New Year and Life Updates (April 2019 Update)

សួស្តីឆ្នាំថ្មី!  Happy New Year! 

One of the things I loved about Cambodia is the fact that they celebrate THREE New Year’s – International New Years, Lunar New Years and Khmer New Years!  April is all about Khmer New Year – think of it as a cross between our Christmas and Thanksgiving holiday for a week-long celebration.  Everyone heads to their hometown province to eat good food, play games and celebrate.  Bullet and I took Sharron, my co-worker from MRO, to Kampot to celebrate.  Sharron has only been in Cambodia for a few months so it was fun to watch her child-like excitement for our trip down to Kampot and even she participated in some of the water fights happening around the town.

(Bullet resting after a swim in the Kampot River.)
(Bullet resting after a swim in the Kampot River.)

Things are work has been chugging along.  I’ve been working on creating a digital library for our Social Work team and partner organizations to be able to access for great resources MRO has created in the past and working to publish in the future.

(MRO monthly staff meeting.)
(MRO monthly staff meeting.)

I started Level 5 Khmer at G2K.  I’m doing this session part-time and will finish right before flying home to the States.  This module is completely in Khmer script which I’m finding a little difficult, but I’ve found grace in sitting next to the kind British woman, who reads the assignments out loud in Khmer for me to follow along.  On the positive side, I feel like, between language school, work and prayer riders my speaking and comprehension has grown by leaps and bounds!

(First day of Level 5 Khmer.)
(First day of Level 5 Khmer.)

I went on an additional ride with some expats and young Khmer men to Mount Chissor.  It was a beautiful ride, a great time outside the city and hopefully, some girls will join us for the next ride!

(The guys and I at the base of Mount Chissor.)
(The guys and I at the base of Mount Chissor.)

The last bit of news is that I’ve finalized my trip back home to the USA!  Bullet and I will be leaving Cambodia June 30th and headed to my folk’s house near Boston, Massachusetts to celebrate 4th of July and recover from jetlag.  Bullet’s travels end in Boston and he’ll be spending the next 2.5 months enjoying GRASS and CLEAN AIR with my parents.  July 7th through 20th, I’ll be in Philadelphia attending Interserve’s missionary training session.  I’m excited to connect with future missionaries and learn more about the North America team I’ll be joining.  Then I’ll be back at my parent’s house catching up with East Coast family and friends until August 5th when I fly to Portland!  I’ll be in Portland until September 3rd.  When I’ll be flying back to the East Coast for a little bit of vacation and family time.  Then Bullet and I fly back to Cambodia on September 16th.

(My USA tour dates.)

During my time home, I would seriously love to catch up with all of you.  I’ll be sending out a few more updates about events I’ll be at so you can learn more about the work I’m doing in Cambodia and how to get more involved.  I’d also love it if your business, small group or church would be interested in partnering with me and what that would look like.  If that is you, please let me know and we can set something up.

(Hoping to continue this journey in Cambodia - the beautiful and the messy - with you.)
(Hoping to continue this journey in Cambodia – the beautiful and the messy – with you.)

Enough about me, how have you been doing?  What is happening in your life and how I can be praying for you. I look forward to hearing from you!  As always prayer requests are below.

Hugs from Cambo,
ជេនណា / Jenna (and Bullet)

(Top of Mt. Chissor - where high places are Holy places.)
(Top of Mt. Chissor – where high places are Holy places.)

P.S. In April, I kicked off a month-long Bible Study about being a missionary and worldviews in anticipation of meeting the rest of the USA Interserve office this July.  I have a digital copy of the Bible Study if anyone is interested in joining me in the study or chatting about it.

I would really appreciate you joining me in prayer in the following ways:

1.  Continued prayer for my uncle and his family while he battles brain cancer.
2.  That I can get as much done with work and all the logistics that go into flying back to the States in six weeks.
3.  Open hearts and finances while I’m home to reconnect with family, friends and fundraise.

M’lup Russey 2018 Impact Videos

This was another project I’ve spent a lot of time working on during the first couple of months at M’lup Russey (MRO). In 2018, MRO hired a local video producer to create a series of videos highlighting the impact MRO has with orphans and vulnerable children all over Cambodia. When I joined MRO, the videos had just been completed. I spent some time figuring out the history of these videos, what all the acronyms stood for and how to tell a cohesive story with the English captions. We went through an editing process with the video producer. While he was working on the edits, I worked with our IT team at MRO to research our YouTube channel. I found out MRO had two YouTube channels, but only had access to one of them. That was definitely an interesting learning experience talking through technology challenges with the staff. With a little bit of brainstorming, we came up with a solution. Created MRO’s first YouTube playlist and uploaded all these videos and their captions to YouTube during the first few weeks of our daily power cuts! What a feat! Then I drafted an English blog post for the leadership team to review. All that being said, I’m super proud of the work MRO completed in 2018 – and as the blog post says, I can’t wait to see what is accomplished in 2019!

In 2018, M’lup Russey Organization partnered with a local video producer to create a series of impact videos highlighting the work M’lup Russey Organization did in 2018.  We were able to get these short films edited and published them on YouTube and Facebook. We are super excited about the work M’lup Russey Organization did in 2018. This video series highlights some of the amazing results M’lup Russey Organization had last year.  We can’t wait to see what we can accomplish in 2019.

Takream Role Models

In Battambang Province, Role Models are committed to their volunteer position, to help the children in their community.  They are striving to mobilize friends to join them. Key community members are volunteering as Role Models. Most of the young adults living in residential centers have become alienated from their own biological families and are unable or do not want to return to the villages they came from.  When they leave the centers, they will need to live in the city and town communities, where they have few links with people they can trust. M’lup Russey Organization (MRO) recruits ordinary, community people from around the city to be Role Models and mentors for the young people as they prepare to leave the orphanages. These community Role Models are trained in listening skills, child protection, self-awareness and the effects of institutionalization as they form relationships with young people. As the relationships deepen, they are encouraged to meet together regularly. Role Models are also encouraged to offer work experience placements at their family businesses.  They have taken the initiative to map out their own resources, to help their own community, orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) and the poor. By raising support from community people, some of the young people have been supported with cash and some with study materials. As a result of one joint training session, between Role Models and Community Support Group, one local man took action, to be reunited with his own children through reintegration.  After communicating to local authorities and Residential Care Institution (RCI) Directors. He was successful! He has now become a Role Model, helping many of his fellow villagers.

Takream Battambang Community Support Group

The Consultant Team visited Battambang.  There a local church shelter has become the gathering place for educational activities.  The head of a Community Support Group (CSG), Mr. Roeung Thom, replicated his experience in dealing with the issues of community children.  The contributions are leading to many positive outcomes. The school dropout rate of children in Takream Commune has improved. In 2018, the dropout rate has been significantly reduced.  There is no more child labor exploitation in the village. No more child violation.  Child safety, child rights, and hygiene have all improved.  The Community Support Group (CSG) also confirmed that many villagers have committed to re-enroll their children into school, and they possess a better understanding of the value of childcare and child education. More Emergency Foster Care (EFC) families are recruited.  Orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) are well documented. Community Role Models are organized to give support to the unmotivated children in school. The Community Support Group (CSG) works with the local authorities to promote civil registration for every child. School-aged children are identified and encouraged to enroll in school. The Community Support Group (CSG) is very active in public dissemination and community awareness sessions.  In addition to all this, donations and support are truly reaching the poor. A US charity is also supporting the village because the Community Support Group (CSG) and the local authority understand all the factors that may affect children. The holistic approach of the Community Support Group members is creating real change.

Kandal Emergency Foster Care Family #3

The Consultant Team headed to Kandal, to meet with an Emergency Foster Care Family.  Emergency Foster Care (EFC) families have opened their homes and their hearts to receive orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) in crisis situations.  This is a huge outcome to see. It is important that Emergency Foster Care (EFC) families have such big hearts to foster children from difficult situations.  Although they went through the necessary recruitment process and met the selection criteria, the most important characteristic is the ability to be sympathetic with orphans and vulnerable children (OVC).  They know that the children they are going to foster are traumatized children with complex needs who come from difficult situations. Some have histories of abuse or have difficult behaviors or poor health.  Although this could affect the foster family’s biological family, they are still able to cope with it very well and want to be good Foster Parents. With the training they have received from M’lup Russey Organization (MRO), they have learned to teach children to recognize their own value, stand strong for their own future, their community and society.  Foster Parents have accepted children from any situation, without discrimination. They also share how to take good care of others, including their neighbors and the elderly in the community. With ongoing support provided by M’lup Russey Organization (MRO) Social Work Team, the Foster Parents believe that they can do a great job looking after their Foster Children. The Foster Parents receive a small financial benefit and are regularly supplied with materials to help them care for the children well, and there is a continued emphasis on training and development. They are also regularly visited by the Social Work Team and have close and respectful relationships, and these are all things that they consider as motivation to perform their role as Foster Parents even better!

