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An insight into the full course of the ACTS Mission

ACTS Cambodia 2013 congregated 281 participants including Bishop Emeritus, two priests - Fr. Gino Henriques, Fr David Garcia and two seminarians with 28 Australians descending into Phnom Penh, Cambodia from the 14th - 21st of December last year. Another 120 doctors, dentists, medical and dental students were also part of this mission that ACTS helps to co-ordinate and support.

Participants ranged from 12 years to 70 years with 130 youths coming from nineteen different parishes spanning this little isle of Singapore; counting the church of Our Lady Queen of Peace, Church of the Holy Cross, St Ignatius, St Vincent de Paul, Holy Spirit, Holy Family St Mary’s of the Angels, etc.  We also had participants from the Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu faiths and Christians from other denominations. Eight different nationalities were represented and noteworthy, our new participants outnumbered the repeat participants two to one. It was a truly inclusive mission.

Mission week started on the Sunday morning with a visit to Peace Café from about 60 participants. Peace Café is the outreach centre for the display and sale of crafts created by the disabled at Bantaey Prieb(Centre of the Dove) a vocational training centre and home for the disabled and victims of landmines. This institution was built by the Jesuit Service Cambodia in 1991 over what used to be the killing fields in Cambodia.

Concurrently, about 120 youths and educators met with their Cambodian counterparts at the Don Bosco School in Tuek Thla where they went through the curriculum and education plans for the week ahead with the Salesian sisters who run the Don Bosco schools. This enabled an opportunity for the Cambodian teachers and our ACTS participants to get to know each other and share the objectives and mission for this year. That afternoon, the sisters organized a village tour to the houses of the kids who attend the school. It was an eye opener for most participants as homes were spartan, with only a mat for the bed and an earthen stove to cook (sums up the kitchen) with no piped-in water and a toilet boasting a mere hole in the ground!

Everyone came together in the evening for our first Sunday evening mass at the Don Bosco Technical School chapel led by our spiritual director, Fr David Garcia. His homily explored the concept of sharing, that which must be between two equals, and not from one person from a seat of strength or perceived strength giving to the lesser of. This is the main lesson that can be gleaned from Cambodia. Most of us can experience that realization when what we receive from the kids is immeasurably more than what we can give from our material world.

Over the next 5 days, youth participants were given the opportunity to become teachers in the classes of the Don Bosco Schools in Teuk Thla, Toul Kork and Phum Chrey in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  The time spent together was meaningful and purposeful as the participants interacted and bonded with the children through a series of enrichment activities designed to facilitate learning through activity.  Two themes, Butterflies and Aquariums, were used to frame the learning in the English Language, Mathematics, and Science.  Other lessons included Art & Craftwork; Sports Sessions where locals learn to play badminton, Capteh(traditional game with a feathered shuttlecock, and football; Music where they learned to sing popular songs as well as enjoy basic rhythms; and Dance where dance routines were mastered with gusto to the beat of popular songs, such as One Direction’s What Makes You Beautiful and Kiss Me.  

Tuol Kuok which houses the main Don Bosco Vocational School, ran a bazaar selling products created in-house. This mini-sale was assisted and supported as well by the ACTS participants posted there. A new hospitality vocational session was started at Don Bosco Tuek Thla for the Food Management Vocational girls and classes proved to be a hit. The girls were taught deportment and grooming basics, interview skills, preparing a personal CV to fundamentals in table-setting and clearing, foundation in reception work and even a motivational and empowerment session.

This year the food management team prepared two dinners for over 350 persons consecutively over two nights providing home-cooked food that were very appreciated by participants. In addition to sharing the different aspects of local cuisine cooked, the team also managed to teach the girls to make Kueh Dadar using local Cambodian ingredients of coconuts, palm sugar and pandan leaves. This treat immediately made it into the menu at the school’s regular weekend market sale.

