Newsletter for Community Sector 2020

I get a lot of questions about how COVID-19 is affecting live in Cambodia. As of July 15, there were 165 cases of which 133 have recovered. Many factories are closed due to COVID-19 and international tourism, which makes up over 25% of the national economy is currently not happening. However, there is some good news, I’d love to share.

MRO’s Community Sector works with key community members to model practical applications of alternative care in order to support the reintegration of children and youth out of orphanages. They achieve this by using careful action-oriented processes at high levels to take control of a family’s own stability and security. Family and community are a key priority in creating an environment for providing the best holistic development for children. And provides better opportunities than living in an orphanage.

Community Sector operates for two programs.  One program focuses on preventing the separation of children from their families.  While the second program focuses on restoring the lives of orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) within a community in order for them to gain access to a better life.

In order to achieve these outcomes, the Community Sector manages two different programs.  Here are some highlights from the first half of 2020.

Role Model Program:

In Phnom Penh: MRO staff visited with volunteering Role Models (RMs) in order to continue to keep a strong connection and continue to empower them with their work with orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs) living in Residential Care Institutions (RCIs).

Due to COVID-19, large groups have not been allowed to meet in public.  In order to protect orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs), Role Models (RMs) were not allowed to visit orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs) in the shelters.  Instead, Role Models (RMs) were encouraged to call and check on them.

Visiting and encouraging Role Models (RMs) with their work at a cafeteria in Phnom Penh.

In Siem Reap Provinces: MRO actively participated in the instruction of protecting orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) in the communities against COVID-19.

“Teaching children how to wash their hand and protecting from Covid-19”

Visiting known orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs) families in order to share knowledge about COVID-19, rubbing alcohol, and mask.

This is one of our Community Role Models (CRMs). 

In Battambang Province: MRO’s Community Role Models (CRMs) and Community Support Group (CSG) worked together to share information about COVID-19 and how the community can protect one another especially orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs).

Community Role Models (CRMs) teach children how to wash their hands.  The children practicing what they have learned from the Community Role Model (CRM) and how to share the knowledge they learned with other children.

Additional Community Role Model (CRM) activities in Battambang.

Children working with MRO’s Youth Peer Network (YPN) learning about how to protect themselves from COVID-19.

Community Support Group Programme: 

This network includes Provincial of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation (PoSVY), Commune Committee for Women and Children (CCWC), and local authorities in order to find the best ways to support orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) within the community.

In Pursat.

In Battambang.

Orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) assessment for providing income generation support.  In addition to COVID-19 knowledge and prevention.

Key Community People (KCP) and Provincial of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation (PoSVY) providing basic support to orphans and vulnerable children (OVC)  family. 

Community Support Group (CSG) collaborated with local authorities to provide basic need to orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) families.  

Key Community People (KCP) facilitated with Community Role Model (CRM) and Village Chief to support three orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) to secure birth certificates.  This activity is linked with Child Welfare Network (CWN) in intervening to help the process of securing a birth certificate for orphans and vulnerable children (OVC). 

Community Support Group (CSG) and Commune Chief visited orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) during COVID-19 and provided basic needs.  

A visit with Key Community People (KCP) and local authorities to provide a refresher orientation about child protection to Key Community People (KCP).

I hope you enjoyed reading about the amazing work the Community Sector team is doing and seeing a little more of what life looks like in Cambodia through the photos. I’d love to answer any questions you might have about alternative care or how you can get more involved in the lives of orphans and vulnerable children. Just let me know.

Praying you and your family are staying safe.

Season of weeping and walking (Feb. 2020 Update)

On Ash Wednesday, some girlfriends and I attended a local English church service.  Part of the service included reading Psalm 51.  I found myself underlining this verse:

“Make me hear of joy and gladness, that the body you have broken may rejoice.” – Psalm 51:9

(Resting with my new physio tape that was keeping my kneecap in the right location.)

If I’m honest, February has been one of the toughest months I’ve had in a very long time.  I think the joy, thankfulness, loving compassion carried me through January and the reality of my situation trapped me in a thick mud of depression for most of February.  I was both physically and mentally exhausted.  Stuck in a broken body, in a country not set up for disabled people.  Overwhelmed by the burden Bullet and I was placing on my friends (who constantly reminded me they were happy to come over with food and to let Bullet out).  I found myself torn between being completely rational in my thoughts, “Obviously, this is going to suck, you have a broken leg.  Give yourself a break.”  And finding myself weeping from pure exhaustion, which of course turned to angry tears once I couldn’t get them to stop when a loving friend popped over to take Bullet for a walk.  Followed immediately by another wave of tears from the embarrassment of being caught in a moment of weakness.