Battambang Careleavers

The Consultant Team met with Careleavers for a focus group discussion.   Careleavers are those youth who previously lived in a Residential Care Institution (RCI).  The purpose of the Careleaver Support Network is to link the youth into the network after they leave from the orphanages to live in the community. The Careleaver Support Network supports the Careleavers and our hope is to see them have safety, freedom, and knowledge that can improve their independent lives in the community. M’lup Russey Organization (MRO) also supports their mental health and emotional wellbeing. There are also some activities supporting and developing the capacity of the members of the Careleaver Support Network after they reunify with their community. The Team found that in 2017, 119 Careleavers who had left the RCI had a better experience living independently after linking with the network.  They improved their living conditions step by step, by staying in contact with the Residential Care Institutions (RCI) and acting as a resource for children still there. They provided feedback to the younger generation and shared their experiences of transition. This wasn’t just to the children in the Residential Care Institutions (RCI). They took their experiences and feedback and shared with orphans and vulnerable children who lived in their new community. Life experience sharing is an important strategy that helps to prepare youth at the Residential Care Institutions (RCI) for reintegration into their families and society, prepares them for independence when they leave. It also helps children in the community understand the difficulties faced by children living in residential care. Even though the Careleavers had had to leave the orphanages for a variety of reasons, including dismissal or aging out, being asked to leave or facing conflict within the Residential Care Institution (RCI), yet they were still willing to share their experiences.  This is a great flow of support from those who know clearly about the issues facing young people in transition to life in the community after institutionalization.  It was agreed by the youth that M’lup Russey Organization’s (MRO) Youth Support Sector played a catalyst role in this outcome.

Kandal Emergency Foster Care Family #2

The Consultant Team headed to meet with an Emergency Foster Care Family.  M’lup Russey Organization’s (MRO) Social Work Team worked with other relevant partners to discuss and find solutions to improve the overall service of foster care provision throughout Cambodia.   As a result of the meetings, psychological support to foster families has been useful for the families in keeping them emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically calm and free of tension from taking care of the foster children. Emergency Foster Care (EFC) families understand that physical punishment is not a good option, as it is widely perceived to be in Cambodia. Emergency Foster Care (EFC) families also understand the individual differences of the children and accept these differences.  This thinking and behavior, along with the collaboration between M’lup Russey Organization (MRO) and relevant partners, is applied within all Emergency Foster Care (EFC) families. The children have been getting the best service from their M’lup Russey Organization’s Emergency Foster Care Families. This successful M’lup Russey Organization’s Emergency Foster Care model and practices have been shared out and is known by other partners and authorities that are choosing to follow this model.

Kandal Emergency Foster Care Family #1

The Evaluation Team met with an Emergency Foster Care Family in Kandal Province.  The Emergency Foster Care (EFC) Families do not only give care and a safe environment, they teach the children to be good people  – but to do this the parents have to be good parents and good people too! In 2018, Emergency Foster Care (EFC) Families across target areas rated themselves as good citizens.  Emergency Foster Care (EFC) Families in Kandal informed our Evaluator that they lived their life in a very careful way. They lived well, behaved well with honorable characteristics.  They believe that how they act affects the children, so they have to do everything in good ways. They feel that they gained benefits from M’lup Russey Organization (MRO) and the Social Work Team by gaining new knowledge, respect, and understanding of parenting skills, the rights of children, prevention of child exploitation and child protection, proper childcare, parenting skills, and other necessary and important skills.  This unexpected outcome is a real testament to the effectiveness of the M’lup Russey Organization’s Emergency Foster Care program.

Battambang Young Adult Orphans

The Consultant Team met with Community Youth from Battambang Province.  Following community awareness by M’lup Russey Organization (MRO) Community Support Sector Staff,  M’lup Russey Organization (MRO) wants to see key community members model practical application of alternative care policy in order to support the proper reintegration of children and youth out of orphanages.  Using careful action-reflection processes at the higher levels of participation, the community take the initiative to control their own stability and security. Family and community is the priority environment for providing the best holistic development for children. It is much better for them than living in the orphanage.  A number of outcomes were discussed. Community awareness played a key role in building community consciousness and knowledge about child protection and childcare. It is important that community youth understand their own rights, including protection, care and how to protect themselves from risk and vulnerable situations. They now know how to hold consultations on issues of concern.  The community youth voluntarily organized themselves into a youth club and a Child Safety Network. Through youth club activities, M’lup Russey seeks to enhance youth’s abilities by training them on how to be good leaders, facilitators, and responsible people. We help them improve their communication skills, work skills, and soft skills. We also empower young people to have a voice in their communities, to find freedom of expression and to prepare for independence. Some of the other benefits when they are involved in the youth clubs are that they have an opportunity to get vocational training, three months working experience in M’lup Russey Organization (MRO); opportunity to join the Role Model Program which helps them to find a person who could listen to them, to share the experience of living in the community and motivation to reach their goal; to understand the purpose of child protection, development; and the promotion of child rights.  They also visit and take note of children’s issues in their communities. They are courageous to provide intervention when cases of child abuse occur.

Community Support Group, Moung Village, Battambang

The Consultant Team visited Battambang, for a focus group discussion with Commune Support Group Members.  They found that in 2017–2018, community members changed their practice of family care for children. They paid more attention to their children, making sure they were attending school.  As a result of this school enrollment of children in that community has risen.  A great outcome!  The Commune Support Group (CSG) and the Child Safety Network agreed that they now have a better understanding of the value of childcare and education.  This knowledge leads to a significant reduction in violence against children and child labor exploitation, which they now monitor very closely.

Community Support Group, Makak Village, Pursath

The Consultant Team headed to Pursat to meet with Community Support Group members for a focus group discussion in Makak Village.  They discussed many outcomes, but one unintended outcome was very interesting. Members stated that domestic violence had been reduced from 40% in 2015 to 10% in 2017.  This reduction of domestic violence created a comfortable family care environment for children and their families within their community.  It gave children a natural and beautiful family lifestyle.  Regular awareness sessions were delivered on child rights, domestic violence, health, sanitation, and hygiene.  Community members experienced a change, transforming them into non-violent minded individuals. With ongoing support from Community Support Group (CSG) members, continued community training and awareness sessions, we hope that key members of each community will continue to solve their own challenges.

Pursat Town Office Commune Women and Children Committee

Pursat Town Director of Child Welfare & the Commune Woman and Children Committee (CWCC) had an outcome harvesting focus group discussion.  In 2018, CWCC in both Pursat and Battambang gave a high appreciation to the support of M’lup Russey Organization (MRO). “Without MRO, we would not have become who we are today.”  “We paid attention to every child in our communes.”  The knowledge they gained from M’lup Russey Organization (MRO) made them change behaviors and practices towards children.  Vulnerable children have received interventions by Commune Woman and Children Committee (CWCC) with the proper reintegration process.  Commune Woman and Children Committee (CWCC) advocated for the basic needs of children: food, school materials, and school uniforms. They no longer look at neglect as a private issue and consider care of orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) as an issue of the community.  Training provided by M’lup Russey Organization (MRO) has helped Commune Woman and Children Committee (CWCC) to have a better understanding of policies, knowledge on how to fill out the forms of alternative care, how to identify orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) and how to manage the children’s needs.  This application of knowledge is changing lives and whole communities.

Battambang Town Residential Care Institutions

The Consulting Team met with representatives of Residential Care Institutions (RCI) in the Battambang Province.  During 2017-2018 a group network for better interaction and knowledge sharing was formed. This pilot focus was a result of M’lup Russey Organization (MRO) and Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Support (MoSVY) agreeing to work with the Residential Care Institutions (RCI) across Cambodia.  With that endorsement, Residential Care Institutions (RCI) were organized in Battambang to be equipped with child protection skills, childcare standards and the application of the accepted best practice process of alternative care, as well as preparation to transform to be community-based care institutions.  M’lup Russey Organization (MRO) supported Residential Care Institutions (RCI) in transforming from center-based care to community-based care. They are then linked together as a supported network, with ongoing training and field visits. Residential Care Institutions (RCI) Directors who’ve transitioned to community-based care, show they can work very well together as a network,  work to achieve better residential care and know that a collective competence is only achieved through collaboration.

