HISTORY OF WAT OPOT
The Wat Opot Children’s Community was founded by Wayne Dale Matthysse and Sann Vandin, co-founders of Partners in Compassion Cambodia. To learn more about Partners in Compassion Cambodia, please see our website (http://www.partnersincompassioncambodia.com)
Gail Gutradt writes about Wat Opot Children’s Community
Wayne Dale Matthysse, Director of Wat Opot Project, was a Marine medic in Vietnam during the war. Half-blinded while tending to the wounded in a battle near Da Nang, he was the single survivor, and his conscience drew him back to South East Asia to offer service to the people affected by the war. He wound up in Cambodia, volunteering for COERR, a Catholic relief agency. There he met Vandine Sann, who had been training monks in the villages to teach AIDS awareness and prevention, and helping families of the infected to care for victims of the burgeoning AIDS epidemic. Together Wayne and Vandine formed Partners in Compassion, a non-governmental organization embodying the commitment of Wayne, an American Christian, and Vandine, a Cambodian Buddhist. They took over a small clinic located on five acres donated by a Buddhist temple named Wat Opot, and began a program of community education and caring for people dying of AIDS. That was in 2001, and there were no anti-retroviral medicines available in Cambodia.
In 2003, Medicins Sans Frontiers Belgium (MSF, Doctors Without Borders) was looking for a location in Cambodia to begin a program of distributing anti-retroviral drugs. MSF needed to locate near an existing facility to be sure someone was available to monitor drug compliance, provide transportation for patients, supervise home care and community education in AIDS prevention and treatment. Because Wat Opot Project already existed and had a strong relationship with the surrounding villages, MSF decided to open a clinic nearby and began distributing ARV drugs to Wayne’s patients and to village people who needed them.
In a short time, Wat Opot Project was transformed from a hospice for the hopeless to a community of people affected by HIV/AIDS. Unique in Cambodia, where fear and ignorance of AIDS and its causes abound, where infected people can be shunned or stoned or worse, Wat Opot today is an intentional community where people with and without AIDS live together as family. There are beds, food, a school, a clinic with medical care available to people in the neighboring villages, and dozens of happy, energetic children who are no longer dying, but realizing that they can grow up, get an education, and live decent lives. They are the first generation to face the challenge of growing up with AIDS, and Wayne and Vandine and the children of Wat Opot are writing the book.
The Wat Opot community is located on a dirt road that runs through rural villages and rice fields. Although they were offered land anywhere in Cambodia, Wayne and Vandine chose this place because of its poverty, hoping that their presence there would help buoy the community. In the ensuing years the Buddhist temple next door, which donated the land, has been renovated with new murals and a fine tile roof; community pride has improved and neighbors in the villages have begun fixing up their homes. The World Food Program has started a program of food distribution to families affected by AIDS. Currently, 1000 local families receive rice, oil and salt every month, distributed through Wat Opot Project. The home care organization, operating in Phnom Penh and several other villages, conducts community outreach programs to educate villagers in AIDS prevention and care for the afflicted, and to help reduce the stigma of those living with AIDS in the villages.
What is special about Wat Opot? It is rare, and perhaps unique in Cambodia, for HIV-infected and non-infected children to live together as family, sharing homes and meals and playing together. This sets an example for the community, and its effect on increasing tolerance and diminishing fear cannot be overstated. Many orphanages are simply holding tanks, where fortunate children are either adopted out, or warehoused til they come of age. Wayne sees Wat Opot as a loving extended family, a place where children will want to return to visit after they have left to live in the larger community. It is open to everyone, the poorest of the poor, the most rejected and abandoned, regardless of religion or past experience, and to young and old. Money is tight, but Wat Opot Project runs on the less quantifiable energies of love and kindness, service, faith, and commitment.
As one volunteer said, ”What is so special is the belief that Wayne has in others. It infects their souls, and in turn this impacts on others. He is inclusive of those that everyone else rejects. That is why Wat Opot is a place of joy.”