(MRO’s Staff Celebration of our Executive Director.)

Regardless of a rough month, in the spirit of Psalm 51, I want to share some moments where my broken body rejoiced:

  • Physical Therapy – I took my first steps without crutches in February!  I also had my three-month post-operation check-up and while my fibula is still broken, everything is looking good.
  • Iroha – Two girlfriends kidnapped me for a weekend at a local hotel for a staycation.  Sunlight, walking in a pool, and some greenery did my soul so much good.  Even Bullet got to have a sleepover with my pastor.
  • MRO – I started going back into the office.  To help with interviewing new staff, honoring our founding Executive Director and working on some much-needed updates to donor reporting in 2020.
  • Le Serey – Two friends have been coming over on Tuesday / Thursday afternoons to work remotely from my house to keep my company.  One of them is launching an ethical business working with women and freedom opportunities.  We are just gearing up to launch, so if you are interested in learning more.  Sign up here.  Serey / សេរី / Freedom.
  • Motorcycles – I was able to serve at the Social Media person for the latest Prayer Ride.  Attend the post-ride debrief, and attend the 2019 Cambodia Enduro Championship Party.
  • Strove Tuesday – Bullet and I were invited to our first Strove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday, but with pancakes).  We had a blast learning about a new faith practice and even Bullet got his own pancake.
  • G2K Dedication – My language school has moved to a new building.  Attending the dedication ceremony, where worship and calls of education and transformation were made in both Khmer and English was an extremely powerful day.
(Prayer Circle Post-Ride Meeting.)

Just a note about the Corona Virus.  While it is just coming to the United States, Cambodia has been dealing with the fear of an outbreak since January. I’m prepared for the possibility of being quarantined in my apartment.  My friends who live in the same complex as me have offered to run the stairs with Bullet so he can get exercise if dog walks are no longer an option.  (I’ve been joking that a quarantine would feel like a Portland snow day.  Only it’s always over 90 degrees here so I don’t need a firepit.)

(Girl Gang at the Enduro Championship Party.)

Enough about me, how have you been doing?  Giving anything up for Lent?  Got any plans for Easter?  Anxious about Corona?  Let me know!  You can send me an email and share 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.

(Bullet in his new bowtie ready for Strove Tuesday.)

Hugs from Cambo,
ជេនណា / Jenna (and Bullet)

I downloaded Oz: The Complete Collection this month and am slowly making my way through the series.  I had no idea there were more stories about Oz other than “The Wizard of Oz” but there are actually 14 books!  As an added bonus, it was only one Audible credit for the entire collection.  Are you reading a good series at the moment?

Interested in financially supporting me?  Just click the button below and make sure you include my full name where it says “Person or Project Name.”  Thanks!  (I’m still waiting for my medical claims to be processed, but if breaking my leg has taught me anything, it’s that I could use more opportunities to practice patience and trust.)

Financially Support Jenna Forstrom

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

1.  Continue to pray for my energy levels and my leg to continue to heal.
2.  Please keep MRO in your prayers, our new leadership is doing a great job with the transition, but I’d love to start seeming some systemic changes be implemented for the future growth of the organization.
3.  Cambodia has been dealing with the health and economic drama of Corona for months now.  Continue to pray for protection for Cambodia in the midst of this epidemic and for peace for those living on the financial edges of society.

Worldwind Wrap Up (June 2019 Update)


(Gearing up for the annual 4th of July firepit on the beach.)

I hope you had a blast with family and friends.  It was great to celebrate the holiday with my parents, aunt, cousins, and families from my parent’s neighborhood.  My personal highlight was having my little cousin fall asleep on my lap while watching the fireworks for two reasons: 1) She and her two stuff animals helped keep me warm in this not-so-tropical weather and 2) I sometimes beat myself up for missing out on special family moments and it felt great to be loved by her, especially since that last time I saw her she was two years old and now she is four!

(Bullet napping during our 12-hour flight from Japan to Washington, D.C.)