Battambang Town Director of Child Welfare and Commune Women and Children Committee

The Consultant Team met with the Municipal Office of Social Affairs,  where they held a focus group discussion with the Director of Child Welfare and members of the Woman and Children Consultancy Committee (CWCC).  M’lup Russey Organization (MRO) provided Community Budget Plan Training and orphan and vulnerable children (OVC) Data Collection Training. Following this training, authorities at the national level have shared their best practices working with orphans and vulnerable children (OVC), monitoring and evaluation (M&E) and data management for sub-national authorities to implement and to strengthen the collection of data about orphans and vulnerable children (OVC).  Data is collected using a tablet device by way of an online application. Authorities at the sub-national level used the guidelines to make budget plans. The budget plans were used for vulnerable children and the authorities are now active in collecting data about orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) and reporting. This is a great step forward!

Interested in learning more about the work M’lup Russey Organization does in Cambodia? Please visit our website: http://mluprussey.org.kh/ and subscribe to our YouTube channel.

One more thing to add, Sarah Chhin, M’lup Russey Organization’s Country Director wrote a little recap of (almost) everything MRO accomplished in 2018. I was only at MRO for two months in 2018, but it was so cool to witness the team working together making these goals a reality. Here is the list she created:

  • Trained 70 Orphanage Directors in two provinces.
  • Supported 25 orphanages in two provinces to transition towards caring for children in the community.
  • Trained and supported 89 Careleavers in four provinces.
  • Trained and supported 501 youth living in 25 orphanages in four provinces.
  • Provided Social Work services to 95 vulnerable children and their families.
  • Cared for 34 vulnerable children in 10 Emergency Foster Care families.
  • Helped local authorities provide support to 127 vulnerable children.
  • Trained 350 local authority officials in eight provinces.
  • Provided technical support of case management for 27 local authority officials in nine provinces.
  • Trained 160 NGO staff members.
  • Trained 80 community people to be mentors for young people living in orphanages.
  • Supported 50 young people living in orphanages with mentors.
  • Trained 39 community people to be mentors to vulnerable youth in their communities.
  • Supported 19 vulnerable youth in communities with a mentor.
  • Trained and supported 102 key community members in 10 villages in three provinces.
  • Trained and supported 38 members of three Youth Peer Action Groups in three villages in three provinces.
  • Helped 10 churches in one province to support their local communities.
  • Helped 13 Community Support Groups in three provinces provide training and support to 462 members of their community.

Again, I can’t wait to see what MRO can accomplish in 2019!

It’s getting hot, hot, hot! (March 2019 Update)

What does a nation do when its power needs are higher than the amount of power it can create?  Issue mandatory power cuts on a daily basis for 5-6 hours a day!  Just when you think you get into a routine here in Cambodia, Cambodia throws you a curve ball.  March was the month of adjusting to new schedules.  What does work look like when there is no power?  How do I take a shower or flush my toilet when there is no running water?  Who do I know who has access to a generator?  What is my new coffee budget?  (Buying something at a restaurant gives you sweet AC relief.) If anything, these power outages have taught me so much about the resiliency of the Khmer people.  How to practice compassion towards others and being kinder to one’s self.  We are all in this together and with friends, we can all get through it.  (Especially if Jenna wakes up before the power cuts happen so she can use her electrical kettle to boil water for coffee instead of on her gas top because it turns our kitchen into an inferno when there is no electricity to run the fan.)

(My new big bucket that I keep in the bathroom filled for showering, hand washing and “flushing” during power outages.)

March was book-ended by American visitors.  At the beginning of the month, my mom, Nancy, came to visit me for a few days.  I was able to take her to Kampot and show her my favorite town.  One night, we rode an hour to the coast to Kep and sat on the exact same beach she took me to 4.5  years ago when I felt called to move to Cambodia.  It was such a relaxing, special time.  At the end of the month, while on Spring Break (they are teachers), my friends Stephanie and Ben, came to visit me.  Three years ago, we hiked Manchu Pichu together.  It was fun to get the dream team back together.

(Mom and I in Kampot.)
(Ben, Stephanie and I in Siem Reap.)

Work in March was a little crazy with everyone struggling to figure out what their building’s power cut schedules were.  I taught an Online Sales Platform class for NOMI Network.  It was awesome to meet with so many freedom business leaders (those who employ disadvantaged people as an alternative to human trafficking) who want to sell their products online to an international market.  But eye-opening to the struggles they face.  Infrastructure issues (like power outages and shipping) to financial problems (like PayPal isn’t available in Cambodia).

(The awesome female leadership in freedom businesses in Cambodia.)

I also started working eight hours a week for business as missions company called Web Essentials.  It was started by an Interserve (the sending agency I’m hoping to join) member who has grown it to a very reputable web development company.  I’m helping out in their marketing team, but in reality, I’m getting an inside look at what it’s like to run an ethical business here in Cambodia.  Something I hope to be doing in the future here in Cambodia.

There are a lot of moving parts happening at M’lup Russey Organization (MRO).  Most of March was spent collecting resources, translating content and asking questions about how things have been done in the past and what hopes the organization has for running things in the future.  In April, we rolled out some exciting documentation and hope to release a few more projects in the near future.

I completed my Community Healthcare Course at G2K.  It was a really fun class and I’m already putting my new language skills to work here in Cambodia.  Typically joking about how my “សាច់ដុំ” (muscles) hurt from riding. Or asking how people are feeling at work. I can also understand more prayer requests, which is encouraging and ask follow up questions about various family members. I’ve found it easier to tell my friends about my uncle’s cancer diagnosis in Khmer since I’m so focused on the words, I don’t get overwhelmed with emotions, which is a very interesting blessing.

(“Graduation” photograph from Community Health.  An international community from Canada, USA, El Salvador, and the Netherlands.)

Speaking of riding, I got in one charity ride in during March!  It felt good to get back on my bike and NOT have heat rash.  The ride was a fundraiser for Teen Challenge, which operates here in Cambodia, as a drug rehabilitation program.  I made some new Khmer friends at the ride and have enjoyed continuing to ride with them on the weekends.  They have been showing me some other places to explore near Phnom Penh.

(Charity Ride Team.)

The other big piece of news is that I’ve officially booked my plane ticket to Portland, Oregon!  (I still haven’t booked my international plane tickets yet – so East Coast friends, sit tight.  I’ll send you details soon.)  I’ll be in Portland, Oregon August 5 through September 3, 2019!  I want to hang out with you!  Let me know what you are up to and we can plan a hang out session.  I’m also looking for a place to stay during that time AND for opportunities to speak with people who are interested in learning more about what is happening in Cambodia and the work I’m doing here.  If you have a place for me to stay or know anyone interested in learning about Cambodia.  Please let me know by sending me a quick email.

(“You are the salt of the earth.” – Matthew 5:13.  Photo from the salt fields of Kampot.)

Speaking of emails. You can always send me an email sharing how have you are doing?  I love hearing what is happening in your life and how I can be praying for you. I look forward to hearing from you!  As always prayer requests are below.

Lastly, In March, I started reading two new books (haven’t finished them yet).  One is called “Bad Blood”, which is all about the rise and fall of Silicon Valley’s Theranos, a blood testing company.  The second is called “The Water Cure” which is a “The Handmaiden’s Tale” – eques book.

I would really appreciate you joining me in prayer in the following ways:

1.  Continued prayer for my Uncle Clay and his family while he battles brain cancer.  He just completed his first week of treatment and is doing great.  Please pray that his strength continues to remain strong and for his family as they adjust to their new life routines.
2.  For great tenants for my house in Portland.  The small amount of profit I make on renting out my house is my emergency fund here in Cambodia.  It’s a little stressful to be pulling from your emergency fund to be paying for your mortgage instead of adding to it.  I’m trusting God will be faithful in providing great tenants and that soon I’ll be back to adding to my emergency fund.
3.  For wisdom and logistics as I start gearing up for my trip home this summer.  I can’t wait to see you all this summer, but I don’t want to get too caught up in thinking about the future and miss out on things here in Cambodia.  Sometimes I feel like I have one foot in the future – catching up, meeting babies, celebrating weddings, speaking events, craft beer and ice cream – and one foot here in Cambodia – work, friends, motorcycle prayer rides.

“Why Not a Family?”