On Monday, some cut fruits or mayonnaise left out too long from our regular caterer left 35 participants incapacitated in the hotel including two doctors who remained in the hotel to minister to those who were room-bound. Lots of isotonic drinks, charcoal tablets and ‘TLC’ for those worse off saw all but two of the participants recovered by the next day. It was heartening to see participants step up, particularly in the logistics team who lost the 2nd and 3rd in command on the first day, but everyone rallied around and things went on smoothly. Still there was no lack of surprises, that morning one bus burst a tyre and another lost its way!   In spite of everything, and a delay, everybody made it to mass and to their respective assigned places of work and back safely. Crisis really pulls a team together and the mission was never more united and thankful for each other. It was also a timely reminder about basic aspects of warm food and clean water to all of us who take these for granted back home.

Mid-week, His Grace, Archbishop Emeritus Nicholas Chia arrived and proceeded to celebrate with us at the 7.30am morning mass. He then visited a Christmas party for 24 kids(strickened with HIV) at the Missionaries of Charity Home at Chom Chau, where 22 of our participants had organized a fun fair for the kids complete with bowling, shooting hoops, face painting and coloring. This was followed by musical chairs and more dancing led by 3 members of the ACTS dance team from The School of Dance. Dancing crosses any barriers and the Cambodian kids are the best testimonies. Each time the music starts the kids are moving full-on.  Goodie bags were distributed and this year a highlight was a chartered bus ride to take the kids on a 45 minute drive around. Many had not ridden on a bus before. This was organised and sponsored by the ACTS participants themselves. The joy that radiated from the excited kids and felt by the participants themselves were indescribable.

Later in the day, Archbishop Emeritus Chia with some ACTS committee members were hosted to a luncheon by the Archbishop of Phnom Penh , Mgr Olivier Schmitthaeusler, at his new office at Rougchak Village. It was also meeting to understand his vision for greater training opportunity for young Cambodians. In the afternoon, ‘love packages’ were distributed to 200 villagers from Phum Chrey. Over 400 enthusiastic kids welcomed him in song and dance. Each ‘love package’ combined a sack of rice and cooking supplies, clothing and food items donated from Singapore.

The following day began with daily morning mass and a visit to Tuol Kuok Vocational School where Sr Leeza and her staff together with ACTS volunteers organized yet another Christmas party for the kids. Sr Leeza later shared in her letter of thanks that although many ACTS volunteers wished they could help in more ways and stayed longer than a week, the effect felt by these communities remain much longer. It may be the elderly woman who received much-needed medication or the hungry family who received a bag of rice, or the kid who had a painful toothache relieved, Singaporeans from ACTS are changing lives. Pope Francis summed up her thoughts when he said“Christmas is not only a celebration but an encounter, an encounter with Christ and our poor brothers and sisters”. ACTS participants have inspired her teachers from their untiring spirit and attention to the young, their eagerness to share values and skills and their kindness and respectful way of dealing even with the smallest child.

In the afternoon, His Grace continued to give out more love packages, this time, specially to the families of the construction workers who were building the first Don Bosco Middle and High School in Phnom Penh. The new establishment will be able to conduct 12 classes from grade 7-12. It was designed by a Singapore architect done pro bono with funds from Singapore and other countries. Ground breaking had started on 24th April 2013 and it is hoped that the school will be completed by July next year. As expressed by Sr Ljudmilla, in her letter to ACTS from the Book of Psalms: “If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do the builders labor.” This house is indeed blessed with kind donations and prayers from all over.

ACTS mission ended on Friday and an exhausted Archbishop Emeritus finally rested and flew back to Singapore with the message to all the participants that the cross has not only a vertical component between God and self but a horizontal one that compels all of us as Catholics to reach out to share a joy that comes alive when we give of our selves to another fellow man.

How apt are those words, indeed no man is an island.

See you all at the next mission.

Damian Png
ACTS Phnom Penh 2013 Mission