Cambodia. A country I knew nothing about. It was never on my bucket list of places to visit. If anything, growing up in America during The Vietnam War made it a country full of frightening associations. I am a timid person, but despite my fears I now not only spend two months a year in Cambodia, but I have written two novels about its people, and have created a nationwide Writing Workshop for its most at-risk children.
It happened by surprise. In 2006, a group of families from my son’s High School were going on a volunteer trip and we decided to join them. We crisscrossed Cambodia’s dirt roads, building houses in poor villages and working with impoverished children. It was supposed to be a learning experience for our teenage son, but I was the one whose life changed.
At the time, I was writing my first novel. This in itself was a crazy and frightening thing to do. I had always dreamed of being a writer, and at age 51 I decided it was now or never. Maybe that’s why I was in a somewhat “other-worldly” state during that trip, and so had a special perspective to all I was experiencing. But when my novel was published (sometimes by not realizing you can’t do something, you end up doing it after all), I knew that I wanted to write about what I had seen on that trip. The result was the novel, A Clash of Innocents, and a deepened connection to that country halfway around the world.
Maybe that should have been enough, but once my first Cambodian novel was published, I knew I wanted to bring the fruit of my inspiration back to the people who had inspired me. At the time, I led a series of creative writing workshops for students with learning disabilities, and I believed that same program could work in Cambodia. I understood that English was the language needed to land jobs there, but more than that, I had learned how desperately Khmer children needed to learn to think conceptually. Greater English fluency, an ability to ask and answer the question ‘why’, and a belief that what you have to say is valuable and worth expressing, is a combination which is, I believe, an antidote to poverty.
I heard about an educational shelter in Siem Reap called Anjali House, and I approached the Director with my idea. He said yes, but with one caveat. I couldn’t just go once, connect with these kids and then leave them forever. If I went, then this had to be a commitment. With the support of my now grown children and an incredibly understanding husband, I bought my ticket and flew, all by myself, to the other side of the planet. Was I frightened? You bet. But even more, I was excited.
That first trip led to the next and the next. Now fast forward to today. I have published a second novel about life in today’s Cambodia, Out of the Ruins, and my Writing Workshop has spread to schools and shelters throughout the country. The demand has grown so much that I am creating an organization, Writing Through. I train others to deliver the workshop and, if that isn’t enough, I am looking to expand the program beyond Cambodia, helping the most at-risk children around the world to find their own voices. With them, I am finding my own voice, too, and in the most unlikely of places.