I just wanted to share a little update update about a project I am working on at work. I’m working on getting a backlog of information digitalized and published on our website so our partners, donors and social work team can have access to more information and training. “Why Not a Family?” is one of those blocks of information. I think it’s a great informative tool to help explain to Khmer and expats what some of the benefits of family-based care for orphans and vulnerable children. If you have any questions about the information below. Please don’t hesitate to reach out.

“Why Not a Family?” is a short documentary that highlights the value of family in the lives of children growing up.  This video provides insights from three organizations that have years of work experience in Cambodia supporting orphans and vulnerable children through provision of family-based care.

Imagine a grandmother, caring for three grandchildren and struggling to raise them. The grandchildren need uniforms and books to attend school.  She wants to send her grandchildren to school. Her neighbor tells her about an orphanage that could supply her grandchildren with school uniforms and books for their education.

She refuses until one day, when she does not have a rice crop, she is forced to bring her grandchildren to an orphanage. After that, the grandchildren grow up receiving education and enough food, but they are no longer close to their family.

They are not at home. They are separated from their family.  They do not receive the warmth of love and care. Volunteer teams often come to visit the children.  It looks like another world from what they were used to at home. Then one day, they have to leave the orphanage.

They are now teens and cannot be in an orphanage anymore.  They also cannot live with their family and former community, because they have been separated for so long and thus no longer see a place for themselves in the village with their family. They are on their own. However, in Cambodian society, relationships, family and community are important. These grandchildren feel scared and alone.  “Even though they lack a livelihood, they lacked everything in the family, but they did not want to separate from their families!” say Phan Chak of Bridges Organization.

Today, up to 80% of children living in orphanages in Cambodia have at least one surviving parent.  Most children have relatives who can care for them, if those families were supported. This figure coincides with global scale.

According to research launched in 2012, 90% of Cambodians asked felt that poor families should send their children to orphanages if the family could not provide their children with access to education.

Family-based care is a critical concept in the Policy for the Alternative Care of Children of the Royal Government of Cambodia, with care in a family being the priority choice for all orphans and vulnerable children. Growing children develop better in families and communities where families get support in caring for them.  Experts around the world believe that residential care is a weak solution for solving low-income problems. Orphanages should be temporary and a last resort, not the first option.  “Why not choose a family? It is cost effective. It is natural and it promotes the whole society,” says Cathleen Jones, Founder of Children in Families.

The solution?

Family-based care means keeping the children in close proximity with close relatives or living with a second family (foster family) who can support them.  This is a better and more effective way. UNICEF, Save the Children and other organizations worldwide support family-based care as the best option for orphans and vulnerable children.

Currently in Cambodia, some families have been successful in caring for additional children because there are organizations that can provide them with additional income, rice, and  minimum tuition fees for education. Staff from these organizations monitor and track development monthly.

Family-based care programs operate in many developing countries, including Cambodia.  The programs require strong case management structures and social work staff, but supporting children to live permanently in a family needs only a small portion of the cost it takes to bring up a child in an orphanage.  Family-based care is the best option for children who need long term alternative care.

The Royal Government of Cambodia has a policy to reduce the numbers of children living in residential care and is encouraging orphanages to transform into providing family- and community-based care.  Transforming orphanages into centers that empower communities to support and strengthen local families to care for their own children is a vision for a bright future for Cambodian families and Cambodian society.

There are some who are worried that a reduction in the numbers of orphanages will mean a reduction in educational opportunities available for poor children. Others are concerned for those children in crisis situations.  However there are family- and community-based services and program models which can provide the appropriate support, protection and care for the children in these circumstances, without resorting to long term residential care.

Why not support a program that is supporting and strengthening poor families and their children in their local community?

There are three ways you can help share this information:

  1. Show this video to community members as well as other institution heads, then discuss family-based alternative care.
  2. Talk about the importance of caring for children in a family in your community.
  3. To help your organization become an organization that supports family-based care, be sure to let M’lup Russey know.  We can provide additional training.

You can watch the entire “Why Not a Family” video here:

Additional translations can be found on M’lup Russey Organization’s YouTube page.

For more information about M’lup Russey Organization, please check out: http://mluprussey.org.kh or call 078 222 660.

If you are a local Cambodian organization and are interested in receiving DVD copies of “Why Not a Family?” please email info@mluprussey.org.kh

Produced with support from:

M’lup Russey Organization – Cooperating with government leaders at the policy level.  To provide training, caring and helping families be together, as well as family-friendly maintenance in moments of urgency.

Children in the Families – Supporting children in caring for families and educating as well as urgent interventions to keep children living in families and communities.

Bridges Organization – Supports nearly 2,000 orphans with family members and staff, as well as a network of local volunteers.

Produced and Directed by Andy Gray.

Recording and Cutting by Khin Sina.

Traditional Khmer Song by Phan Sok Khoeun.

Piano (Early Pinyin) by Nagai.

This video was produced in 2012 through International Cooperation Cambodia-Project SKY, the project localised to become M’lup Russey Organization.

To be bold and vulnerable (February 2019 Update)

Hot season has arrived in Cambodia like a distant relative arrives into your house and hugs you for a little too long.  You can’t escape their grasp or their cheek pinches.  Hot season is no different, sweat hugs your body and even riding a moto around town offers no breeze as relief.  Things naturally slow down here, rolling power outages seem to be prevalent. We are currently being told to prepare for rolling power outages for the next three months in five hour blocks.  I’m finding solace in coffee shops that have generators for air conditioning and Bullet is enjoying all the frozen “pupsicles” I make him.  His favorite flavors seem to be sweet potato and “meat juice”.  Since I typically boil his meat for his food, the meaty water then gets frozen for treats at a later date.

For me, February was a month of stepping into vulnerability with boldness.  It started with two amazing motorcycle rides.  One to Kampot and the second being the all over the northern part of Cambodia. I had my own anxiety of being the “weakest” link on the team and holding others back.  This “imposter syndrome” feeling thankful disappeared behind me as soon as my motorcycle kicked into second gear.  The more I reflect back on the Prayer Circle Cambodia rides, the more I feel emboldened to expectancy on God.  That He will provide, heal, and protect all those involved.

(Prayer Team group photo at the Cambodian / Laos border.)

Next was being vulnerable in admitting I wasn’t healing from my heat rash at the speed I WANTED to be healing and that I needed help – from medical advice to walking Bullet.  My friends, both here – and abroad – sent prayers, encouragements, food, drugs and doggie play dates.  While I spent three days in wet yoga pants and t-shirts letting my skin heal and over a week on steroids.  It was not fun admitting I needed help, that I was a little scared and the guilt I carried feeling like I was letting people down.  Thankfully, the “wet” suit, prayers and drugs helped.  Now my new baby skin on my shins are getting tougher to the harsh Cambodian heat and dust.

One of those women I felt like I was letting down was Sharron, MRO’s newest Advisor who I had agreed to help onboard – both at work and in life.  I completely missed her first week in Cambodia and felt horrible for letting her and the MRO team down.  I was able to redeem myself in her second week – helping her find an amazing apartment, taking her shopping and introducing her to all “my ladies” at the local market and helping her with her visa application.  After her second week in Cambodia, Bullet and I took her to Silk Island – our local get away with clean water to swim in.  Bullet was long overdue for a fun adventure since he had spent nearly two weeks trapped in my room with the AC on and yet not allowed to snuggle with me.  (Even though I’m not allergic to dogs, the doctor warned me that almost any allergen could upset my sick skin.)  While we were swimming, I confessed to Sharron how horrible I felt about letting her down her first week and how helping her in her second week was stirring up some emotions about my own landing here in Cambodia.  Feelings I thought I had dealt with yet some weird jealousy on my side was yet another example of boldly stepping into vulnerability.  The Bible speaks of God refining us like silver.  I think this is a good example of this.  Being aware of our emotions and feelings – owning them and reflecting on them and coming out on the other side a better, more Christ-like version of ourselves.

(Bullet’s secret getaway – Silk Island.)

