ACTS started as an outreach program of the parish of Our Lady Queen of Peace in 2007. In 2006 a small group of parishioners spent the week before Christmas helping out at a Don Bosco school and were so inspired by the work of the Salesian sisters that they felt that they had to share the joy of service with others. With the permission of Fr Francis Lee, ACTS was launched in 2007. The acronym ACTS was chosen because it also stands for “A Call To Serve” following the example of the ACTS of the apostles.
This mission outreach has since grown and this year some 240 participants comprising parishioners of Queen of Peace and St Ignatius (including Catholics and non-Catholics aged 7 to 75 years) led by Fr Joseph Yao and Fr James Tan went for the advent trip. It was heartening to know that many of the participants from earlier trips have returned bringing with them family members and friends. Preparation for ACTS started in June and there were pre-mission formations conducted by the priests and seminarians. Spiritual formation was a very important element of this mission and each day began with prayers and ended with a mass in the evening.
This year, the organizers worked on expanding on the many projects set in place from the previous years, including fund raising for the Don Bosco schools’ infrastructure needs, medical care, food program for 1,700 students throughout the year, educational programs and scholarships for the teachers and students, setting up of computer laboratories, packing and distribution of 200 love parcels consisting of essentials to the poorest families and 2,000 gift packages to the students. Gift to the children include an ACTS T-shirt which is used every Friday by the students at the 3 schools at Teuk Thla, Phum Chreh and Tuol Kork.
New initiatives this year included a well received private fund raising Gala Dinner held at Sheraton Towers Hotel organized by Gladys Wong and Shirley Yap. Proceeds went towards the building of a dormitory cum vocational school for girls at risk.
This year a team (which included 5 seminarians from St Francis Major Seminary) led by Gregory Tan, also worked at the Missionaries of Charity home for children with AIDS. It was back breaking work which included minor repairs, painting, packing love parcels for distribution to 400 families and shovelling manure but no one complained. Instead there was a deep satisfaction and quiet happiness when the tasks were completed.
One new project which generated great enthusiasm was the building of 2 grottos dedicated to Mother Mary which appeared to be divinely inspired. The idea was conceived during ACTS 2008 when Shanny Ho was talking to another participant who was dozing off in the bus. Apparently when she asked what projects ACTS could do, J woke up and said, “Build a grotto in the school”. When the then-provincial, Sr. Sarah Gracia heard the story, she confessed that the sisters had always wanted a grotto but because of lack of funds, did not make it a priority. This Christmas, the grottos, sponsored by two families were built at the schools at Teuk Thla and Tuol Kork. It was a sight to behold to see the gentle giant, Bro David Arull, a 5th year seminarian lovingly decorated the grottos for the dedication ceremonies. There were squeals of joy and delight from the nuns and students when the lights and fountain were turned on and many including non-Catholics participated in the moving ceremonies.
For the first time, healthcare assistance included dental care for the students and villagers. Led by Simon Chua, the dental team treated patients in a professional set-up which one doctor naughtily commented it looked like an interrogation room from the infamous Toul Sleng genocide museum. It was gratifying to see children come out of the room grinning after having their painful decayed teeth extracted. The medical team which included medical students from NUS working under Project Sabai treated about 400 villagers on the first day alone. They incorporated new technology including fingerprint readers to maintain patient records for future missions.
Besides engaging the students with a broader range of educational programs this year, a needs analysis was done to better understand their curriculum requirements. Catechism classes were also conducted for the first time by Audrey Ruyters and Simone Lai, two Catechists from St Ignatius at the request of the Sisters. Beyond all these programs, participants and the children bonded with dance and sports, revelling in activities that bridge cultural and language barriers. One of the more enthusiastically received activity was the dance program conducted by June Lee and her teachers from The School of Dance which saw all the nuns, teachers and students (including the boys) bogeying way into the night.
The activities culminated in Christmas parties where the Cambodian kids were hosted to rare treats. In return each ACTS participant was presented with the traditional scarf which is given as a sign of gratitude and thank you letters from the children. The celebrations erupted into spontaneous dancing and children smearing the faces of participants with powder which is a Cambodian form of blessing.
Upon reflection, it was as much the participants’ physical presence that spread the Christmas cheer. Our being there more than the material gifts, give them hope of a better future and an opportunity to introduce them to God’s love. One of the students asked Sr Ophriini this poignant question, “Why do these strangers come from so far away to love us?”
Our journey has just begun but the work of ACTS has already spread beyond the Church and come to the attention of the Cambodian government which gave an award to ACTS in 2008. This recognition is reflected in the request by the government to replicate the ACTS program in one of the government schools. ACTS has also inspired scores of the richer Cambodian kids to come to work alongside the volunteers from Singapore. We are also working with the Church hierarchy to train strategic groups of people like the medical students to eventually assume responsibility for the programs.
The journey is long but as the Salesian Sisters believe - education is the only means out of poverty. It is the Sisters’ cheerful disposition and quiet servitude that inspires those who are fortunate to come in contact with them. There is so much more that we can do. Keep us in your prayers as we work towards establishing long term sustainable projects which will alleviate the hunger and poverty but more importantly allow the children to hope and dream like children elsewhere in the world.
Advent is a time for reflection and preparation for Christ’s birth. Joanne one of the participants said, “This trip allowed me to see God in the faces of these children as they showered us with warm smiles and hugs, showing us that happiness can be very simple. I realized that often in our hurried lifestyles, we forget to show gratitude for the blessings we have in life. Most importantly, the children taught me how to give and receive love.” For many ACTS participants, this mission was an epiphany which has changed their lives.