On the 15th of December 2008, that a group of 180 parishioners from the Church of Our Lady Queen of Peace and the Church of St Vincent de Paul, students from the Catholic group FIDES in Singapore Management University and a medical team from National University of Singapore landed in Phnom Penh International Airport
Tiny, dusty hands reached up to wipe away the stubborn tears that refused to stop streaming down my face.
“No cry, no cry! Sabai!”
Despite the intense sadness that I felt that ACTs 2008 had come to a close, I couldn’t help but smile down at the group of beautiful Cambodian children who had clustered around, imploring me to be happy (“Sabai” means happy in Khmer, Cambodia’s official language). All over the assembly ground of Don Bosco Elementary (Phum Chreh), similar scenes were repeated- school children, small for their age but heavy with love, clung onto ACTs participants decked in their distinguishable blue shirts. Many of the older kids were sobbing uncontrollably, their tears mingled with those of the Singaporean volunteers- both unwilling to be separated. The younger kids, blissfully unaware that this was really goodbye, that we would not be returning the next morning as we had done so every day for the past week, grinned cheekily as they requested more piggyback rides.
“I don’t ever want to leave”,
Priscilla Chong, 17, youth of QOP parish, declared as she approached me cuddling two children in her arms,
“time passes way too quickly when we’re over here…”
It was just 5 days earlier, on the 15th of December 2008, that a group of 180 parishioners from the Church of Our Lady Queen of Peace and the Church of St Vincent de Paul, students from the Catholic group FIDES in Singapore Management University and a medical team from National University of Singapore landed in Phnom Penh International Airport. Some like Priscilla were returnees, many were first timers; all were brimming with excitement and looking forward to their collective journey in an impoverished land quite unlike Singapore.
Over the next week, buoyed by the common understanding that we were all there with the purpose of spreading God’s love and bringing Christmas to people who were trying to make the best out of the little they had in life, ACTs 2008 descended into a full and rhythmic swing. The youths (and young at heart) from the parishes invaded the two Don Bosco elementary schools- Phum Chreh and Teuk Thla- and carried out activities that they had planned for the children. These included sports and games, art and craft, music and English lessons. The artists of the group, led by Priscilla Tey, 16, saw her colourful designs come to life in the form of murals created in all 3 schools (including Tuol Kork- the vocational school for girls). June Lee and her dancers worked tirelessly to teach some dance routines to the children, who just could not get enough of them!
There were nights when the dancers would skip dinner and return to the hotel long after most of us were sleeping soundly, because the Sisters would sheepishly request another session for the girls boarding at Tuol Kork. The adults took turns visiting Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity home to care for AIDs inflicted patients, majority of whom were just infants and toddlers. Every spare second of theirs was otherwise spent packing 100 “Love packages” (consisting of basic necessities like rice, oil, sugar, blankets, pillows, soap powder, mosquito nets etc.) for the poorest villagers in Phum Chreh and 1700 smaller packages (stuffed toys, slippers, biscuits and sweets) for the students of all 3 schools, to be given out during the Christmas party on the final day.
The group from FIDES imparted their knowledge on business and management to the older girls at Tuol Kork, coming up with a new activity every day (role plays on service and marketing for example) to help the girls better utilize their education. They also ensured that the little children at the kindergarten were not forgotten and spent hours each day teaching them dance and song (although a FIDES member confided confidentially that the children had better and louder voices than them). Likewise, the medical team from NUS, led by Dr John Lee and his wife Dr Priscilla Lim, went about their important tasks quietly and efficiently, conducting health checks on all the students and villagers within the short span of 4 days.