Cher wakes up particularly chipper this morning and not just because she smells good.  Today we are bringing Srey Leap to the Russian Market with some of her friends to go clothes shopping and Cher is anxious to spoil her little Stung Meanchy princess a little bit.

Before we can play, however, there is work to be done.  First up is a meeting with Saloth, the former head administrator with Handicap International.  Now she works with my friends Pierre and John at CFI, The Coalition Of Financial Independence, who will be acting as Safe Haven’s non-profit umbrella.  Saloth is very excited about our school proposal and wanted to meet to discuss various organizations she feels would be beneficial for us to meet and partner with.  We tell her all about our little Sum Namg, the boy with CP in Siem Reap who was the inspiration for the school.  She is particularly interested in the fact we want to help CP kids and says that there are NO places currently focused on helping these children.  In fact, she informs us it is not uncommon to go into a village and see a family with 7 children and 4 of the children have CP.  Because CP is caused by birth trauma and a lack of oxygen during birth, this is not surprising.  There is not a whole lot of pre natal care happening in the middle of the villages.  Saloth promises to take us to visit some of these families when we arrive in Siem Reap.  Both Cher and I feel it will give us a good idea of what the range of severity we are going to be dealing with at Safe Haven.  Saloth also recommends that we meet with both Hannah of Epic Arts in the village of Kampot and Saorath, the executive director of Cambodian Disabled Persons Organization.  She is impressed that I already have meetings set up with both.  In fact, we have to dash out the door to get to our meeting with Saorath.  The address we were given was a fairly vague “somewhere in W’aht Than”.  Unsurprisingly, we are late.  But Saorath graciously overlooks our tardiness and greets us warmly, excited over the possibility of having western partners who want to join in the fight for handicap rights.  He introduces around the office and proudly points out that 95% of his staff are educated handicapped adults.  In addition, half the staff are also women.  His right leg is withered and deformed due to polio, but his energy and passion far exceeds most able-bodied individuals I know.  Saorath is keen to know the details of Safe Haven and we spend some time outlining the basic mission for our live in educational and therapeutic facility for handicap kids.  He highlights the need for such a place with some disturbing facts.  90% of handicap children are not allowed to attend public school.  He shares his personal story of his struggle for education.  After battling to be allowed to be educated, he finished high school with high marks only to be denied entry into college.  For ten years, he fought to be accepted into college.  When he finally was, they assigned all of his classes on the 4th floor of the university.  He wrote a letter to the school to explain his predicament only to be told, “One person cannot change the way things are.”  Undaunted, he took up the battle, rallied students behind him and ultimately succeeded in getting his and other disabled students classes moved to the 1st floor.  He is clearly a man to have on our side as we work together to make Safe Haven a reality.  Already, we are planning on tapping into a vast well of educated, disabled professionals who have fought to get degrees yet still cannot find employment due to prejudice.  Can you imagine what an inspiration to the disabled kids at Safe Haven to see their teachers, aids, administrators and health care providers who are also handicap yet  are confident, successful professionals?  We are excited at all the possibilities.  Saorath drives us out to a village to see a house and plot of land that the Japanese recently donated as a village safe house for the disabled.  Saorath dryly points out it has its drawbacks as it is NOT handicap accessible, the well has gone bad and they need at least $40k to make it sustainable and livable.  But it is a step in the right direction.

After a very productive morning, Cher and I head to CCF to pick up little Srey Leap and her three best friends to take them shopping.  One of her best friends is 5-year-old Channy, who is Layseng’s little sister.  Layseng, one of the stars of Small Voices, adores her little sister.  Channy has a little role herself in the film, appearing in many of the shots of Layseng when she is home in the dump village of Stung Meanchy.  My honorary “niece” Christina, the older sister of the young woman my sister Cher cares for, has recently become Channy’s sponsor and Srey Leap is excited to be headed out on the town to go to market.

Now when Cher and I were here in August, Srey Leap was very shy and barely ate afterwards at our lunch outing.  This time around, she is an old pro.  She knows exactly what going to market with her sponsor means: new clothes.  She literally bounces with happiness on Cher’s lap in the Tuk Tuk and skips into the market when we arrive.  She chatters away in Khmer telling Cher with no hesitation what she thinks of this color or that shirt.  Channy is overwhelmed and clearly past her naptime as she is content at first to simply lay her head on my shoulder as I hold her in my arms.

Cher picks up a shirt that Srey Leap has her eye on and holds it up for inspection.  A large cockroach scampers eagerly up the side.  I casually mention the stowaway to Cher. Now it is a measure of how much my little sister loves Srey Leap that she simply flicks it to the ground and then stomps on it for good measure instead of screaming and immediately whipping out her bottle of Purel from her bag to begin disinfecting everything in sight.

A short time later, our 4 little Stung Meanchy toddlers all have new outfits and are busy picking out completely inappropriate footwear.  Cher tries to be stern when Srey Leap picks out a little tiny pair of red high heel shoes and insists that she also get a pair of flat flip flops for school.  Srey Leap of course has no objections because really, all that amounts to is that she gets TWO pairs of shoes instead of one.  My sister- the disciplinary.  Shopping complete – we head to lunch walking to the sounds of little feet clopping along in their ‘grown up’ shoes.

We decided to eat at a little roadside café called “Good Time”.  Which, in retrospect, was not a “Good Time” at all.  First up – an inability to figure out how to put two tables together to accommodate us without hands on intervention.  We order drinks all around and each one arrives solo with about 10 minutes in between deliveries.  We all order-fried noodles with shrimp, chick and beef.   Have you ever taken a group of six year olds out to eat?  Not only do they drink their beverages within 10 seconds but also usually you ask that their food be brought out first in order to keep them occupied.  A full hour later – drinks gone and no sign of the meals in site – I don’t know who is more agitated.  The kids or us.  Well, us probably since the kids are all busy playing with the gifts Christina sent to Channy.  Plus these little children, living a life of depravation in a garbage dump, have WAY more patience than we do about waiting for the arrival of a meal.  Sadly, that is something that they have a lot of practice in.  Cher and I are not so patient.  We’ve asked for more orange juice for the kids 4 times over 40 minutes and I cannot see what the difficulty is in pouring some damn juice into a glass and handing it over is.  Plus, three of the kid’s meals arrive, but not the 4th.  Srey Leap plows into her meal.  For a child who is so small and light weight I can hold her in the palm of my hand, she sure can pack away a plate of noodles…

Three meals gone and still no juice and no sign of the 4th meal or of the adults meals for that matter.  Navy – our CCF translator, finally gets her noodles and gives them to Srey Nik, the girl who’s food had not yet arrived.  My noodles arrive but I am too annoyed to properly enjoy them.  I should however, take a lesson in patience from our little Stung Meancy girls, who simply enjoyed their meal and day out and could have cared less about the delays.  We decide to forgo ice cream because we don’t have another 3 hours to spare for lunch and with a touch of regret that the day must end, we load our precious little princesses onto a Tuk Tuk with their bags of clothes and shoes and kiss them goodbye.  Srey Leap waves out of the back of the Tuk Tuk as it pulls away.

Cher and I return to the hotel feeling sad at having to end the outing and also feeling something else: ill.  Perhaps we were distracted at the bad service of the café but we went and ignored a major rule while dining here in Phnom Penh.  NEVER drink anything that isn’t out of a sealed can or bottle unless you know it is from a purified source.  NEVER.  Needless to say, this is also not a “Good Time” as promised by the café’s sign and Cher and I spend a miserable night having the complete opposite of a “Good Time.”

Good times.

– Heather E. Connell

Visit the Small Voices website for photos from Heather’s travels.

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