Towards the end of February, my family and I received word that my Uncle Clay had been diagnosed with Level 4 Glioblastoma (brain cancer) and the survival rate is pretty low.  My heart (and my body) dropped to the floor.  I spent a considerable amount of time on the ground – weeping, praying, re-reading my aunt’s text message.  I finally picked myself up, washed my face and headed to my Khmer tutoring session.  As soon as my teacher saw me, he asked what was wrong.  I explained in Khmer that I had just found out that my uncle was sick with brain cancer.  (Yeah Community Health class vocabulary!)  The conversation continued in Khmer:
Teacher:  I’m sorry, sister.  Does your uncle love Jesus?
Me:  Yes.
Teacher:  This is good.  He will go to Heaven.  But still very sad.
Me:  Yes.
(By this point, I’m crying again.)
Teacher:  What is your Uncle’s name?  Is he married?  Does he have kids?
Me:  Yes, his name is Clay.  His wife’s name is Kirstie.  His daughter’s name is Brianna and his son’s name is Jimmie.
Teacher:  My wife and I will pray for them tonight.  I’m sorry, sister.  Would you like me to read to you?
Me: Yes.
He then spent our hour of tutoring reading slowly to me from my children’s book about not speeding in a car and looking out for elephants on the road.  Here we are, sitting in a local coffee shop, a married, Khmer man reading to children’s book out loud in Khmer to a silently weeping foreign woman.  I had to admit this act of love and compassion still makes me tear up.  I told the story to my mentor and she wisely pointed out, “You’ve reached that sweet spot where you are getting loved on by your Khmer friends.”  I couldn’t agree more.

(Jimmie, Brianna, Clay and Kirstie.)

That being said, my Uncle is committed to fighting this thing and it’s such an honor to walk, prayerfully beside him and his immediate family through this.  Again, this theme of being bold yet vulnerable comes up daily in my prayers for him.  I’m super thankful that I’ll be able to spend time with him while I’m home this summer and celebrate his daughter getting married!

(Uncle Clay in his element on the Alsea River.)

Other things that happened in February:  I said goodbye to my roommate of five months, Amanda, and welcomed a new roommate, Laura, into my home.  Laura is here for two months investigating if she wants to become a full-time missionary.  I also had the honor of helping my dear friend, Nika, who is blind, build a Facebook page for her new organization geared towards helping other blind Cambodians with resources and trainings.  She is so kind to me.  Always reminding me that we are sisters.  When she found out I had heat rash on the Prayer Circle ride, she called Manoj and asked to speak to me.  Just to make sure I was okay and to tell me she was praying for me!  The Phnom Penh Post did a write up about her work.  You can read about it here.  I’m so proud of Nika and happy to call her “sister.”

(Nika and Manoj in the Phnom Penh Post.)

Finally, in February I found out that I’ve been accepted into Interserve’s Candidate School in July 2019.  Interserve is an international sending agency and had an awesome team here in Cambodia that I’m hoping to join.  I’ve spent a lot of time researching and praying about sending agencies and am pretty excited about this opportunity.  This also means I’ve started planning my home visit to the United States.  If you want to see me, have questions about my home visit, have me speak at your church or small group – please let me know!  It looks like I’ll be stateside July through mid September.

(Bullet and his girlfriend, Peaches.)

How have you been doing? I look forward to hearing from you!  As always prayer requests are below.

Hugs from Cambo,
ជេនណា / Jenna (and Bullet)

P.S.  In February, I finished reading “Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out” about the history of Craft Beer in America.  I also downloaded 13 hours worth of Hans Christian Andersen “Fairy Tales” to fall asleep to on the Prayer Circle Rides.  Both were great books.  If only I could stop falling sleeping before chapter 4 on the “Fairy Tales” book! 

I would really appreciate you joining me in prayer in the following ways:

1.  For my uncle, Clay, his wife, Kirstie, and their children – Brianna and Jimmie as my uncle battles cancer..
2.  For my house in Portland.  That good tenants will be interested in living there soon.
3.  For wisdom and logistics as I start gearing up for my trip home this summer.

No Snow in Cambo (January 2019 Update)!

Hello from sunny Cambodia, where the average temperature this week has been 94 degrees and we still haven’t truly hit hot season yet!  (Sorry, I had to put that little tease in there since Portland has been getting some snow lately.)

(My first day of 2019 – meeting my favorite Cambodian animal.)

January seemed to have flown by and February is keeping pace.  Work with MRO is keeping me busy.  I had the chance to go on two outings with the Social Work Teams.  I wrote about visiting Foster Children and Reintegrated Children.  I also got the chance to present some website suggestions to improving the MRO website in the near future.  I look forward to rolling that out and some new videos promoting MRO’s work in Cambodia.  (Don’t worry – I’ll be sure to share them once they are live.)

(Some of the MRO Social Work Team on a province outing.)

One of the things God put on my heart during my Christmas break was to find a Khmer Church.  While at Daughters, I was required to attend their church.  When my contract ended, I stopped attending.  I’m still an active member of my English Church, helping out monthly with The Craft Corner.  A friend from language school invited me to attend a Khmer church that her husband is the Pastor at.  I kicked off 2019 by checking out their church.  So far, I really enjoy it.  It’s a group of mostly young, college-aged, Khmer who are living in dormitories to attend local universities.  They are friendly, patient with my Khmer and eager to practice their English.  I’ve been enjoying attending the church and learning more Khmer Christian vocabulary.  Also, my new roommate is working for this missionary / Khmer couple!

(Worship in Khmer)

Since many people have commented on the books I’ve been reading, I thought I would include the book I’m reading each month.  In January, I finished reading Just Mercy, which was recommended by a close friend of mine.  It’s about the history of the prison system and the death penalty in America.  I learned a ton while reading it. Since most of my friends here come from an international background, I’ve talked to a few about the book.  I’ve also learned some interesting insights about what other countries think about our prison system.  Double the learning experience.  I’m almost done with Twelve Lies That Hold America Captive, which is about “white American folk religion” and features my nextdoor neighbors here in Cambodia and the anti-human trafficking work they are involved in.

What have you been reading / listening too lately?

(Just a cute photo of Bullet napping on our balcony.)

How have you been doing? I look forward to hearing from you!  As always prayer requests are below.

Hugs from Cambo,
ជេនណា / Jenna (and Bullet – no pictured.)

I would really appreciate you joining me in prayer in the following ways:

1.  Praise!  I’ve found a new roommate who will be living with me in Cambodia for two months.  (She is coming to research moving here full-time).  My Oregon tenants have decided to break their lease and move out.  I’ve hired a property manager, so please pray they can find new tenants quickly.  Also, if anyone is looking for a new place to live in PDX, I know a great spot!
2.  Continued prayer for my language skills.  Between work, Khmer church and tutoring, I feel like my speaking and vocabulary is continuing to improve.  I’m still not feeling confident about my reading skills.
3.  My health / safety (as always).  Right now I’m recovering from a horrible case of heat rash – I’ll save you the gore.  I’ve got some upcoming injections planned for my continued health here in Cambodia.  Please pray that I won’t have any adverse reactions.

Reintegration Family Visit – Tuesday, January 22, 2019

*beep beep beep* My alarm starts sounding off at 6:15 am on Tuesday, January 22.  My dog, Bullet, stretches beside me and then hops off the bed to sit next to his food bowl and wait for breakfast.  On our morning walk, I reflect on my previous visit to the province with the M’lup Russey Organisation (MRO) team. I know today will be different from the last visit.  Before we visited with children in Foster Care. Today we will be visiting children who have been reintegrated with their families.

MRO’s Family Reunification program reunifies children and young people who have left an orphanage to return to their birth parents or biological relatives.  It is a collaboration between the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation (MoSVY), the District and Provincial Social Affairs offices, Commune Council for Women and Children (CCWC), local authorities and NGO partners to ensure the placement sustainability, safety and schooling of the reunified children and young people.  MRO undertakes the professional supervision, joins case conferences and works according to agreed policies and protocols on behalf of the children and their families.

Samnang, Savorn, Vatathanak, myself, and Kosal.

I arrived at the office and am happy to see the familiar faces of Samnang, a MRO Social Worker and Kosal, the MRO Driver will be joining us on today’s trip.  Two new faces are also climbing into the MRO truck. During our one and a half hour drive to the province, I learn one of the faces belongs to Savorn, MRO’s Emergency Foster Care Assistant.  She has been working at MRO for a year now. The other new face is Vatathanak, MRO’s Intern. She is in her third year of studying Social Work at Royal University Phnom Penh (RUPP) and has been interning with MRO for three months.  I make a joke that even though she is younger than me, she has worked at MRO longer than me and thus must be very knowledgeable. This makes the whole car giggle.

When we arrive at the village, Samnang hops out of the truck and stops to visit with the Village Chief.  We continue along a few more houses and then climb out of the truck and up the wooden steps of our first family’s home.  It’s a traditional Khmer home on stilts.

Traditional Khmer house.