Thank you so much for your prayers.  Bullet and I arrived safe and sound in Boston, MA on Sunday.  We were jetlagged and in much need of a good stretch.

(On my work trip to Battambang.)

June was a jam-packed month!  I had a work trip to Battambang province, where MRO’s second office is.  It was great to meet even more of the team, check out our new office space and spend some time encouraging the staff.  While I was there, the Social Work Team was dealing with a particularly difficult case.  As terrible as the case is, my biggest takeaway was seeing how passionate and hungry for justice the staff were for these two girls.  Our office table was covered with case notes, phone numbers and the room was filled with problem-solving conversations.  I have no doubt that these girls have been placed in our organization’s hands for a reason and I’m waiting in prayerful expectation that justice will be served.

Before I flew back to the USA, I wanted to make sure all the documentation was loaded on to our website and Youtube channels so all the social workers and partners will have access to the information while I’m gone.  I’m happy to report, I was successful in that task and am hoping to do a few more documentation write-ups to make it easier for the staff to share with the children, donors and other social work teams.

(Saron’s handmade dinosaurs.) 

On top of that, one of the women I mention through NOMI Network’s NIFT program found out she won a $1,000 scholarship to work with women in her home village to produce traditional Khmer weaving.  This will help provide steady income, a new skill set and help her to continue to grow her ethical fashion brand.  Last month, we spent most of our meeting time going over the scholarship application and filling out the necessary information in English together.  I’m bummed I’m going to miss her final scholarship presentation since I’m stateside, but I can’t wait to see her new product launch in early 2020!

I finished Level 5 Khmer before flying back to the USA.  My plan is to work with a language tutor when I get back to Cambodia and take Level 6 Khmer before the school has their Christmas break.  Then I’ll just have Level 7 and 8 to complete in early 2020!  It feels so good to be so close to being done with language school.  (I also told my Khmer friends to leave me voice messages via Facebook Messanger so I don’t forget everything I’ve worked so hard to learn while Stateside.)

(“Uncle” Sean, Peaches (Bullet’s girlfriend) and Bullet.)

Finally, I said goodbye to my dear neighbors, Sean and Maria, who repatriated back to the USA after serving two years with NOMI Network.  They are such awesome people, who love Bullet and me so well.  I’m so thankful God brought them into my life and I got to share life with them in our apartment block.

(Moving, Cambodian style.)

Not 100% because Sean and Maria were moving out, but maybe a little bit, I decided to let my apartment lease go before heading back to the States.  This saved me a bunch of money, not paying rent for a few months and I was lucky enough to store my belongings at my co-worker’s apartment while I’m in the USA.  I’ll be moving into a new apartment building that is a little bit cheaper and be in the same apartment block as some people from my church’s small group.

I’ve got a few speaking events coming up.  If you are near any of these locations, I would really love to see you.  Let me know if you can attend and I’ll save you a seat.

June 28 – I’ll be speaking at Congregational Church of Brookfield, in Connecticut at 8:30 AM and 10:30 AM.

August 9 – I’ll be hosting a dessert potluck for my westside friends at Hillsboro First Baptist Church, in Oregon at 7 PM.

August 24 / 25 – To answer all your questions and meet my home church, Oaks Parish.

I’ll be in Portland, August 5 – September 2, if you’d like to meet up, please let me know. 

Enough about me, 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. My favorite podcast, Armchair Expert, started talking about the book, Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. so I got it on Audible (35 hours – such good use of a single credit).  My home church, Oaks Parish, also started a summer book club series on hospitality and Christian faith, so I also started, The Gospel Comes with a House Key.

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

1.  That my time and training in the USA goes well.  I’ll be in Pennsylvania for two weeks, meeting the team, other future international workers and learning a ton.  (Also, my parents will be watching Bullet so keep those three in your prayers as well.)
2.  That my upcoming speaking event goes well.  My financial budget is in need of a boost.  I’m confident God will provide, but I want to make the best of my opportunity.
3.  Continue to hold the team at MRO in your prayers.  They are doing amazing work in hard conditions and could always use pray and encouragement.

Good works and rest (May 2019 Update)

The annual thunderclouds have rolled into Phnom Penh.  While I haven’t seen much rain in the last few weeks, the nightly lighting shows are something of wonder.  It seems like the welcoming parade for rainy season here and power has become more stable during the month of May.

(Bullet using a generator as a leash stand while I run into the store.)

