Instead, the man storms off, intent on drinking reality further away. But the departure soon proves to be an unwelcome one, for the moment the father is out of sight, a glamorous, brightly accessorized, and obviously experienced woman saunters up to the vulnerable girls. Money, she repeats to each girl, money, shimmering jewelry, cell phones, and money; they are all pretty enough, she assures them. Come with me, she says, leave this brutal life behind, and become a real lady. Though the woman’s wicked insistence intimidates them, and their own tattered clothes and dirty faces leave them embarrassed, they bravely, politely, turn her down.
The father returns. He is even drunker than before, but now looks defeated, slumped in the hands of local authorities. He has destroyed some property trying to get a new bottle, they say, and the cost will be far more than this poor family can afford. What choice do they have? With no other options available, the middle daughter pulls her hands away from her despairing mother, holds her head high with melancholy dignity, and, for the sake of her family, agrees to join the painted woman. Having long been without much hope, the girl now swallows her remaining emotion and innocence as she prepares to become just one of countless, anonymous ladies of the night; the woman’s eyes flash merely dollar signs, not sympathy as the two quietly leave together.
Fortunately for us, these images are merely a performance, shadows of a dark reality in the underbelly of Phnom Penh. But for the actors and actresses, these images are all too real slices of lives they have been lucky enough to leave behind. For our hosts and entertainers are all children at the Cambodian Children’s Fund (www.cambodianchildrensfund.org), a safe house for orphaned, abandoned, and abused children. Seeing the kids at this place, one would never know the desperate circumstances they came from. Their smiles are infectious, their passion for learning is like none I’ve ever seen, their genuine warmth and joy are palpable. It’s impossible not to be inspired by these kids. Even seeing where they came from, it’s hard to believe the same children could go from the most wretched of circumstances, living in a disease-infested dump, to being the bright and beautiful kids we had the privilege of spending time with. But before being rescued by Scott Neeson and the CCF folks, abuse, child prostitution, awful health, and any number of other problems were simply a part of life. The play we watched (as part of an amazing evening of music, drama, and dancing) was real. The acting – performed by kids who ranged from 6 to 16 – was heartbreakingly believable, because it was simply the life they grew up with. The story was written by the students themselves, extracted from the circumstances they left behind.
CCF is doing incredible work – its director Scott, a former Hollywood producer, is traveling to New York next week to accept the Quincy Jones “Q Award” for his humanitarian efforts. If any of you have time, check out their website and meet some of the kids. They learn language, art, health, life skills, and eventually advance from CCF to places of higher learning. The fund has taken hundreds of kids with less than nothing and given them a legitimate and bright future. They had enough effect on everyone in the group that we’re collectively going to sponsor one of them, and some of the riders may even sponsor kids on their own as well.
What does any of this have to do with PEPY and our ride? Glad you asked. Besides the projects PEPY has created at the PEPY School, they also seek out sustainable, responsible NGOs who are already firmly rooted in Cambodia, and helps support their work through volunteer projects, donations, and other partnership programs (a volunteer trip last year, for example, helped raise money for CCF and built huge rainwater collection units in the areas they are helping). One of our goals on this ride is to learn about some of these other NGOs, and learn about Cambodia in the process, in order to help determine where and in what form these partnerships should be. CCF is just one of several amazing places we have visited. I’m sure someone else will write all about RDIC and its awesome president Mickey for example (www.rdic.org), who is hands down the most impressive person I’ve ever met (if no one else writes about him soon, I’ll be happy to; this guy was seriously an absolute hero). But the important point to remember is that PEPY is actively seeking partners who are already making a real impact in Cambodia.
This is all stuff I didn’t really know about PEPY, but it’s quickly become one of my favorite parts of the organization. It shows me that PEPY understands its strengths and limitations. The best part of a small, grassroots organization like PEPY is the way it is able to bring energy, passion, and personal responsibility to a cause that larger organizations, no matter how well meaning, simply can’t bring. It’s easy to see this energy permeating every aspect of life at the PEPY School – the students, teachers, volunteers, local people, and the relationships between all these folks are infused with it. It’s the reason that PEPY can make a difference, because it stays focused and passionate, and doesn’t spread itself too thin. What this means, however, is that the scope is quite limited. PEPY can’t help all the people that need helping. So by finding organizations that reach places and do things that PEPY can’t, we are still able to make a bigger impact here. In turn, these partnership groups help PEPY’s programs, and everyone benefits.
Thanks for checking up on us, we’re now out of Phnom Penh and back on the road after an exciting and incredibly informative few days. About 500k down, about 400k left. Game on baby!