This home is the smallest house I’ve ever been in during my year in Cambodia.  It’s smaller than my bedroom in Phnom Penh. About three meters wide and five meters across.  It’s neat and clean with clear areas of purpose. A small gas stove sits in the far corner, with simple metal pots and plastic dishes.  Behind the entrance is a clothing rack. A sleeping mat takes up the majority of the house’s floor space and in the far right corner is a TV set.  The floors are made of strips of bamboo that flex their strength when you walk across the home. The siding and roof are constructed of recycled corrugated tin.  Savorn, Vatathanak and myself find a place to sit on the floor away from the sleeping mat, but also away from the grease stained floor near the kitchen area. The mother yells something out the front door and then finds a spot on the sleeping mat.

Re-unified foster child.

Soon a young woman climbs up the stairs.  She is cross-eyed and has elfish features – a small pouty mouth and a sharp nose.  She holds a turquoise, plastic cross on a leather strap around her neck. She finds a spot on the sleeping mat next to her mother, while Samnang arrives with an older gentleman, who is introduced as the Village Chief and two other woman – the girl’s aunt and another MRO Foster Mother.  There is hardly any room for us all the fit in this tiny, little home.

Samnang starts off the conversations.  Quickly, the Mother becomes upset. Talking about how her husband doesn’t care about taking care of their daughter.  I sit and watch the young girl, sitting by her mother’s side while this conversation is happening. “Shouldn’t she be outside playing with her friends?”  I wonder to myself, “No child should be hearing this sort of thing.”

Inside a traditional Khmer house.

The Mother continues to yell, pointing in a corner as if to address a person not in the room.  By this point, I’m lost in the conversation. I’ve only been learning this language for a year and the rapid pace the Mother is speaking with makes it impossible for me to follow.  She throws a towel across the room in anger. I sit in the far corner, close my eyes and start to pray. “Jesus, I have no idea what is going on right now, but I know you do. I ask that you bring peace into this home.  Heal this mother, heal this little girl, bring her father back to her. Please Jesus. Fill this place with Your peace.”

“Chop / stop,” the calm voice from the Village Chief rings out.  The Mother continues speaking. The Village Chief says something over the Mother then gets up and walks out of the house.  Samnang turns to me and explains that the Mother is upset because a neighbor’s child threw a rock at her daughter’s head cutting it open.  The Mother took the daughter the Village Chief and he did nothing about it. I asked to see the cut. This incident happened about two weeks ago, the bruise was still visible but the cut had healed.  The Mother had treated the wound with Tiger Balm. This seems like the universal method of treating anything here in Cambodia. Injured? Put some Tiger Balm on it.

Local recycling program.

Things seem to calm down after the Village Chief leaves.  Samnang asks a few more questions, then we say our goodbyes.  We walk down the dirt path a little while. I start realizing that this area must be known for recycling as many families have mountains of cardboard or recycled fish food sacks packed to the brim with plastic bottles.  We stop at another villager’s house and visit with a few more local woman.

Local sound system.

They ask questions about reintegration with their children.  I soon learn this is also sometimes called “Family Planning,” which coming from America has a different meaning.  One asks if her child, who is also in Foster Care, can come visit her for Khmer New Year. Another asks about the process of getting a cow, pig and some chickens.  We say our farewells to this group and climb back into the truck.

We stop at a nearby rest area for lunch.  There small bamboo shacks, with straw walls and a roof for shade are each neatly numbered.  Kosal and Samnang climb into the hammocks provided and we discuss what to order for lunch. After ordering, we continue the conversation about the woman and her daughter.  Samnang explains that the girl has a small head and thus can’t remember things well. She has a mental disability. He thinks the girl has ZIKA. I try to set my face in a respectful manner.  Since from all the reports I’ve heard from the US Embassy and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) there have been no reported cases of ZIKA in Cambodia and I find it hard to believe that a young woman could have lived this long without being noticed.  He reiterates his small head theory. I agree the girl has a small-ish head to go with her small frame. I pull out my phone and pull up photos of babies with the microcephaly. I show the photos to Samnang and the rest of the team. We all agree, this girl doesn’t have ZIKA.  

Lunch time visitor.

Our food arrives.  I recognize the rice, tom yum soup, loc lac (a traditional Khmer beef dish), but there is something new.  On a platter of morning glory is some sort of protein, I can’t identify. I ask Samnang, “Is this fish?” He responds, “It’s a fish, but it doesn’t have fins.  Like a snake in the water.” I take a bite. “Oh! Eel?” I pull out my phone and pull up an image of an eel. “Yes! Eel. We call it ‘an-tong’.” It tastes almost identical to the ‘unagi’ I’m used to eating at sushi restaurants back in the United States.  While we eat, our conversations turn to lighter things. Vatathanak shares more about her studies at RUPP. The local cat comes to beg for scraps of our meal and spends some time playing with my backpack straps. I talk about my dog, Bullet (or “Boy” as I introduce him to my Khmer friends).  What he eats, where he sleeps, and how I brought him from America.

Khmer house/store.

We finish our meal and head out to visit our second and final family of the day.  Down the street, we stop at a local shop. On the frontside of a traditional Khmer home called a “pteh la-veng”, is a storefront selling almost anything you could need – soap, gasoline, fresh drinking water, candy, dried noodles, cold drinks, etc.  There we are greeted by a young man, with sweet eyes, and his Aunt. Samnang explains, that the boy has been reunited with his Aunt since 2013. That his older brothers and mother live and work in a factory in Thailand. We walk through the shop and enter the main living area of the pteh la-veng; the room’s walls are covered with huge wedding photographs that are blow up to be over a meter in height and awards that the family has earned.  (Receiving awards is a big honor in Cambodia and thus are proudly displayed along with wedding photographs and photos of relatives that have passed away.)

Re-unified foster child.

The Aunt explains that she wants the boy to study life skills because she can’t afford to send him to school.  We call a local partner, Commune Council for Women and Children (CCWC), to get more information about studying support.  Soon a CCWC Leader and a female Sub-Village Chief arrive at the home and join the meeting. The Aunt also explains that the child needs to go to the dentist.  I think back about the boy we visited last week who also needs to go to the dentist. “Maybe they can go together and it won’t be so scary,” I think to myself.  The Aunt fills out a request form for a bike for the boy so he can ride to school.

Country side view.

While the conversation continues on in Khmer, I reflect on the two major observations about these two families.  One being the women’s faces seem to reflect the family’s money and status. While provincial life is definitely harder than that of the city, the two woman – the Aunt and the Mother – have strikingly different faces.  One has a healthy, full set of teeth, while the other is missing a few teeth. One wears makeup, while I doubt the other can afford any. One woman has a full face with few wrinkles and high cheekbones, while other had a sullen face that was hard set.

The second observation was how both women, when sharing stories that were upsetting or angry, face away from the group and point at an imaginary person and continue to explain their hurt.  As if that person was in the flesh and present to hear the disappointment. I plan on continue to watch for this behavior amongst other Khmer groups to see if it’s a cultural thing I was unaware of until today.

We wrap up our visit by filling out tracking forms.  Each time we leave a family, we fill out a form with our name, position, organization, phone number and either a signature or a thumbprint of all who had visited.  This way families can know what leaders / NGOs have come to visit them and how often organizations are checking in on them. We load up into the truck and begin the ride out of the countryside and back into the city of Phnom Penh.

Khmer style kitchen.

During the car ride, we talk about how the day went and what the outcomes of the day will be.  Samnang asks me to give an oral report about the day in English. I explain the first part of the day and say, “and then we stopped for lunch and I ate an-tong for the first time.”  The car starts laughing. “That doesn’t need to be in the report,” Samnang says. “Of course it does! It was ‘chngan / delicious,” I respond, then continued with what happened in the afternoon.

I then went on to conclude about how both of the homes felt so different and how my prayers changed for each family.  The first home I felt like Jesus needed to bring His peace to rest there. While the second home, I feel like Jesus needed to bring His blessings and encouragement to the Aunt who was raising her sister’s son.  The car agreed and we committed to praying for the families.

Would you consider joining us in prayer?  For the MRO staff who works daily to support healthy families here in Cambodia, the Foster Parents, the biological parents and all the children – either in Foster Care or reunited with their families?

Foster Care Visit – Thursday, January 17, 2019 – A Narrative

*beep beep beep*

My alarm starts sounding off at 6:15 am on Thursday, January 17.  “Dear Jesus,” I pray, “Please give me eyes to see, ears to hear, and an understanding mind.  Oh! And keep me safe today.” This mantra in some form has been part of my daily prayers since I arrived in Cambodia in October 2017, but today it carries an extra amount of weight with it.  I have been working with M’lup Russey Organisation (MRO), a Christian, non-governmental local organization focused on care of orphans and vulnerable children, as their PR Advisor for two months now.  Today, I’m joining the MRO Social Work team to go to a province about an hour outside Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, to witness how the MRO Social Work Team engages with children in Foster Care.  I pull on my brand new MRO embroidered polo shirt and moto to the MRO Office to meet up with the team.

