Marie seemed surprisingly energetic for someone who had just traveled 19 hours. “Want to go shoot an AK-47?” I asked.
On the way to the airport my tuk-tuk driver had mentioned that the shooting range was near the airport and suggested we stop there on the way back. “I never see woman shoot AK-47,” the driver said. “Never see before.”
“That’s about to change,” I told him. “The only question will be whether or not she wants to shoot a rocket launcher too.” Marie’s birthday came and went while she was in the air (thanks to time zone differences it only lasted about 10 hours), and I felt pretty confident she would like the idea of kicking off a brand new year of her life by unleashing the full fury of the world’s most popular assault rifle on an unsuspecting coconut.
Our Phnom Penh hotel turned out to be an incongruously large Vegas-style entertainment complex that had a casino and dressed up its staff in the traditional costumes of ancient Cambodia. The front desk receptionist looked like an Asian Snow White. “What business are you with?” Snow White asked when we walked up. Umm… Prestige Worldwide? Kramerica?
Marie decided to power through her jetlag and immediately adjust to Cambodia time, so after checking into the hotel we headed out to look around, stopping first at Wat Phnom to see the no-longer-so-evil monkeys. It turns out the monkeys do still have a little evil left in them – one hissed and bared its fangs at Marie after I goaded her into approaching it for a photo. “Maybe I should have gotten the rabies vaccination,” said Marie.
An American named Drew McDowell responded to my e-mail. Drew said he’d been volunteering at the orphanage for four months, and he warned me that donations were being misused. Part of his e-mail read, “The operation is not entirely above board in my opinion (and many people’s opinion). I am deeply saddened that the kids are not better taken care of, and I feel that the resources do exist but the ‘staff’ is not making much happen.” Drew directed me to more reputable non-profits in Cambodia, and he started including me on a distribution list for periodic e-mails that described his own work.
Drew originally visited Cambodia as a tourist about five years ago. Like me, he was taken to an orphanage by a tuk-tuk driver, and it got under his skin. Before too long he made plans to return to Cambodia for an extended period of time. He didn’t know exactly what he was going to do; he just wanted to find a way to get involved. Initially he volunteered at the orphanage we had both visited, but the corruption was difficult to ignore. Then he heard that a nearby school was going to be shut down. He stepped in, along with a local teacher, and kept the school going.
Under the umbrella of the non-profit organization Village Earth, the project Drew eventually started – called Empowering Youth in Cambodia (EYC) – now operates three schools for disadvantaged children. Recently they’ve expanded their services to include medical care in addition to education, and, while the focus is on youth, they don’t turn away anyone in need.
I’d followed Drew’s progress through his e-mail updates and hoped to get in touch with him when I returned to Phnom Penh. I e-mailed him before I arrived, and he responded right away with an invitation to visit one of his new schools.
Marie, after only a few hours in Phnom Penh, had already channeled Rambo, met Snow White, and confronted an evil monkey. She might have been so loopy and fatigued that she was hallucinating, but she happily agreed to venture into the Phnom Penh slums to tour the EYC school. I called Drew to confirm.
“Great, I’ll stop by your hotel and pick you up,” said Drew. “Where are you staying?”
“The, um, NagaWorld…” I mumbled, followed by a lame laugh.
Silence. “NagaWorld?” he confirmed, probably wondering if he’d misheard me. “Uh, OK…”
At 5pm Drew met us at our entertainment complex and the three of us took a tuk-tuk to EYC’s Lakeside School. The original schoolhouse was located on the edge of Boeung Kok Lake, but recently the government decided to fill in most of the lake to make room for more development, so the school had to relocate. The new building now bordered what had become a major construction project. Just outside the front door work crews with heavy machinery were busy turning the lake into a sandy field. By the time we arrived at the school there wasn’t much light left for photos, but I tried to capture a sense of the scene.
Many of the students Drew has worked with over the years want to go on to attend a university, and EYC tries to help those who can’t afford the tuition. A few of these kids, after overcoming hardships unimaginable to most of us, somehow manage to graduate at the top of their class but lack the financial resources to continue their education.
I like the idea of trying to help one person in a meaningful way. I like even more the idea of helping a high-potential student who is pursuing a career that will put them in a position improve their own community over a long period of time. Marie and I met an encouraging example of that – a former EYC student who is going to nursing school at a local university during the day and volunteering at the Lakeside School on the nights it provides medical care. She didn’t need tuition help, but EYC has other promising students who do. Marie and I decided to co-sponsor a student for a year of university education. If anyone reading this might be interested in doing something similar, please let me know and I can connect you with Drew.