Nov 062013
 

WELCOME JAMIE C. AMELIO

JAMIE C. AMELIO

Jamie C. Amelio is the founder and CEO of Caring for Cambodia (CFC), a non-profit, non-governmental charitable organization which has dramatically changed the lives of more than 6,400 Cambodian children. CFC started in 2003 with the goal to provide Cambodian children education by building a school in the Siem Riep area. That initial goal of one school has grown into a mission to secure a better, brighter future for those children and so many more! CFC positively impacts not only the students but their families and the community. The organization continues to build on the initial premise that every child deserves an education by supporting existing schools, building new ones in the same district and implementing teacher training along with identifying mentor teachers. Along the way other essential programs have evolved: Make a Difference trips to build homes, Life Skills programs and continued follow up and support for local teachers as they deliver the curriculum provided by the Cambodian government. Health and Dental to teach students important basic hygiene, and Food For Thought to make certain every child in every CFC school receives two healthy meals each day. CFC even provides bicycles to those students who must travel long distances to school.

Jamie is a three-time recipient of the prestigious “Golden Hand Service Award” bestowed by the Cambodian government (2005, 2010, 2012) to those who give outstanding service to the Cambodian community. She and her husband, Bill, lived in Asia for a decade. They now make their home in Austin, Texas with their six children, including two from Cambodia, all of whom understand the importance of “Being Orange.”

Praise for Jamie C. Amelio
“Cambodia today is still recovering from a difficult past, yet I never give up hope that peace and prosperity are coming. My hope grows stronger because of the work of Caring for Cambodia and Jamie’s message in Graced with Orange that one individual can make a difference, and that many individuals together can create a cascading effect that has the power to change lives.”
—Sichan Siv, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and author of the international bestseller Golden Bones

“Jamie Amelio’s compulsion to breathe new life into the old Killing Fields one school at a time leads to a remarkably moving, personal, and candid journey. There is a profound irony in Amelio’s quest while she is on a mission to rescue perhaps the most decimated, war-torn nation of Southeast Asia; it is that same country that comes to her family’s rescue. Her hard-won lessons in building a whole educational system from scratch should be adopted by U.S. public schools today.”
—Christopher Graves, global CEO, Ogilvy Public Relations
Connect with Jamie at these sites:

  

ABOUT THE BOOK

Bringing Education to the Children of Cambodia, a Woman Finds the True Meaning of Her Own Life.

Readers will be inspired by the children of Cambodia. They are legacies of a genocide that murdered their teachers and many of their family members yet they yearn for the same opportunities young people deserve and desire all over the world a quality education in a safe, nurturing environment with skilled, motivated teachers.

In Cambodia, providing such an education was a huge challenge, but a small group of women in Singapore made it happen. This is the story of how Caring for Cambodia built sixteen life-changing schools, the likes of which were formerly unknown in this troubled third-world nation. It is also the story of how CFC changed the lives of founder Jamie Amelio and many of her friends and family members.

You’ll start out learning how to build a charity from the ground up and end up understanding how ‘giving’ and ‘getting’ can become the same thing.

Cambodia today is still recovering from a difficult past, yet I never give up hope that peace and prosperity are coming. My hope grows stronger because of the work of Caring for Cambodia and Jamie’s message in Graced with Orange that one individual can make a difference, and that many individuals together can create a cascading effect that has the power to change lives. –Sichan Siv, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and author of the international bestseller Golden Bones

Jamie Amelio’s compulsion to breathe new life into the old Killing Fields one school at a time leads to a remarkably moving, personal, and candid journey. There is a profound irony in Amelio’s quest while she is on a mission to rescue perhaps the most decimated, war-torn nation of Southeast Asia, it is that same country that comes to her family’s rescue. Her hard-won lessons in building a whole educational system from scratch should be adopted by U.S. public schools today. –Christopher Graves, global CEO, Ogilvy Public Relations

Graced with Orange is a warm, candid memoir that reveals Jamie Amelio’s visionary dedication to education and her journey to transform the lives of Cambodian children. Through Caring for Cambodia, Jamie has inspired legions of volunteers to believe in the power of education, and this engaging narrative draws us in to share that passion. –Alice P. Gast, president of Lehigh University

Read an excerpt

Rathana and Cherry

Rathana and Cherry

Join Our Family

After the dance troupe’s visit my routine returned to normal, which for

me meant visiting Siem Reap once a month or so in order to continue

improving the schools we had opened and to turn our sights toward opening

others. I also began talking privately with a handful of CFC members

about the idea of bringing a few Cambodian children to Singapore for

an extended stay, not through a formal adoption, but as a way to help

them through elementary and secondary school and perhaps even college.

