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Published: June 10th 2017
Geo: 11.6724, 105.425
Volunteering has been a big part of my life since I was a child. I don't remember volunteering with my parents, but I do recall spending time in high school volunteering at a local hospital as a "Candy Striper," and working for free at traffic counts, plus visiting the elderly fairly regularly. In college I volunteered to teach a catechism class; it must have been early on during my religious period, as by my junior year I had become an agnostic (a result of teaching that class?). Helping others has always been important to me, so I taught this to my children by including them in our longest volunteer stint to date.
In 1993 or '94 our family began volunteering at Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, Maine. I talked our way into being the first "ridge-runners" on the east coast; these are the people who climb mountains troubleshooting, giving directions to hikers, answering questions, and basically being a park presence where there are very few rangers. Our job was to hike up certain mountains in the park, and sit on top for 2-3 hours, cataloging which trails the hikers used to reach the summits, and also to watch for off-trail use. Two of my children were still small back then, so I wasn't sure how happy they would be on top of Acadia's summits for hours at a time, but we accepted the challenge, and began volunteering for Acadia National Park. In exchange for our work we are given a free campsite at the park, so everyone is happy. This summer will be our 19th year volunteering at ANP; it is something we thoroughly enjoy and look forward to each year, although, since our children have all fledged, for the past few years it is only my husband and myself who climb Acadia's mountains and count. (If you visit ANP, look for us on any summit!)
Each child carried a very small backpack; inside were very small toys: clothespin dolls, bandanas for doll hammocks, bits of left-over material for doll clothes, paper, a few colored pencils and crayons. My husband, Bill, and I carried water, Mad-Libs books, and food, but the hours flew by after I taught the kids how to forage for blueberries, and then later on, for even sweeter huckleberries. Staying 3 hours at a time volunteering on top of Acadia's summits is no hardship; the views are some of the most beautiful I have seen anywhere in the world.
My children were brought up seeing volunteering as a part of their lives, and also seeing it be a part of our family life. Now they are seeing their mother doing a completely different kind of volunteering while I am at an orphanage far away from home, at Wat Opot, in Cambodia.
This life is very different from any other volunteering I have done so far. The children here are mostly orphans; their parents mostly died from AIDS. Here I play with the kids, help teach the smaller children their letters and how to write their names, and build block towers; here I play active outside sports like badminton and frisbee and jump rope with the middle-aged kids, and help them with their English, or open the arts and crafts room; here I talk with the older kids, and help to teach them about science, art, about the world or anything else they are interested in. I live here with the children and other volunteers, but sometimes I am not needed at all, as the children mostly seem to be quite self-reliant when it comes to entertaining themselves. But always, every day, I am wanted for hugs, for hand-holding, for being available for them to climb into my lap. It's a good job.
But the experience of life here is more than just being with the children. Last night when I turned the light on in my room I saw three things that weren't there earlier in the day: I saw a rather large spider on the wall behind my bed, a gecko on the same wall (perhaps considering the spider?), and a frog hiding behind one of my bags. My first thoughts were to get these intruders out of my room, but the spider was already gone from sight when I returned with a broom, the gecko had climbed up higher than I could reach, so I tried to scoop up the frog and put him outside. He jumped onto the floor, hiding somewhere else, so I thought he might as well stay and eat mosquitos. Maybe the gecko will eat the spider. Something always eats something, and there are certainly plenty of mosquitos and other insects here, so why shouldn't the spiders, geckos, and frogs also share my room?
In front of the new volunteer dorm here at Wat Opot is a beautiful pond. At night we sit on the peaceful porch, looking out at the pond, watching the stars and lightning shows, and talk about the children, about ways we can help make life better for them, or just about ourselves. The spirit of community is contagious. I fall asleep at night (under a mosquito net) listening to the sweet summer night sounds, even though this is January. Tomorrow I'll wake up and see where I can be most useful to the children who live here, and I'll forget about the spiders, the geckos and frogs in my room, taking a bath with just one or two bucketfuls of water, and simply focus on my volunteer work here. My life is richer knowing these children, working and playing with them, volunteering here. Life in Cambodia is an education in itself, but life volunteering at this orphanage is good for the heart and the soul.
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