Every year, Li Po Chun United World College suspends classes for a week so that all the students can do service work for a week.  In the second week of March 2007, a group of 10 students travelled with me to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to support the work of my Service Group at the College – GCAT (the Global Concerns Action Team)  by working in orphanages organised by the Happy Tree Foundation.

Happy Tree is a Christian charity based in Hong Kong that has established a wide network within Cambodia to care for children of all faiths and backgrounds who would otherwise have no hope and no future.  Through its various orphanages, Happy Tree houses, feeds and educates children, and even provides scholarships for orphans through school and university.

The first orphanage we visited was known as CPCDO, an abbreviation for Children and Poor Communities Development Organisation.  It is situated in the north-western suburbs of Phnom Penh and cares for the poorest of the poor orphans from rural parts of Cambodia.  And yet it is such a happy place!  We were accompanied by a local Cambodian Happy Tree worker called Viku, a young man who was raised in a Happy Tree orphanage himself and is now studying IT every evening at university on a Happy Tree scholarship – during the day he works in the orphanages teaching English.  Viku was a wonderful role model for the children in the orphanages, being energetic, mature, caring, focussed, and most of all, happy!

Our students worked in three teams at CPCDO.  One team co-ordinated an arts and crafts program, another team did dancing and music, while the third did sports and games (which was hot work, as they worked outside in temperatures in the mid-thirties!).  The arts/crafts and music/dancing teams both worked under cover in the huge wall-less shed that doubles as the children's home, as we saw by the lines of double bunks that were lined up at one of the shed.

We finished with a concert in which our students performed songs, played the clarinet, and performed a mixed routine of rap dancing and traditional Chinese dancing.  Then the children reciprocated by singing several songs before we all endured the agony of saying farewell to our new friends.

The second orphanage we worked at was the House of the Rainbow Bridge, also run by Happy Tree and situated within the grounds of Phnom Penh’s military hospital.  The reason for the orphanage’s location was that all 66 of the children there have AIDS or are HIV positive.  For this reason, the orphanage attracts extra funding, so its facilities were not as basic as those at CPCDO, although they were still extremely stark and basic by overseas standards.

Our task at the AIDS orphanage was quite different from CPCDO.  Although the LPC students may have preferred to spend a few days playing with the beautiful little children at the orphanage, the need expressed to us was quite different.  The House of the Rainbow Bridge needed a long (55 metres) corridor repainted, as it had become quite dilapidated.  And as that was the need, the LPC students responded!

Actually, the work was quite onerous for a group of students.  The building occupied by the orphanage was about 60 years old, and had lacked regular maintenance during Cambodia’s recent turbulent decades.  As we began preparing the walls for painting, huge sheets of plaster simply fell off the walls into our hands.  Consequently, the first day was spent – unexpectedly – scraping away all the loose plaster from the walls and then re-plastering and sanding the surfaces.  It was not until the second day that we could finish sanding the new plaster to make it smooth and then, at last, after lunch on day 2, we were finally able to begin painting – something which unfortunately caused yet more plaster to fall off the wall.

Although the painting job was supposed to take two days, it quickly became evident that it was a three day task because of the sad state of the walls.  On our final day in Phnom Penh, we began the day by visiting Stung Meanchey, or Dump Hill, the city’s largest garbage tip which is also home to thousands of Phnom Penh’s poorest people.  Despite the stench of rotting garbage and burning plastic bags, our students stoically distributed noodles and canned fish to many of the residents before returning to House of the Rainbow Bridge orphanage to finish the job of painting the walls.  You can imagine our surprise when we arrived to find that the orphanage staff had stayed up during the night to complete the job for us by applying the second coat of paint where it was needed.  Because we had supplied the materials they needed, the staff felt that they wanted to contribute something too, and the partnership between us resulted in a wonderful, freshly painted, easy-to-clean corridor for the children.

In addition to our work in the orphanages, we did make time also for appreciating Cambodia’s rich culture and tragic history.  On the day we arrived in Phnom Penh, we visited the Royal Palace and Wat Phnom, two of the city’s cultural highlights.  We spent another morning visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which is a high school that was converted by the Khmer Rouge in to a torture centre, and also the Killing Fields on the outskirts of Phnom Penh at Choeung Ek, where the prisoners were taken to be executed in mass graves by smashing their skulls with farming tools.  Needless to say, Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek were sobering reminders of the fragility of peace, harmony and goodwill in our world that many take for granted so easily.

I found my week in Phnom Penh to be fantastic.  It was a great experience with a group of amazing students doing worthwhile voluntary service work for some of the most needy people imaginable.  I am confident that the orphans, the AIDS sufferers and the poor people who live on Phnom Penh’s garbage tip will appreciate my students’ contributions too!

Project Week 2007 in Cambodia
Phnom Penh Image GalleryPhnom_Penh.html
CPCDO Orphanage
Image GalleryCPCDO.html
House of the Rainbow Bridge Image GalleryHORB.html
Dump Hill Image GalleryDump_Hill.html
Tuol Sleng
Image GalleryTuol_Sleng.html
Killing Fields Image GalleryKilling.html