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.”
“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:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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?
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.