Together, a handful of us imagined what it would mean both for

them and for our own families.

Meanwhile, I continued to get to know Rathana and Cherry better,

although communicating between visits was difficult. Neither of their

homes had Internet access, although I did occasionally send them short

notes by regular mail, usually just to tell them about my next trip to

Siem Reap.

On one visit I was horrified to learn that Rathana had spent nine

days in the hospital with a tooth abscess. She had become extremely sick,

with the entire left side of her face paralyzed, until the antibiotics finally

kicked in.

Rathana told me she had spent most of her time on a cot in a room

with thirty other sick children, including a number of constantly crying

infants. I was frightened to think of Rathana or Cherry spending their

teenage years in this environment, and it was definitely a motivating factor

in taking my idea a step further.

I hadn’t yet said anything to Bill about inviting a Cambodian child

into our lives, much less both Rathana and Cherry. I was still getting my

own mind around what it would mean for Bill and me and for our kids.

But as usual, Bill knew what I was thinking. Although we hadn’t

yet addressed the issue head on, he had given me plenty of hints that he

wasn’t exactly wild about the idea of adding to our already big, boisterous

family. He would see my reaction after visiting a hospital where parents

had abandoned their children, or hear me comment about how adorable

a little girl or baby was, and he’d say, “Don’t ask. Don’t ask.”

“All right, all right,” I would respond, but my acquiescence was

probably not entirely convincing.

I wanted to choose just the right moment to broach the subject

with Bill. The opportunity came when he had to be in Hong Kong on a

business trip that coincided with our wedding anniversary. I flew there

to meet him for a romantic weekend on a scorching spring day in that

intensely urbanized city-state. My news, I knew, was going to add to the

heat, but I figured I would drop the bomb after a bottle of wine at dinner.

In hindsight it wasn’t really a bomb; it was more like an ambush.

We shed some tears that night, but in the end we were on the same

page, together deciding to invite Rathana and Cherry into our lives. Of

the words we said a few flash in my memory: a commitment to raise them

together and raise them well; thinking outside the box; being blessed and

wanting to share our good fortune with others; and truly believing this

was the right thing to do.

Bill’s version more or less parallels mine:

Our fourth child had just been born when Jamie said to

me, “I really like kids!” I said, “I like kids too, so let’s have

a lot more!” But she said, “No, no, I think I would like to

have a child from Cambodia.” I thought for a while, then

asked if she was serious. “Yes,” she was serious.

I didn’t even think we could legally adopt a child

from Cambodia, particularly an older child, and I wondered

how we would even bring a child over to Singapore.

But Jamie had already come up with the idea of a

guardianship. She told me that others in the Singapore

community were interested too, and she suggested we

bring over a few girls and see how it worked out. One

would live with us, some with others.

Well, it didn’t work out exactly like that. Jamie

returned from Siem Reap one day and said to me, “I

can’t make up my mind. There are these two girls I have

really fallen in love with. They’re great girls and they

have great families over there and we could have them

both come live with us.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said. “Stop for a

minute. We went from zero to now two. This is not like

a buddy system. Why two?” But just like Jamie, she told

me it was all going to work out and she was right. We

ended up with two blessings in our life.

The decision did not end there, of course. This was a family matter,

so when Bill was home next we called a family meeting to discuss the idea

with our kids. We asked for their opinions, starting from the youngest to

the oldest, although we all decided that Avery did not get a vote since she

was only a baby, not even walking or talking yet.

Bronson was in kindergarten. CFC had always been a big part of his

life, so to him this seemed like a natural step. He said “Sure!” right off

the bat.

Riley was in the fourth grade, just a few months younger than

Cherry, and he simply said, “Fine, whatever.”

Austin, although he had just left Singapore for college, loved the

energy the girls brought into our home and gave the idea “a strong

thumbs up.”

It was unanimous.

By this time I knew my idea to have Rathana and Cherry come live

with us for a while would not come as a total shock to either girls’ parents,

but first I wanted to make sure they would be accepted by SAS. This was

only going to work if all the children in the Amelio household attended

the same school, which meant SAS needed to understand and accept the

challenge we were presenting them with. After all, there was no precedent

for this. The girls knew very little English, and surely they wouldn’t

be academically equal to the other SAS students their age.

