These last two days have been among the hardest in my life. To give you a pretty graphic snapshot, this morning I woke up and within 30 minutes of being awake, I had a pair of latex gloves on and a can of Bactine in my hand. I looked at the kid front of me and said, “I’m not going to lie. This is going to sting. Grab the bench. Close your eyes.”
She gritted her teeth and steadied herself, and I sprayed a fountain of antiseptic into an open sore that was weeping pus, even though only moments ago I’d cleaned it as best I could with soapy warm water and some gauze. I had to boil the water in a tea kettle first and then let it cool, because putting contaminated water on an infected sore seemed … well … counter productive, to put it mildly. Anything that comes out of the tap system in Cambodia is basically a melted Hepatitis popsicle.
I would have screamed like a bitch if someone sprayed alcohol into an open wound. This kid clutched the bench and took it like man, even though she’s a 10-year-old girl and only weighs about 50 pounds. Then again, here, in rural Cambodia, being a 10-year-old girl is a pretty tough occupation. She thanked me profusely in perfect English, hopped off the bench and scampered back outside.
Every single one of these children coming to the Let Us Create School lives in poverty. In Sihanoukville, there are not many citizens living above what any Western person would consider the basic waterline. The majority of the kids I spend all day with are coming from extreme poverty, even for this region. This little guy is my absolute favorite. Today, he wore pajamas all day. I’m pretty sure the school provided them. We actually don’t know his name because his parents just drop him off each morning with the security guard before we all get there. He won’t say his name, so I just yell “Hey Little Feet!” when I need him to pay attention. Seems to be working thus far.
One of the most crushing facts is that each night, I run into a lot of our students out in the bars and on the beaches. They wander around selling roses and bracelets to tourists till the bars close around 3 a.m. They need the money for food to eat. Literally, stop reading and think on that sentence. Because I have been for days now. If they don’t do it, they don’t eat. And they come to school exhausted but so excited to learn. No one in their families make them come to us – they simply want to so badly, they run on a few hours of rest a night.
The lucky kids of this group sell enough roses to go home and sleep for a few meager hours before coming to learn. The unlucky ones become the victims of sexual predators. Regardless, every one of these children comes in daily contact with Hepatitis. With Tuberculosis. With HIV. Many of them have some combination of all three. They walk several miles alone just to get to our little school. If you asked them, they would tell you they are the lucky ones. And in a way, they are right.
In a few days, I’m going to photograph this place everyone calls The Dump. It’s a landfill an hour outside of Sihanoukville. Let Us Create has a partner organization called Small Steps, and their mission is to go to landfills around the world to rescue the children living there from an entire life of illness and misery. I never realized that there are kids – whole communities of people – living in landfills permanently. They scavenge all day for plastic to recycle. The kids are barefoot and totally exposed to trash and violence and disease. They sleep in trash. They breath the smoke from fires, set to burn the trash.
Small Steps is an incredible organization, and they’ve got a short video here to show you what they do. I feel honored that they asked me to go with them and capture still shots of the kids living on the rubbish piles this Friday for use in future fundraising. Several of the featured kids in the film actually come to our school now. They can have a shower, two full meals and a chance to learn English, work on their own school work and play games with other kids.
To be honest, while I would never pass up the opportunity to see something like this – let alone to be asked to document it – I’m also completely terrified of heading to this landfill. For some pretty obvious reasons. I came on this volunteer journey because I’ve been tired of my everyday, consumer life lately and I wanted to do something real with my time and my skills that would help out someone who’s less fortunate than I am. I want to make the world better for someone and also to change certain aspects of my life. I’m not sure I’m ready for the level of The Dump, but I’m going to go regardless.
The kids in Sihanoukville are incredibly bright, beautiful, funny and happy. Despite the poverty and the situations they face, they will come running with giant smiles when I walk in tomorrow. That’s keeping me going through the sadness that sometimes seems to physically exhaust me.
Sorry for the super intense blog post. Obviously, I’ve been dealing with a lot to process these last couple of days here, and I am trying to figure out how I feel beyond simply sad and scared. I think I just needed to write. So, thank you for reading.