Stable power has been such a blessing this month.  I’ve been able to convert and upload all the assets M’lup Russey has asked me to load to the internet.  Our digital library continues to grow.  I’ll be working on more writeups to communicate with partners, supporters, and donors.  Additionally, I have started building a dev website for the team to review.  It’s been fun showing various leaders the upcoming new website and getting their insights and more information on various needs the website can serve.

(MRO’s Social Work team working with local officials to get foster children registered.)

One of the highlights of my work is that I get updates from the Social Work teams out in the provinces about all the projects they are working on to build relationships.  One time, I was grabbing lunch with a Khmer friend of mine and I got a notification that the MRO team was working with some foster care young adults who were aging out of the system to get registered in a “Family Book.” I shared this good news with my friend and she started crying.  She said, “You don’t know how important this is, these young people can now get jobs, go to university, get married – all legally.”  I just smiled and said, “I didn’t understand how important it was until I saw your face, but now I think I do.”  

May was a month of weird sicknesses for myself and those around me.  At the beginning of the month, I spiked a fever over 103, which isn’t alarming until you feverishly convert Celsius to Fahrenheit.  39.6C doesn’t sound so bad.  Also, learning how to use a mercury thermometer for the first time since I was a kid was neat.  Thankfully, I was in good hands with a bunch of friends bringing me soup, orange juice, drugs, and giving Bullet lots of love and walks, while I rested.  It’s moments like these when I reflect on how much living in Cambodia must be like living in the community the way Jesus followers must have lived during the formation of the church.  It’s all about being in community and being there for one another.

(Bullet reclaiming his spot after our roommate had to move back to the USA.)

On top of my own sickness, I welcomed another short-term visitor into my home for an expected one month visit while she explored thoughts of moving to Cambodia full-time.  Unfortunately, she experienced some medical issues and flew back to the USA after 10 days.  It was a little bit of a whirlwind at towards the end, but she is doing great now.  I also crossed paths with a woman from Portland, Oregon, who picked up an infection while backpacking through SE Asia and ended up in the hospital.  Friends from PDX contacted me and we spent a week praying and processing her time in Cambodia.  I think it was a real eye-opening experience for her.  She is also back in Portland now and doing well.

(Our “fifth” roommate on the island.)

May offers a long weekend in celebration of the King’s Birthday.  I was invited to join seven other women to visit my first Cambodian island.  It was an awesome experience, everyone works in anti-human trafficking, love Jesus and wanted a much-needed girls trip.  After an eight-hour bus ride and a two-hour boat ride, we arrived at a secluded island, with no cell phone service.  We spent three days, swimming, reading and encouraging one another.  It was nice to be in a space where my biggest problem was what book do I want to read or do I want to nap or go for a swim.  I also got the opportunity to drive with local transportation!

(Enjoying the CLEAN ocean.)

While I’m working hard to wrap things up here in Cambodia for my visit to the USA.  I’m also starting to coordinate my meetings, speaking events, parties, and get my budget in order for the next year.  I’ll be sending out an additional email shortly with my financial needs and opportunities.  Please let me know if you are interested in learning more, hosting an event, or grabbing a meal or going on an adventure while I’m back.

As always prayer requests are below.

Hugs from Cambo,
ជេនណា / Jenna (and Bullet)

(One of my friends from Khmer church, sent me this photo of her and Bullet while hanging out in my apartment.)

P.S. In May, I started reading Through Painted Deserts by Donald Miller.  One of my supporters has shared on multiple occasions that it is one of his favorite books.  I finally got my hands on a copy and have been enjoying it so far.  Donald Miller references Oregon a lot in the book, which has made me a little homesick, but in a good way.

Prayer Requests:

1.  That I can buckle down and focus.  I’ve got 25 days to wrap up Level 5 language at G2K, work, pack up and move my apartment, plus say goodbye to friends for 2.5 months and those who are leaving permanently while I’m gone.

2.  That support raising goes well while I’m home.  I need to raise additional support while I’m home to cover some additional needs here.  If you want more information on that, please let me know.

3.  That I leave Cambodia well.  That my team at work knows I’m still a resource and available to help them.  That my friends know I love and support them and will be back shortly.  June is a tricky month in Cambodia since many people either permanently leave the country or temporarily leave.  It can be hard for those who are staying.

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 my foreigners 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: 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

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.)

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.