To his credit, Bob Gross, the superintendent at the time, did not

immediately say no to my crazy idea. I just about begged him to admit

the girls, promising I would personally do whatever it took to make them

eligible for enrollment. Bob was patient and open-minded but also realistic,

more realistic than I was, I’m sure. He agreed to take the first step,

which was to give both girls an assessment test. “Let’s see how they do,”

he cautioned, “and decide after we see the results.”

Since Cherry and Rathana would have to take the test in Singapore,

it was time to talk to them. Rathana has a vivid memory of that moment:

That day when my mom first asked me about living in

Singapore we were in the library reading “The Giving

Tree.” We read it over and over and over until I actually

understood what the story was about. I just liked being

with her even when I didn’t understand a word she said!

I tried to copy her and say the words as she did. And

then she asked me, “Do you want to study, to have a better

education?” And I said, “YES! Yes, that’s what I want

to do.” And then she asked, “Would you like to come to

Singapore?” I thought she was joking. Then Savy came

and asked me, “Are you ready to live in Singapore?” and I

knew. I didn’t doubt myself and I didn’t want to say no. My

answer was, “YES, YES,” off the top of my head. I didn’t

know what it meant back then. I just understood that I

would get a better education.

Later that same day I asked Cherry if she would be interested in

going to Singapore to study. She remembers being shocked:

I didn’t really know what to do. I ran home and asked

my parents, “Ma, what should I do? Dad, what should I

do?” And they said, “You should do whatever you want.

You decide.” And I was like, “Okay, this is a really good

opportunity to see a different world, a different culture,

and learn new things, new experiences, so yeah, okay.”

But I knew it was BIG.

When I talked with Rathana’s and Cherry’s parents, Savy as usual

served as my interpreter. He explained to them that the plan was to have

the girls live with us for a year and see how it went. He tried to convey the

many things they would be doing and learning and seeing. He described

both SAS and our home. It helped that he had visited both. And he

assured them that the girls would stay in regular contact with them, with

frequent phone calls and visits during every school break.

Cherry’s parents in particular, were enthusiastic. They understood

she was being given an extraordinary opportunity, and Cherry was

already a hard-working student, looked up to by the other kids. But I

know the decision to let her go was not easy, particularly for Cherry’s

mother. Cherry is one of just two children and the only girl.

Rathana’s family understood the opportunity at a more practical

place, especially how it could lift her out of the poverty she had known

her entire life and would likely always know. Just being assured of three

meals a day would be something special.

 

As I left each home with the blessings of their parents I promised to

care for the girls as if they were my own. It was an easy promise to make

because I felt that degree of love for them.

Bill and I decided to ease into the situation by having the girls stay

with us for a week in March of 2005 so they could take the assessment test

and begin to get an idea of what living in the Amelio household would

be like for them and for us. Then, if all went well, and assuming SAS

admitted them, they would return a few months later before the start of

the school year.

We welcomed Rathana and Cherry to our home with a little fanfare.

We decorated the house with streamers and balloons and put up big welcome

signs in the bedroom they would be sharing. Our boys were great

and Bill was wonderful too, although we’ve since learned that his gruff

playfulness made them nervous. Over the years Rathana and Cherry

have come to appreciate his dry sense of humor, but back then it was a

little scary for them.

We spent a quiet weekend together, but to the girls it was anything

but uneventful. Just poking around the house, playing computer games

with the other kids, listening to their music, and even flushing the toilets

was an incredible adventure.

This was Rathana’s second trip to Singapore, but Cherry had never

left Cambodia before, so this first trip was particularly momentous for

her. Our bathroom was a special mystery. She couldn’t figure out how to

work the toilet, and I had to show her how to take a bath for the first time.

She remembers the experience like this:

I didn’t really know what to do. I was like, “You just go

in there and stay for what, for a long time?” I was really

confused. And then my mom explained to me, “You just

go in, lie there, and you just clean your body. For five

minutes or ten minutes, you just lie there, and then after

that you rinse yourself. And then after that, you’re clean.”

So I said, “Okay! It’s really, really weird, but I’ll try it.”

Not surprisingly, neither girl scored particularly well on the SAS

assessment test, but Bob Gross was phenomenal and decided to give

them a chance. It was both altruistic and courageous of him to take such

a risk and we will always be grateful for his belief in the girls and in us.

