter — you wouldn’t know that we’ve made it to Battambang. Actually, we’ve been here for a couple of days, and we’ll be leaving for Thailand early Monday morning.

The drive from Phnom Penh is getting faster and less dramatic each year. A decade and a half ago, we the roads were so bad that no one who could afford the $30 plane ticket would dare suffer the 14 hour overland ordeal. Now it takes about five hours by car, and given the pace of infrastructure expansion, I’d expect to be able to cover it in 3 hours before 2021. 

We’ve had a great time here, although I know I’m not going to have enough time to enjoy any kind of meaningful visit at all of our 13 homes. With so many kids to see and such limited capacity, we’re doing our best to encourage the staff, honor the teachers at our school and interact with the kids on a scattershot basis. 

Today we set aside the entire day to visit with our university students. This morning we toured the University of Management and Economics where 20 of our graduates attend. I dropped in on a number of classes and chatted for a few minutes with the school’s Vice President. I’m thankful for UME; they’ve given us preferred admission status and discounted tuition. According to the faculty there, our kids are uniformly polite, studious and ambitious. 

Fifteen years ago Battambang’s best students wanted to study in Phnom Penh or abroad. Today there are plenty of good colleges our kids can attend, and most choose to stay in town. With a university degree and a well-established network of Asia’s Hope friends, family and alumni, our grads face strong employment prospects in a country that is often acknowledged to face a drastic shortage of decent jobs. 

After spending a couple of hours at the university, we visited a local elementary school where two of our upperclassmen have already secured full-time administrative jobs. They’re so proud of their accomplishments and are already looking forward to being able to buy plots of land to build their future homes. 

Tonight we plan to hang out with the Battambang Student Center, home to more than 50 of our college kids. This is a special joy for me; the student center is sponsored by my own church, Central Vineyard. These kids have grown up alongside my own boys, Chien and Pak. They’re sweet, sophisticated and sharp. They work so hard and are all the endorsement Asia’s Hope will ever need. As I’ve told them and our staff, I have no worries about the future of Asia’s Hope; our second generation is ready to lead.

If I really told you how much I admire them, you’d think I was just spinning for PR or fundraising purposes. But if you ask anyone who’s met them, they’ll tell you the same. 

[But speaking of money, if you are looking a 100% sure-bet investment in God’s Kingdom, we really need to talk. Our ranks of college students grow every year, and will for the foreseeable future. College here is cheap, but not when you’re buying it for a couple hundred kids at a time. Together, though, we absolutely will change the world. Hit me up, yo: john@asiashope.org]

 

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Eager Asia’s Hope scholars at Battambang, Cambodia’s University of Management and Economics. 

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Dylan gets the shot. 

These Asia’s Hope grads are now not just great friends but proud co-workers. 

These Asia’s Hope grads are now not just great friends but proud co-workers. 

Aw. And they also like me! (Photo credit: Dylan Menges)

Aw. And they also like me! (Photo credit: Dylan Menges)

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Samuth, our Battambang 7 home dad is a graduate of UME and a mentor for all of our Battambang university students. (Photo credit: Dylan Menges)

John McCollumComment
More favor than I can comprehend

Sunday was, as I had expected, bursting at the seams with challenges and celebrations. And despite ending the day with a case of food poisoning (or flu? My intestines don’t know or care about the difference), the blessings far outweighed the pain. 

Once again, God had mercy on me and on the staff and kids of Asia’s Hope; I wasn’t prepared for my sermon, but God gave me words that seemed to hit the mark.  After church I presided over a sensitive meeting that could have gone very badly, but God gave all of the participants grace and peace.

After my meeting, we headed back from Prek Eng into Phnom Penh to meet Savorn and his family — Sony, Billy, Malvin (and Malvin’s girlfriend) — for Korean barbecue at the Aeon Mall, a shopping center so vast and upscale I still struggle with believing it exists in Phnom Penh. Savorn told us that a group of young adults who had grown up at our Prek Eng 1 home and had since finished university and entered the workforce wanted to treat us to dinner. The place they chose was also at the Aeon Mall, so Dylan and I decided to park ourselves at a coffee shop and work on photos and blog posts rather than head back to hotel for a rest.

In retrospect, that may have been a mistake. By the end of the evening, I was a mess. Exhaustion, headache, repeated visits to the loo... you get the idea. I barely slept on Sunday night; between the fever and the nausea, I think I got three hours of sleep. 

But I’m so glad I didn’t miss the dinner with the PE1 graduates. Maybe it was the food poisoning kicking in; maybe it was the fact that I had eaten so much for lunch. Either way, I only picked at the food and spent most of the time just chatting with these young adults about where they had been, where they were now and where they saw themselves going. After dinner, the chats turned to intense, tear-filled interactions that left me feeling like the most blessed guy in the world, despite being completely unworthy of all the good things Asia’s Hope has brought to me over the last 16 years.

