On 14th December 2007, 46 parishioners from Church of Our Lady Queen of Peace together with 10 medical students from our local university shelved their usual year end holiday plans and took the road less traveled. Instead, they traveled to a village 30min from Phnom Penh called Phum Chreh where they spent the next 7 days interacting with the Cambodian children and their families. The group consisted of Catholics and non-Catholics with the youngest being only 9 years old and the eldest being 75 years old.
They coined the trip Advent Cambodia Trips (ACTs). The ‘s’ at the end was purposefully added to mean that there will be more than one such mission trip rather than a ‘one-off’ event which could easily be misinterpreted as a ‘feel good’ trip.
This mission trip was inspired by Dr John Lee and his family. They have been to Phum Chreh 6 times before. Collaborating with the Salesian sisters of the Don Bosco Foundation of Cambodia(insert picture of Sr Ophriini with the children), they helped secure funds to build a school for 400 children, provided medical care and basic necessities to the children and their families. The Salesians of Don Bosco (or the Salesian Society, originally known as the Society of St. Francis de Sales) is a Roman Catholic order founded in the late nineteenth century by Saint John Bosco in an attempt, through works of charity and proper education care for young and poor children. The Salesians' charter describes the society's mission as "the Christian perfection of its associates obtained by the exercise of spiritual and corporal works of charity towards the young, especially the poor, and the education of boys to the priesthood”. The order is named for St. Francis de Sales, an early-modern bishop of Geneva.
When Dr Lee was asked why he decided to make it a parish activity, he matter-of-factly replied, “What other better why to manifest the spirit of Advent and to bring the parish community together?”
Hatching the idea was the easy part, and then came the worry of not having the critical mass to even have a trip. But, they were pleasantly surprised when more than 40 parishioners signed up! The steering committee was quickly established which comprised of youths and adults. Most of them only knew each other by appearance as many attended mass at different times. There were inevitable clashing of ideas and personalities but each were quickly extinguished because of their well anchored common objective of providing relief to their less fortunate human beings in Cambodia.
The 30 participating youths organized themselves into groups and occupied themselves teaching elementary English, Science, Mathematics and Arts and Crafts to children from Primary 1 through to Primary 6. There was also a group who became pre-school teachers for the week, teaching the children their favourite nursery rhymes and games (insert pic of youths playing with kinddies). Yet another group exhibited their artistic talent through a mural for the adjacent kindergarten(also run by the Don Bosco Foundation of Cambodia) It was indeed heartening to see the youth of the parish with their ceaseless energy and their willingness to forsake comfort for their now Cambodian families. They truly personified the regard of our late Pope John Paul II about the youth being the present and future of the church. The youth truly played a huge role to the success of the mission. Deborah, 19, a youth of the parish and daughter of Dr Lee, upon seeing her father in action, realized her calling, “I want to be a doctor so I can improve the quality of life of these children. Towards the end of the trip, when asked if she would opt for such trips again, she, with a yearning tear in her eye proclaimed with a resounding “Of Course!”
The adults weren’t too far off with their efforts in packing ‘Love packages’ for the one hundred poorest families and one thousand goodie bags for the children in Phum Chreh and its sister school in Tuek Thla. Each ‘Love package’ contained daily necessities like a mosquito net, ten kilograms of rice, bathing soap, washing detergent, and cooking oil. As it was the yuletide season, each child’s goodie bag contained candies, biscuits and a tetra pack of fruit juice. In addition, they also visited the AIDs home run by the Missionary of Charity to bring Christmas joy and warmth to the children and infants (insert Dr John holding toddler with AIDs)
Personally, when my wife and I read about the mission trip in the church bulletin, I was not too keen on going. It was the inspiration and the selflessness of my wife that moved me to say yes. I was glad I listened to her (for once!). I never understood the joy of giving till I saw the tears of gratitude in the children’s parent’s eyes when we handed out the ‘Love packages’ (Insert pic of adults giving out of packages) or the brilliant child like laughter of the children we played with (insert pic of children laughing). Words of Mother Teresa suddenly made perfect sense, “You were not called to do big things, but little ones with love.” I thought I was going to Cambodia to give but I received more in return and in receiving, I now have more to give.