By the time I took Rathana and Cherry back to Cambodia we were

all excited about them coming back a few months later to live with us.

We decided they would both enroll in the sixth grade. Cherry is a year

younger than Rathana but they were at about the same level academically

and I thought it was important that they be in the same class for a number

of reasons. Not only could they support each other, but I would also

be able to help them with the same homework. In addition, SAS wouldn’t

have to have two separate levels of assistance in the classroom.

Our biggest priority during these first few months was improving

the girls’ English skills. Fortunately, Bill Hannagan, the director of SAS’

terrific English as a Second Language (ESL) program, was committed to

finding the necessary teaching staff and other resources to help transition

them into their new lives.

Their marvelous ESL teacher, Sharon Carroll, actually accompanied

them through the hallway the first few weeks of school and for many

years helped them maneuver through their studies. We hired her to tutor

both girls and that made a big difference as well. Once they were able

to communicate a little better, their confusion about almost everything

began to lessen.

Everyone at SAS—the kids, the faculty, the administration, and the

parents—were totally behind the girls’ success. That’s the only way it

would have worked. The welcoming attitude started at the top, with Bill

Hannagan personally telling the student body that these fabulous new

Cambodian girls, who barely spoke a word of English, were matriculating

through their school. He encouraged the other students to assist Rathana

and Cherry in any way they could, and he assigned them buddies who

stayed with them throughout the day. He thoughtfully chose classmates

who had participated in at least one MAD trip to a CFC school because

they knew a little something about where Rathana and Cherry had come

from. The SAS administration also agreed to bend school policy to help

them succeed. They allowed the girls to be graded pass/fail that first year,

an unheard-of act of generosity that totally blew my mind.

Not surprisingly, Cherry and Rathana were in utter culture shock

those first few months during the fall of 2005. Their English was next

to nothing, and everything else was foreign to them as well. Much of

our home time was spent learning words and helping them make sense

of their countless new life experiences. English-Khmer dictionaries were

always at hand, and every member of the Amelio family had his or her

own copy.

Mostly the girls observed for themselves, everything from the chores

they were expected to do around the house, to choosing what to eat in the

cafeteria lunch line. They watched what the other kids did—where they

put their books, how they used their lockers, how to get on a school bus

and buckle their safety belts, and so much more. On top of that, they sat

in classrooms, did their schoolwork, and of course dealt with the social

intricacies of middle school. When I think back on those months I am in

awe of both girls.

The Amelio household too spent the first few months trying to figure

out how all this was going to work. Everything was a learning experience

for all of us. Family outings like going to a restaurant, the beach, shopping,

or out for ice cream became a chance to help Rathana and Cherry

learn new things.

Riley, Bronson, Rathana, Cherry, and I loved watching silly cartoons

together. The girls especially loved Bugs Bunny. At first they couldn’t

understand a word the characters were saying, but the physical humor said

it all. They laughed and laughed, really deep belly laughs, something you

seldom see Cambodian children do. They must have watched the movie

High School Musical thirty times. They may not have understood what

was being said, but they loved the singing and dancing and the obviously

happy ending.

There were also some tough times early on. Cherry in particular

was homesick, and as you can imagine, the hours spent in classrooms

in which no one spoke their language were hugely challenging. Cherry

explains:

The first week I came to Singapore, I pretty much missed

my family. I didn’t know much English and I didn’t feel

people understood me. I had no way of really sharing

my feelings with other people. It was hard to be in class.

I couldn’t understand people talking, or the teacher

explaining. I couldn’t think straight. It was frustrating. I

just didn’t know how to speak English.

Rathana’s experience was similar:

All I knew in class was that a teacher was opening his

mouth, and all I hear is MUTE. It would be traveling in

the brain, like on a train traveling somewhere, but I don’t

know where it was going. I was thinking in Cambodian,

the teacher was talking in English, and I didn’t know

what he was talking about. I didn’t know what I was

supposed to do. I just knew it was scary and I didn’t

understand ANYTHING.

I was frustrated a lot when I couldn’t do my homework

or when a teacher would say, “You don’t have to

turn it in until next week.” I wanted to turn it in the same

time as everyone else. I wanted to have grades. I wanted

to be an actual student. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t read.

I couldn’t do my homework. It was just HARD.

