A wonderful post from Allison Coffman on her family’s recent volunteer experience at Wat Opot.
Melinda was a nanny for Allison and Mike’s daughter, Malia over 20 years ago in Hawaii.
(Melinda and Malia, 1994)
It’s hard to believe it has been a month since our family left Wat Opot and yet a day hasn’t passed that a random memory or beautiful little face has made my heart happy.
It all began last spring, when Mike was feeling sentimental about our kids growing up. He realized we may have one last time where everyone’s calendars aligned and would allow for a few weeks away together. He approached me first with his idea of going to Cambodia – it would be our last family hurrah, we could visit our friend Melinda and we could volunteer as a family. Well, this was not on my bucket list and not really what I would have called “vacation”, but I could see Melinda, it was something Mike wanted to do and usually his wild ideas turn out pretty good. So I agreed to the adventure.
In May, after Malia graduated and Hannah and Zane finished finals, Mike rolled out the idea to them. Without a single hesitation they all agreed (they too are used to their dad’s adventures!)
By the time fall came, Mike and Melinda had been corresponding and decided a good way were we could help would be to fund-raise for a new kitchen facility at Wat Opot. With our friends, Paul and Elaine Smith we decided we would co-host a Halloween party but unlike years past we would ask for a donation for the frightful night. After a month of long hours building creepy things, reapers, a haunted house and of course the “monkey bar” our friends and family dressed in costume, came, partied, danced and donated. We THANK them for their generosity, but we were hopeful to still raise more.
We are extremely grateful for two corporate sponsors – QUICK SPARK and STORMWIND generously they gave even more! Wat Opot would be able to renovate their kitchen and more. I can’t even begin to express how thankful and grateful I am to have the owner of these companies be a lifelong friend – a truly kind and generous person.
December finally came and we were off – to what – we really had no idea. We wanted to help, but how could we really help especially in a short amount of time? What would we do? What will it be like? How will my kids handle this?
What we found was not only a re-connection with our friend Melinda, and even though it has been 15 years since we last saw each other, it felt like yesterday, but we were also blessed to meet the most loving happy people. As a country, despite the fairly recent genocide, the people of Cambodia are kind and happy.
And then…the children of Wat Opot…despite what they may have experienced in their lives they are welcoming and loving. Many of the younger kids are not hesitant to welcome you into their world. They love instantly and make us feel wanted. They show us their home and all the fun things they can do. But wait – it was supposed to be us giving – yet we all gained so much from our time together!
I watched as Malia happily carried kids, had her hair braided, helped with the preschool and just laughed with the kids. Hannah played soccer, watched them swim in the swimming hole (and on one of the last days finally swam too), hugged as many as she could and just listened to whoever wanted her attention. And Zane caught the eye of the older kids as he was around their age, was challenged to pull ups and soccer games, but also was great for the younger ones to climb all over him.
When planning our trip I wasn’t sure how everyone would do, (and you know the saying about fish and house guest – they all stink after a few days) we planned our trip in segments. So after five days we left Wat Opot to tour Angkor Wat. We were thankful for a hotel with hot showers and cool air conditioning but every time we would see a child one of us would say we missed the kids of Wat Opot. We couldn’t wait to go back.
Upon returning once again we were greeted with hugs and open arms. This time we weren’t as shell shocked and knew the daily routine. We each were more able to help – cook a volunteer meal, organize a space, do a craft, read a book, play a game and the best of all just being available when needed.
Friends have asked did you get what you wanted from the trip? For me, I didn’t have any expectations or want anything from it. I wanted to give and be helpful. Looking back, I’m not sure I did either of those well.
One surprising gift we received was meeting the young volunteers. Their generous, adventurous spirits had a profound effect on our whole family. My kids realized through the volunteers, that they can travel alone and travel anywhere for an extended time period. (And I learned I will need to let them do this!). Vacation doesn’t necessarily mean a week on a beach or a well-traveled European city (both of which are still great!), but there is so much more to our amazing world. Kate and Alex, I can’t thank you enough for that!
So if you are reading this and thinking about a volunteer adventure either alone or with your family, don’t wait any longer! Do it!
And to Melinda and Wayne’s kids, as much as I wanted to take you all home with me, I know you already are home. You are loved by both a mom and a dad and many, many siblings.
And Melinda (aka Mindy!), you too are loved not only by your beautiful kids, but by your Arizona family! Thank you for welcoming us into your incredible home. I will be back!