Bunnaroth, is now an official in the Ministry of the Interior. This young man just exudes confidence and competence. When I had introduced him to Dylan before dinner, I said, “Bunnaroth is going to be governor of a Cambodian province in ten years.” Without boasting, without a hint of irony, he said, “Actually, seven I think.” 

After dinner, he sat down in the chair next to me, put his arm around me, and leaned his head up against mine and expressed words of thanks so deeply personal I don’t think I could ever feel comfortable sharing them in a blog post. One by one, the kids came and and told me — quietly, privately, whispering in my ears — how Asia’s Hope had changed their lives, how they came from nothing, had no hope and no future. They expressed their deep appreciation for their Asia’s Hope homes and parents, and then they told me how they remembered my first visits, our first interactions — the games we played, their reactions to this crazy (and once young) American guy who showed up in their lives 15 years ago — and stayed.

These conversations were so precious, so intimate, I wouldn’t dare share them without permission, and even then only on a face-to-face basis. 

On Monday morning, I had planned to take Dylan to visit a local market, lunch in the city and then to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Still feeling a bit weak, I skipped breakfast and stayed in bed; Dylan grabbed a bite in our hotel. At about 11am, I decided I felt well enough to venture out and we hailed a tuk tuk and began our shopping excursion at the so-called Russian Market. Savorn called and said, “If you are free to visit some of the college students, meet them at Royal University of Phnom Penh in one hour; they have time to spend with you.” 

Well, if we were to make that timeframe, we would have to leave the market within 15 minutes. Dylan was wearing shorts, which would not be culturally appropriate for a visit to a university, so we cut short our souvenir buying and set out to find a pair of suitable trousers. Dylan found a pair of Kermit-green pants in something close to his size, tried them on sans-dressing room and negotiated a non-extortive price. Slacks on the legs, shorts in the bag, we found ourselves another taxi and got to the university with no time to spare. 

We were greeted by five smiling faces — all kids who had grown up at Asia’s Hope and are thriving in their studies. Architecture, International Relations and Business majors, these kids have not only overcome the odds, they’ve pinned those odds to the mat, hogtied them and posted them “return to sender.” For the next three or four hours, we walked around the campus with these guys, sipped smoothies and talked about the dreams they hold for their own lives and for their country. We laughed a lot and we took a bunch of pictures of campus buildings designed by world-famous Cambodian modernist architect Vann Molyvan, the progenitor of the brutalist New Khmer Architecture style.

Around 4pm we said goodbye to the students, some of whom had classes that evening. We rode down to the riverfront, and spent most of the evening editing photos over drinks and dinner. We walked around and took some photos of the city after sundown and headed back to our hotel exhausted.

I don’t need to get into the details, but this morning was no fun at all for me. We met our home parents for breakfast at a local restaurant, and about halfway through, I had to run to the boys’ room. I barely made it to the toilet before vomiting. I spent the rest of the morning at a local clinic and then in bed at the hotel. Ravy, the dad at our Prek Eng 4 home, took Dylan to the genocide museum and then out to lunch. By mid-afternoon, I felt strong enough to make the 45 minute drive to Prek Eng.  I was still a bit sick, but it would have taken something worse than a little food poisoning to keep me from spending one last evening with our staff and kids before heading out to Battambang.

Neither Dylan nor I felt hungry enough for dinner, so we’ve just arrived at our hotel and have settled for a couple handfuls of pistachios.  

Despite feeling like death-warmed-over, I will go to bed tonight satisfied, knowing that I am extraordinarily blessed, and incomprehensibly favored. If I can stay awake, I’ll finish this post with some pictures that loosely correspond to the text. Tomorrow we drive across the country to see our other kids and staff. May God keep my insides on the inside and the road free from water buffalo. Catch you on the other side of dawn. 

 

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Dinner with some of the Prek Eng 1 home university graduates. 

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Somany’s baby, one of a growing number of Asia’s Hope grandchildren.

 

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Some of our bright young students at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. 

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A few of the kids in front of the I Heart RUPP (Royal University of Phnom Penh) sign. 

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Beautiful albeit stark buildings designed by Vann Molyvan. 

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Feeding pigeons and koi at RUPP. (Photo credit: Dylan Menges) 

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Our students proudly showing us their classrooms and study haunts. 

 

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Dusk at the Foreign Correspondents Club. 

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Nighttime in Phnom Penh. 

 

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Students at the Asia’s Hope Primary School on our Prek Eng campus.

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32 new bikes for our six Prek Eng homes!

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Dylan gives one of the new bikes a whirl.  

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It was hard saying goodbye to the kids in Prek Eng, but it’s time to go to Battambang. 

John McCollumComment