Many times I doubted myself. I thought I was not

smart enough, that I didn’t understand my friends, and

I missed my family. I’m Cambodian; I was so different

from everybody else. They all looked smart and cool and

knew what they were doing. Someone would say that the

boy was “hot,” and I would feel extremely stupid. “He is

not on fire! Why would you say hot?” And they would go,

“What are you talking about? He is on fire!” And I would

say, “He is not on fire!” Why are you guys saying ‘hot’?” I’d

keep doubting myself because I didn’t understand them.

Both girls, but particularly Rathana, also had some stomach issues

due to the radical changes in their diet. If food has been scarce your entire

life you will have a predictable response to suddenly eating three nutritious

meals each day.

At the beginning when Rathana and Cherry sat down at the table,

they would eat like there was no tomorrow. That first year we probably

didn’t say “No” enough. They adored spaghetti and asked for three or

four helpings each time we ate it, something that would make any belly

cry out.

Rathana also tended to get motion sickness in the car. The physical

changes were just plain hard for her.

Bedtime was also difficult. That’s when they missed their families

the most. While we lived in Singapore, they visited their families in Siem

Reap frequently, certainly every Christmas and spring and summer vacations,

but those first weeks away from home were challenging for them.

One night not long after they had arrived I went into their room to

check on them and they were both lying on the floor.

“Girls, come up to the bed,” I told them.

They refused; they did not want to sleep in a bed. They said they had

never slept in a bed and they wanted to sleep on the floor like they did

in Cambodia. They also did not want to be covered by blankets because

they had never slept with anything on top of them. They were not even

accustomed to sheets. After all, in Cambodia they lived in one-room

houses.

I lay down on the floor with them and we read a book together until

they fell asleep. All the while I was thinking, What have I gotten myself

into? I thought that a lot those first months, particularly when one of

the girls was moody or difficult like any pre-teen, but then she would

almost immediately do or say something that would just as quickly melt

my heart.

There were so many gut-wrenching moments, like when I’d see them

walk to the bus stop and board the bus, or when I observed how inseparable

they were. They even showered together. I would cry as I asked

myself, “Is this the right thing to have done? Who am I to say that my life

is better and that this is better for them? Should I have taken them from

their families?” I definitely questioned what I was doing, which I had

never done before about anything related to CFC.

Negotiating school and friends gradually became easier once the

girls began to have a better grasp of English. Meanwhile, Bill and I spent

a lot of time encouraging them to express themselves as best they could.

An important time for us as a family has always been evening meals.

Each night at the dinner table we have a tradition we call “highlights

of the day” in which each person, including guests, is expected to recap

their day’s key moments.

For at least the first year we all kept our English-Khmer dictionaries

beside us as Cherry and Rathana struggled to tell us what they had done

that day. Cherry would sometimes prepare what she was going to say and

memorize it in English. “But then I’d forget and have to open my dictionary

anyway,” she now giggles.

The girls did start to feel comfortable with the Amelio family pretty

quickly, and that at least helped them feel grounded, to feel they had a

safe place to return to each day after the bewilderment they experienced

at school. We also really worked together as a family to get the girls to talk.

As Cherry says, “By the second year I was getting more comfortable

and more confident in myself, especially once I could understand more

English and could say what I wanted to say. And the family gave me a

lot of love, and I just felt connected with them, like we were brother and

sister.”

Another decision that I think helped was my rule of “No Khmer

spoken at home,” though I knew this was hard for them. Whenever I

heard them chattering in Khmer, I’d remind them, “English, girls; English

only!”

I suppose it was the right thing to do. I believed we had to be tough

about them learning English, a key to adjusting to their new lives. Every

day they expressed themselves just a little better, and one day, almost like

someone had pressed a button, they were speaking English. It really did

seem like that, like a remote control was stuck on fast forward. Today the

girls have even mastered teenage colloquial expressions, eye rolling and all.

I also pushed them to get involved in school activities. I thought that

sports would be a universal language, but for diminutive Cherry, this presented

just another challenge. I signed her up for every sport the school

offered, including basketball, soccer, and softball. For a while gym class

was a nightmare, but lo and behold, she ended up loving softball!

It sounds like tough love and I guess it was, but in the Amelio household

tough love always comes with a warm hug. We do a lot of serious

handholding that is quite foreign to Cambodians. If one of the girls did

something wrong, or if I was trying to encourage them to try to do better,

I would hold their hands or hug them as I told them, “Look, no matter

what, I love you.” After a while I think they embraced (hah!) our hugging

tradition with enthusiasm and understanding.