M’lup Russey Organisation’s (MRO) logo.

One of MRO’s objectives is to provide children in crisis situations with a safe place to stay where they can be loved and receive high quality care by emergency foster parents who are supported by well-trained Social Workers.   MRO’s emergency short-term foster care model was started in 2012, when families who could open their hearts and homes to welcome children and youth in crisis were recruited from local communities, churches and child protection networks.  The recruitment process continues to be a rigorous process, involving application, review, assessment by Social Workers, as well as official registration with local authorities. Emergency Foster Care provides loving family-based care to children in a crisis situation, to prevent them from being placed into an orphanage as the first and only option.

MRO now has a number of families who can receive up to six children into their home for up to three months.  These foster families are provided with training and counseling, and paid a small retainer in order to keep placements open for whenever they are needed.  Children entering foster care are assigned a well-trained Social Worker, who uses case management procedures to reunite the child with their biological families or, when necessary, with a long-term Cambodian Foster Family.

This model is administered in collaboration with four other partner organizations: Children in Families, Mother’s Heart, First Step and Prison Fellowship.  The partners work together to provide this short-term family-based solution to children and young people in a wide range of difficult circumstances, including children and young people leaving orphanages, children with disabilities, abandoned children, boys and girls leaving abusive situations, girls and young women with crisis pregnancies and children of incarcerated parents.

Adhering to local Cambodian culture, we pile into the MRO utility truck, “on time.”  (In Western culture, we were running about 20 minutes late.) The truck, while worn in years, is roomy, handles bumps in dirt roads well, and, most importantly, has working A/C.  After a quick stop for a team breakfast of Chinese noodle soup, we are on our way to visit our first of four families today.

Veng Kimly, Jenna Forstrom, Pech Mono, Kosal, and Samnang.

Joining me on this excursion is Pech Mono, a Social Worker who has been working for MRO for four years; Veng Kimly, a Social Worker, who has been working for MRO for two years and, I found out on this trip, recently returned back from work following maternity leave after the birth of her first child; Samnang, a Social Worker, who has also worked for MRO for two years.  I learn that each Social Worker has about 20 cases and visits each case once a month or more if needed. Kosal, our Driver, has worked for MRO for eight years. Throughout the day, I’m amazing by Kosal’s ability to judge distance and space while driving through jammed, paved highways and between rows of houses on dirt roads. I’m also impressed with his ability to find a suitable place to string up a hammock between the truck and a tree to rest while the social work team conducts Foster Care visits.

Khmer Foster Care dog.

Our first stop is right off a paved street and down a short flight of earthen steps leading to an average sized home with a large garden surrounding it on three sides.  At the gate, a white Khmer mutt dog sits eager for us to enter the property. I’m immediately impressed by how clean and healthy the dog is. He spends some time sniffing me, no doubt learning that I too have a dog here in Cambodia.  I’m told that this family has four foster children, two of whom have disabilities. In the process of traditional sampeah (Khmer greeting) with the foster parents, two children enter the yard, one child runs to grab some toys near the house.  The other, who has a jaunting sort of walk, looks at me cross eyed, tracking my presence with some distrust. It’s clear by the jerky movements of this child, he’s one of the two children with a disability. [One of his eyes is nearly rolled entirely up into its socket.]  Kimly encourages the boy to greet me. *Womp* two soft fists hit my stomach. I immediately stick my hands out to catch the hands before they hit me again. “Hey, ot-te / no,” I say in Khmer. Kimly hugs the children and apologizes. “No worries, sister, I’m a stranger,” I say “Choum reap sor oun / Hello, little brother,” I greet the boy.  He continues to track me with his working eye. The dog, sensing the commotion runs over. The little boy sits down and grabs at the dog, pulling it on to his lap. I’m amazed at how kind the dog is given that this child’s fine motor skills are lacking and he seems a little rough on the dog. Yet the dog clearly loves the boy, rolling over on his back accepting a belly rub from the child.  Samnang catches up to Kimly and I and tells me we will continue on to the second family, while Mono stays and continues to visit with this family.  

School uniforms drying in the sunlight.

We walk through the garden and onto a partially paved and partially dirt road.  There is a natural layer of protection from the sun, the road is lined with mature banana trees whose leaves provide shade across the path that we are a walking on.  I’m amazed by how quiet this sleepy little village seems compared to the noise, construction and dust of Phnom Penh. I can hear birds for the first time in days and don’t see any bags of trash anywhere.  We pass a local hospital and school combination building. Children playing in the court yard and nurses with starched, white, 70s era caps milling about under the blue cross sign on the building.

A tool Social Workers use to speak with Foster Care children.

The second family home is two traditional Khmer homes, wooden houses on concrete pillars that provide shade underneath during the hot, dry season and that is above the flood waters during rainy season.  Sitting under the house are two young women, doing homework as their Foster Mom comes out to greet us. I’m told there are four children living here in Foster Care, the two girls and two more who are already at school.  One of the girls we meet with has a sister who is already re-integrated with their birth family. I will apparently meet her next week on another outing. The two girls each receive a brand new pencil, pen, eraser, and ruler from the Social Workers.  I make a mental note to ask about pencil cases and bike helmets (few wear them in the provinces) for the next visit. Kimly sits with one girl to talk, while Samnang and I go with another girl to sit and talk. Samnang inspects her school journals. I’m learning Khmer in Phnom Penh so I’m super impressed by the young woman’s hand writing even though I can only make out a few words.  I burst out laughing when I see this “S” design in one of her note books. Samnany and the girl both look at me. “My friends and I used to draw the same thing in our notebooks when I was your age in America,” I explain. Samnang spends some time encouraging the girl and tells me that she is getting top marks for math. He then pulls out a pack of laminated red cards with Khmer writing on them.  He explains that this is a tool to help Foster Children. They can look through the cards and pick a few to talk about with the Case Worker. They are like prompts to start discussions about how the child is feeling. The two of them continue to talk in Khmer and I drift back and forth between trying to figure out what they are saying and wanting to respect this private conversation between a Social Worker and a Foster Child.  I settle on just sitting in this quiet space and praying over the home, the Foster Parents and the Children under their care and the Foster Children’s birth families. The meeting takes about a hour and half. Kosal and the truck are waiting for us as we walk out of the home.

Some Foster Care girls and their friends studying.

We stop for a quick lunch.  I spend some time chatting to Kimly about her baby and maternity leave.  I also try “prahok” for the first time. This is a smelly, salted, fermented fish paste that is used as a condiment here in Cambodia.  Most families have their own recipe. As I take a bite, the team looks at me with anticipation. I made an exaggerated goofy face and they start laughing.  Samnang asks what I think of the fish. I decide to answer truthfully, “I don’t think I would order it on my own, but if it was presented to me, I would try a bite.”  He jokes that I’ll get use to it.

Foster Care Children’s toiletries.

We head out again, arriving in a small village on a dirt road.  We come to a very small home, right on the Tonle Sap River. By US standards, it’s a million dollar view.  The cool breeze blows off the river and there are half a dozen chickens running around with about a dozen chicks each following their mothers about the yard.  On a large outdoor bed lies a very old woman sleeping. I’m told she is over 90 years old and I’m impressed that she sleeps without even a pillow. The Foster Mom is in her twenties and lives in this home with her mom and the grandma who’s resting.  There are five Foster Children who live here but they are all out playing in a field nearby. Kimly and the Foster Mom sit and chat for about 30 minutes. Then we load back into the truck for our final stop of the day.

Another Foster Care visit stop.

