I went into 2018 grieving some significant losses. My father in law in October of 2017 and early in 2018, my 22 year old cousin. It was one of those places in life you start questioning everything. The sadness is always lingering and the good things get harder to see. I thought I needed to place to put this pain. Put this pain towards something good. And even for my cousin. To go out and do things that she would never get to do . When I received an email from the Young Living Foundation and the chance to apply for a service trip, I felt compelled to do it. I had done a service trip years before in El Salvador and it’s always been something I wanted to do again, given the opportunity.
I applied to this trip with a friend, along with 200 other applicants. In November I finally got the letter I was accepted into the service trip. My friend was not. I panicked. Woke up in cold sweats. Cambodia is far, people! Finally, I decided to call the foundation and see what their process was in choosing the applicants. It was then I knew I had been picked for a reason. I also learned that out of all those applicants, less than 12 were accepted. My name wasn’t drawn out of a hat. Ok.. I can do this. This is meant to be. So I started planning. Raising money to get me there. With the support of my amazing friends and family, a kick ass garage sale, I was able to raise all the money I needed for my flights and accommodations. I really focused on the “getting there” aspect with out preparing my mind and heart for what was to come. But how can you prepare yourself to meet 25 incredible young girls that have overcome the darkest days of their lives. We are talking 10 years old to 16.
The time had come. October 18th, 2019. Fly to Seattle, then Seoul, then Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It was long. The farthest I had ever been away from my family. My home. Going to meet a dozen strangers along with our organizers from all over the world. 8 days that would surely change me in so many ways.
The first day we met was actually Sunday, the 20th. I actually flew into the future. Thats how far it is! We went over and over Hope for Justices’ child safety protocols, got to know each other, and practiced the workshops we would be teaching the girls, and the other activities we would be participating in.
There was a 13 hour time difference for me and we hit the ground running. Not to waste one single minute learning about Cambodia and the work Hope for Justice has done.
Monday started off grim. We were touring Cambodia to learn about their history and how that history made them so vulnerable to human trafficking.
We started the day visiting the S-21 Prison. The site is a former secondary school which was used as Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979. From 1976 to 1979, an estimated 20,000 people were imprisoned here.
It was a part of Cambodias painful history that I knew little to nothing about. It was sad and somber. The torture they endured is horrific. Walking through each room where someones mother, father, children were tortured, I could feel the pain in the walls.
Our next stop was the killing fields. More than 1 million people were killed and buried here. Including babies. It was overwhelming. As sad as it was for me to see this in person, it was also an honor to be able to now carry this with me. To really know it and see how Cambodia overcame this genocide.
Tuesday we were able to visit Hope for Justice Restoration centers. The first stop was the Light House. This is a short term crisis center where the girls can begin the healing process. Where they have intense therapy, accessing what the next steps are for each individual. They could be going to the Dream Home or another NGO for further support and restoration. We met some amazing young ladies that day at the Light House. The youngest being 6 years old. To be able to finally see them. To see their beautiful faces brought us all to tears. Mostly happy tears as we knew, for them, now there was hope.
The Dream Home is the next step for most of the girls. It is a 2 year residential program for girls under he age 18 that have been trafficked. The Dream Home has house moms there to take care of the girls. They provide a safe place. Unconditional love, food, and the consistent support that they need. The girls have certain responsibilities, like making sure their rooms are tidy and getting homework done. The house moms play an integral part on the girls lives as they learn to trust again, open up, and accept love.
Our third stop was the Shine School. Shine School provides education all the way through 12th grade, and catch-up education that is formally recognised by the Cambodian government for primary (up to 6th grade) and secondary school (up to 9th grade), alongside vocational training and more. Education has a major impact on a survivor’s long-term financial stability, prosperity and resilience to the risk factors that often lead to trafficking.
The girls here were fun and thriving!
Wednesday we spent the day with the girls at the Shine School. We taught workshops on how to manage stress, ways to practice self love and even did some cooking so we could all share a meal together. We played games, they taught us some traditional Cambodian dances, (or tried :)). We laughed together. Shed a couple of tears together but mostly we were in awe of their resilience. At one point in the day, I was wandering around, trying to acknowledge as many of the girls as I could, while getting a break from the heat, (it is HOT there!) I heard the most angelic voices singing. I walk into the other room to see most of the girls sitting on the floor with some of the other service trip members and the girls are singing “You Raise Me Up” by Josh Groban. It was the most beautiful sound, a touching moment I will never forget. As our eyes filled with tears, and some of the girls as well, one little beauty says to us, “no cry, no cry, happy, happy” And they were happy. They knew that they were free and they were so eagerly trying to share with us that they have hope.
The next day we had “Sports Day”! Those girls have learned to work together so well. They supported us too. It was hot and not easy mastering field day games but it was a blast. One of the games we played was little bit like the 3 legged race except there were 8 us with our ankles tethered together with scarves. One of the girls took charge and was showing which leg to move first so we wouldn’t topple over. As she is teaching me, she kept holding me hand. I repeatedly move my hand to her shoulder, (we try to limit the physical contact as much as possible as to not get attached and so on). Every time I would remove my hand from her sweet tiny hand she would look at me and say, “It’s ok, It’s just me. It’s just me.” These words pierced my heart for a few different reasons. I thought to myself, here I am with this incredible girl who has strength and wisdom beyond her years, trying to comfort me. Trying to make me feel safe, also wanting to make sure I get this move down so we can win, of course! But it also had me thinking, in her recovery, on her way to feeling safe and free, how many times has she had a house mom, or counselor, say to her, “It’s ok, It’s just me”? These girls have come so far. It is remarkable what I have witnessed in their faces, their laughter.
On Friday, October 25, 2019, we had the honor of attending graduation in which over 20 girls received their ninth-grade certificates, and two completed 12th grade, successfully graduating high school. The girls are passionate about their education. Some still struggle, but to see two of their friends graduate 12th grade has given them hope that it can be done. They now serve as role models for the others to continue school and keep learning. They know that their past does not define them. They have such a bright future ahead of them .
My prayer for them is they continue to find the power within themselves to become all they were meant to be. To continue healing and that the people they may come across on their journey will be people that will love them unconditionally.
It was an honor to witness the work Hope for Justice and the Young Living Foundation has done.
As I continue to decompress and digest these experiences, I am also looking for ways to bring Hope for Justices’ mission of living in a world free from slavery, locally.
“You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know” William Wilberforce