The girls also made a lot of friends that first year, including Alex

McConaghy, Emily Martin, and Cassie Miller. That more than anything

helped with their transition. When I put my ear to their door during

sleepovers or school-related events and heard them all playing and giggling

I couldn’t stop myself from tearing up.

It also helped that both girls knew that plenty of people were rooting

for them—not only their new family and community in Singapore, but

also their family and friends in Cambodia. Cherry explains:

My parent (in Cambodia) is the person who pushed

me a lot. My mom didn’t have much of an education

because of the Khmer Rouge, so she wants me to believe

in myself, and wants women to believe. I would NEVER

give up because I want my family to be proud of me and

so all the people in Cambodia could think that this little

girl can do it, so I can do it.

Rathana always took a more worldly view. She was like that from the

first time I met her in Spien Chrieve:

I had a lot of help from my friends, from my mom, dad,

teachers, and tutor. Everybody was willing to help. I

think about the encouragement I got from people when I

was down, how everybody was helping me. That’s one of

the things I told myself, that other people hadn’t given up

on me. That’s something that kept me going.

My mom’s speech at ArtAid, talking about how she

wanted to change the world and change Cambodia and

how her present as a Mother’s Day gift was a school,

made me realize that my coming to Singapore wasn’t to

be an “American girl.” My goal was to come here to get

an education, not to try and fit in with the girls at school.

There was so much more for me to worry about than just

trying to fit in. That’s what made me realize that this is

my dream, that I can’t give up now.

A turning point for me occurred in January of 2006 when Rathana

and Cherry returned to Singapore after visiting their families over the

Christmas holiday. When I went to pick them up at the Singapore Airport

all I could think was, “Here are my girls! They’re coming home!” It felt

so natural, like my own kids returning from summer camp. I just wanted

Rathana and Cherry back and to return to the swing of things. Best of all,

when they walked off the plane, I could see in their faces that they felt the

same way.

The girls gradually became more and more familiar with us and with

Western life, and our family with them. I think I know when I started

thinking that all this might actually work out. It was in year two, when

all the kids stopped being on their best behavior and started to argue like

real brothers and sisters.

Remember, Rathana and Cherry were pre-teens when they came to

live with us, and we all know the hormonal challenges posed by that age

and the subsequent teenage years. We had the typical tears and displays of

emotion, another characteristic contrary to the way Rathana and Cherry

were raised. Cambodians don’t cry. I had to explain to them that in my

world it was okay to cry if they were frustrated, mad, sad, or even happy.

Watching the girls grow and adapt to their new environment has

been one of the most remarkable experiences of my life, like watching

a film strip of girls growing, coping, learning, blooming. Not all the

changes have been completely positive, of course. What parent hasn’t

been exasperated with her teenager and what teenager hasn’t decided at

some point that her parents are dolts?

Adopted children also have challenges all their own, and Cherry and

Rathana were dealing with two separate families. Nonetheless, I could see

that they were adapting. In the early days, for instance, the girls were very

careful and orderly about their space. They made their beds every day

and put away their clothes in just the right place. They really respected

and appreciated what they had. To take them shopping and get them a

pair of shoes was an experience for all of us. But like many kids, they went

through periods of entitlement in which they expected to be given rather

than to earn the good things in life. This did not happen all the time by

any means, but it happened, and it was something Bill and I worked hard

to confront in all our kids.

Having Rathana and Cherry become part of our family changed

us too. “We’ve had our share of struggles,” says Bill. “We’ve had sibling

rivalry that was difficult and we had to help the kids manage that, but I

think that having them in our family has helped ground all our kids by

learning the importance of sharing what you have.”

Bill and I have also had a ringside seat watching them grow into

young ladies. Bill says:

It’s been wonderful to watch them develop over the last six

years—to see the successes and accomplishments they’ve

had, but also the struggles and the way they’ve been able

to rise above all the obstacles they faced and still have a

solid connection with their families in Cambodia. That

connection is still there with regular Skype calls. Yet here

in America they’re part of our family. They call Jamie

and me “Mom” and “Dad.” They’re connected to all of

our kids. It’s been a privilege to watch, and the impact it

has had on our family is quite amazing.