After a short drive, we arrive at the fourth and final Foster Care Family of the day.  I’m told four children live here. Two are at school and two are home for the visit with their Social Worker.  Samnang and I sit down with the two young boys, who are eager to show us their school books. They are younger than the girl from the second family and are just learning the Khmer alphabet so it’s a little easier for me to follow along with their writing.  We sing the Khmer alphabet together while Samnang checks the rest of their school work. These boys wiggle around trying to one up each other on their knowledge of the vowels in Khmer. (There are over 20 vowels in Khmer.) Samnang asks one of the boys about a barely visible bruise across the boy’s nose.  Samnang tells me it’s from an accident where the boy fell off his bicycle. “Yet another reason to ask about the helmets,” I think to myself. I’m also very aware of the fact that the other boy’s face is covered with little scars. They are all completely healed, but I wonder how he got so many in such a short life time.  This young boy has an infected tooth. Samnang tells me he’s arranged to have someone from the MRO team come get the boy in a week to take him to Phnom Penh to go to a dentist. One of the boys asks to call his mother and uncle, but unfortunately, we don’t have their phone numbers with us. Finally, Samnang speaks to the boys about hygiene, reminding them they need to take very good care of their skin and their clothes.  This is their responsibility. They aren’t filthy, but they definitely looked like two young children who had spent the day playing outside in the fields. He talks to them about how they should scrub their clothes between their hands and make sure to wash their bodies so they don’t get dirt marks. After this little pep talk, Samnang presents the two boys with the same school supplies as the girls from the other visit.

Khmer vowel homework.

We load up to into the car and head back to Phnom Penh.  I thank God for how He has made His presence known to me for yet another day and keeping me safe for another day as well.  Would you please join me in continuing to pray for the Foster Parents, Foster Children and their biological families? May we all have eyes to see, ears to hear and minds to understand where each one of us is coming from.

HAPPY NEW YEAR! រីករាយ​ឆ្នាំ​ថ្មី! (December 2018 Update)

HAPPY NEW YEAR!  រីករាយ​ឆ្នាំ​ថ្មី! 

I hope 2019 is off to a good start for you, your family and friends.  I don’t know about you, but I’m so ready to embrace 2019 in a full on bear hug.  There is so much in 2019 I’m looking forward to: the projects MRO will accomplish this year, motorcycle prayer rides, better Khmer reading skills, coming to visit the States this summer and anything else Jesus might put on my heart.

Bullet watching the sunset over Bokor Mountain.

Every year, I spend some time between Christmas and the New Year reflecting on the year, working on a list of goals for the upcoming year and asking God for a word for the new year.  This year, I’ve settled on “steady sailing” as my theme for 2019.  I spent a lot of 2018, rocking my own boat – on top of all the massive transitions I experienced.  In 2019, I’m praying I’ll trust my boat (representing Jesus) and myself as a sailor.  God has made it clear that it won’t be smooth waters the whole time, life will still happen, but it’s an opportunity for me to continue to grow in Christ and constantly be learning.  Just with less boat rocking on my end.

G2K Students and Staff putting on the Christmas story.

December marked the end of Level 4 language classes for me.  After one year of studying Khmer, I’m officially halfway through G2K’s language program.  Going from learning the alphabet to learning reading was a real struggle for me and after discussing it with the Director I’ve decided to take a five week break to “beef” up my reading skills before starting Level 5.  I’ve created my own IEP (individual education plan) in the meanwhile:  private tutoring for reading, I got a bunch of children’s reading books to practice on my own, more hours in the MRO office to practice speaking and I’m taking part in an evening pilot class at G2K focused around “community health.”  This means every Tuesday evening for the next 10 weeks I’ll be learning new vocabulary around health that I think will help me better communicate at work, on prayer rides and with friends.  The best part of language learning in December was attending the G2K Christmas party!  We learned a Khmer Christmas carol, had a talent show, and re-enacted the Christmas story in Khmer and English.  It was great to see a bunch of grown adults and their Khmer teachers dressed like sheep and pregnant Mary’s!

Bullet and Sarah enjoying some reading on Christmas Day.

Thank you so much for your prayers during the holiday season.  While I did miss my family, I was able to speak via Facebook Messenger to all of my family – including my grandmother!  On top of that, I had a truly amazing and relaxing Christmas break in Kampot.  I had a few days of solo time reflecting on the year and pressing into wisdom for 2019.  Then my friend, Sarah from language school, joined Bullet and I for Christmas.  Followed by another woman from Phnom Penh, Cathy.  Finally, Katie, a girlfriend of mine from the States who now lives in Vietnam arrived for New Year’s Eve celebrations.  Bullet spent most of his time off leash (minus one National Park hike due to tigers and land mines).  We swam almost every day, I read an entire book and started three more!  We laughed a ton, reflected on expat life, ate brownies (a rare treat since none of us own stoves) and watched the first five Fast and the Furious movies!

Cathy, myself, Katie and Sarah in Kampot, Cambodia.

Before leaving for Kampot, I spent early December at MRO continuing to update the website, working on potential layout designs for the new website MRO is hoping to launch in 2019 and working on interview questions for the staff for my next project with MRO starting in January.  One of the coolest December projects took place in Siem Reap (where Angkor Wat is located).  A team of mentors lead a community outreach and beautification project, where they invited local kids to come and help pick up litter in the streets.  They then stuffed that litter into plastic bottles that were also collected.  (Single use plastic is a huge bummer here – it’s EVERYWHERE.)  Then used those bottle “bricks” to build planter boxes in the community.  It was a fun way for MRO to do outreach and build relationships while making this area better than they found it.  Since Christmas isn’t a recognized holiday here in Cambodia, I worked remotely while in Kampot, checking in on the teams, updating the website and social media channels.  Some of our team was actually in Kampot for meetings with the government and Sarah and I ran into them on one of Bullet’s evening walks!

MRO’s Outreach Program in Siem Reap.

Got a New Year’s Resolution?  Goal?  Prayer?  Leave a comment or send me an email and let me know how You can reply to this email and let me know I can be praying for you. I look forward to hearing from you!  Below are some of my own prayer requests.

Bullet and I on our hike up Bokor Mountain.

Hugs from Cambo,
ជេនណា / Jenna (and Bullet)

I would really appreciate you joining me in prayer in the following ways:

1.  I have two housing related prayer requests.  One, my amazing roommate here in Cambodia is moving back to the States in six weeks.  I’ll be totally honest, I’m a little heartbroken and am going to miss her tons, but I’d love to find another awesome, Christian, female who loves dogs to move in to her old room to help with some living costs.  Second, one of my tenants in Oregon wants to break her lease, so I’m looking to find a couple or family who would be interested in moving into my four bedroom / two bath house who’s okay with a landlord on the other side of the world.  If you know someone looking, please let me know!  I’m also seeking wisdom in hiring a property manager to take over finding new tenants for me.
2.  Continued prayer for my language skills as I deep dive into my IEP plan for the next five weeks!
3.  God has really laid it on my heart to seek out Khmer girlfriends not attached to my workplace.  I’m praying for open eyes and opportunities to meet awesome women here in Cambodia to become friends with.

Morijana – Phnom Penh, Cambodia

While I was teaching Facebook analytics with NOMI Network, I had a divine appointment in meeting Lynn. Lynn is an amazing women working with Morijana and doing incredible work with women coming out of the slum communities and empowering them to be everything they could possibly be. She is full of love and encouragement. Over the past few months, I’ve gotten to really know Lynn and the rest of her Khmer team at Morijana. It’s been fun to teach her the ins and outs of Facebook marketing and it’s awesome when she teaches me more about life in Cambodia and what she is learning launching this new business.

My roommate, Amanda, and I went to support Lynn at the launch of Morijana’s new storefront.

Morijana is an ethical fashion, freedom business, based in Phnom Penh Cambodia. They empower, train and vision Cambodian women to understand how they can break the cycle of poverty not only in their lives but in their families as well. By purchasing Morijana clothing, people are partnering with Morijana to make this a reality.

There is a running joke in my friend group. “How do you tell if someone is an expat or a tourist?” Answer: Check their pants. If they have elephants on them – they are a tourist! I’ll be totally honest, I bought the green elephant pants, I love them and have been wearing them to my Christmas parties this year.

At Morijana, Khmer women are taught all aspects of sewing. Not to mention fair wages, open plan work conditions, incentives, mentoring. They are also given opportunities to further develop their skills in design and mentored in leadership. Morijana’s designers, cutters, sewers and managers are all Khmer nationals. They also work with vulnerable women in a slum community. Building relationships and teaching sewing, we encourage these women to see a better future. By learning to sew, being mentored in their lives and having accessible schooling for their children, Morijana women now have a choice, hope and a future.

The thing I love most about Morijana (aside from all the amazing empowerment) it’s the fact that they make clothing for Western women! Pants that fit me are so hard to come by here. These are only the second pair I’ve been able to find that fit me here!

It is Morijana’s goal that Morijana women rise up in confidence to become all that they can be and support and empower other women to do the same. Empowered women empower others! This poverty cycle is starting to break, not only for these families but for future generations. These women will one day be a catalyst in supporting others to do the same.

Have a favorite ethical clothing brand? Who is it and why is it your favorite?