Rathana and Cherry also offered us a window into the changes we

were making at our CFC schools, since they had experienced both the

before and after. Rathana remembers it this way:

The first time I went to school in Cambodia I remember

the grass being up to my waist and having to dig through

it. My class had eighty-eight kids in it. Many of them

would pay the teacher to pass them so they could go on

to the next class, but some of us didn’t have the money

to pay the teacher, so no matter how hard we worked we

would be at the bottom of the class.

All we knew about going to school was sitting

around the tables, listening to the teacher. It wasn’t really

about learning anything, but just being around people.

People would never talk about their feelings, their

problems, or what was going on at home. Or what they

knew about the world or politics. We didn’t think we

had the right to talk about it. My parents, they told me

not to talk about it because when they were growing

up, during Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, they were not

allowed to speak about their father or about politics or

if they loved the king or what they learned at school. So

I think that image of being afraid of your own people,

of people around you, scares them. Sharing your feelings

or wanting to change scares them. And they wanted to

teach their children that way too. You’re not supposed to

share your feelings; you’ve got to hold them in because

you don’t want to die. So that’s what the children did.

They learned to hold it in and keep it out, always smiling.

Smiling is the key.

Sometimes the teachers didn’t show up, or sometimes

they had outside jobs or they had family business

to do. We would just sit in class until 5:00 o’clock or when

it was time to go home. We would start talking, laughing,

dancing. Or sometimes we would pretend we were teaching,

or we would make up a song about the rain.

But I couldn’t really blame the teacher. She needed

the money to support her family. I was just frustrated

about the whole thing. It shouldn’t work that way.

Cherry also remembers what school was like in Cambodia:

Our school didn’t have much of a roof, so when it rained

we had to duck under the tables so we wouldn’t get wet.

There were a lot of spider webs everywhere, and we didn’t

really clean it. We didn’t really care about the classroom

that much. Now when I go to Cambodia and see all the

change, it is really cool. We have art and drawings everywhere.

And children sit reading library books. I was like,

“Oh my gosh, they actually learn things!” And they try

their best. It is really, really fun to see that.

Rathana agrees:

The teachers love teaching! They teach the children as

much as they can by getting them to talk, to communicate.

They’re aware of the Cambodian environment and policy

and politics and they try to share that with the children.

Rathana (center left) and Cherry (center right) at the Kong Much opening ceremony.

Christy and Madi Miller are to the right of Cherry; Jill Kirwin is to the left of Rathana.

and Bronson is behind her.

Predicting your children’s future is a fool’s errand, but if I were to

guess, I would say that Cherry will probably be the one to return to

Cambodia. She’s always saying that whatever she does, she wants to give

back to her country.

Rathana is more the artistic type. I can imagine her going to school

in Paris someday. But then again, Rathana says she wants to return to live

in Cambodia too, so maybe after Paris?

Rathana says:

After living with the Amelio family, I questioned the

world. I questioned a lot: “What’s my purpose here?

What am I doing here? What am I going to do with my

education? What am I going to do in Cambodia?”

I do believe that everybody is here for a purpose.

One is to help others, and the other is to help yourself.

By helping others, without realizing it you are helping

yourself too. And with this education I am having, I

definitely want to go back and share my story with the

children of Cambodia. I will tell them that everybody

has a purpose and that my purpose is to come back and

share my words with my people, telling them not to be

afraid, not to be afraid of change.

My mom in Cambodia would always tell me that

wherever you are in life, you have to go as the river flows.

You have to turn, you have to twist, you have to go backwards

if that’s where it’s taking you. Like a river, life is

always up and bouncing, bumpy, smooth, turning left or

right. But if you want to go toward your destiny, toward

your dreams and hopes, you have to turn the way it takes

you. If it tells you to go right, you have go to the right.

If it’s bumpy, you have go with the bumps, and if it’s

smooth, sometimes it’s just like that. Life is smooth and

bumpy and you have to go with it.

I constantly tell Rathana and Cherry that if any two kids can do

something amazing with their lives, they can. They already have.

“You came to a country where everyone spoke English but you spoke

none,” I remind them. “You never should have made it at SAS, but you

did. Not only that, but by the time you left, you were on the honor role.”

They are my heroes.

BOOK DETAILS:

Genre: non-fiction.
Published by: Meadow Lane Publishing
Publication date: June 2013
Number of Pages: 250
ISBN 13: 978-0-9860258-0-8

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