By Bernadette Lau
I was a cradle Catholic and baptized Bernadette because it was the 100th anniversary of the year that Mary appeared to my patron saint. My dad was a staunch Catholic and we were brought up that way.
As a young adult, I always had the passion of working with children and youths, as I believe that they are the future of society. Their lives are shaped at a very young age by those responsible in bringing them up and guiding them in the right direction. I decided to give of my time to projects that can enhance or help children to achieve a better tomorrow. However, being a parent myself, I discovered it's a real challenge and heavy responsibility in bringing up the children in the right direction especially in the realm of spirituality.
The turning point of my life was my involvement at Nazareth Centre, a project started under the umbrella of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary in 1969 to meet the needs of the Bukit Ho Swee Community. Especially for the young, the centre serves as a drop-in alternative to the streets, a safe place where one can feel accepted as part of the community.
The centre has evolved over the years and registered as a charity in 1987 as Bukit Ho Swee Social Service Centre and subsequently in 2001 to Beyond Social Services (BSS) as it is known today. Their key mission is to develop the social, emotional and psychological well being of children, youths and families. The main aim of the Youth Programme is to help youths, especially youths at risk, develop self-esteem and social responsibility.
I left the society in 1984 but have since rejoined them as a Management Committee for the Kids United Home under BSS, a gazetted home for children under child protection. The mission is to provide temporary shelter for children aged four to 14 in need of care, protection, guidance and structure while the caseworkers work on reintegrating them into the community.
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The trip to a third world country was something which I had wanted to do and the opportunity arose when a good friend of mine, Dr John Lee, whom I knew since my undergraduate days with the then University of Singapore suggested that I join a group of Singapore Polytechnic Students going for a trip to Cambodia (led by Vicky Quek, admin executive from the Students Affairs Department) to install computer programmes for the 212 computers that The Singapore Polytechnic had so kindly donated. The computers were distributed to various schools, student and youth centres run by Don Bosco, Caritas, Jesuits Student Centres and the Catholic Social Communication Centre in Phnom Penh.
On this trip, I came face to face with poverty and witnessed first hand the kind of life led by the people of Cambodia, the poorest of the poor in the villages that I visited. Most of them live in huts made from straw or wood and have no electricity or clean water.
I also visited the schools and youth centres and orphanage ran by missionary groups of the Catholic Church. The computers installed at the various students and youth centres will greatly enhance the livelihood of the children and youths of Cambodia. For example, the computers for the media project led by Father Omer Giraldo from the Yarumal Missionary Society of Colombia, South America at the Social Communication Centre is to empower young Cambodians in the production of media programs such as Radio Programs, Video documentaries, websites, local newspaper. The computers will be used as education tools in all the areas of media.
The 54 computers donated to the school run by the Salesian sisters of Don Bosco will be used for teaching computer systems and the English language that will really enhance the students learning ability and expose them to a new level of education.
The school at Teuk Thla (means pure water) caters to more than 550 children and another 400 in Phum Chreh in the Tuol Kork province and the third school in Battmabang (near Thai border) that caters mainly to girls at risk, the girls here are taught basic literacy skills and value formation.
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The children at these centres are from the neighbouring villages and they are given an opportunity to be educated and provided with a roof over their heads, as some of them are boarders staying in the school.
School starts from age three to six for the younger ones up to elementary level at Grade Six. For those over 16, they go through a food and home management course and taught cooking and house keeping skills whilst some go through secretarial and computer courses.
One of the priorities of the sisters is to help children and youths, which they view, are very important for the future of Cambodia. They believe that today's children will be the future leaders in the families, in the communities, and in the country.
Whilst they are not allowed to evangelize, they feel that by their love and presence and the activities that they offer, these children will experience the love of Jesus at their centres and they in turn will become messengers of peace, joy and love to their families and friends.
The sisters not only provides for the education of these children, they also look after their nourishment by providing them with a full meal at lunch which I understand is most likely the only meal they have for the day. Most of them do not have the means to pay the school fees and school uniforms are also provided to them.
Lastly, as most of them do not have electricity in their homes, most of the children will make an effort to arrive early in school so as to complete their homework. Such is the state of these children, and our kids here complain about their food and the amount of homework they have to do.
The school at Phum Chreh started as a wooden shelter on a muddy piece of land in 2002. Today, in a space of four years it's a two storey concrete structure with capacity to build another floor. The standard of the school is so good that is recognized by the Cambodian Ministry of Education for its standard of hygiene and education.
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Last year a group of volunteers under the auspices of the Catholic Medical Guild of Singapore installed a water filtration tank so that the students at Phum Chreh now have clean water to drink. They were previously drinking muddy water and quite a number fell sick. To cater to the increase in number of children, the school needs to expand the class and the sisters are now looking to build the 3rd storey and this would be a real challenge in terms of funding. The sisters rely heavily on donation to sustain the running of the school. Most of their donors are from International Corporations and private individuals.
Another project that benefited from the donation of computers is the Center for Research on Optimal Agricultural Practices, (CROAP) which means â€˜seed' in Khmer language, it was meant to become the â€˜seed of hope' for the people in this region.
The project was initiated by the Prefecture of Battambang, lead by Father Hernan Pinilla, also from the Yarumal Missionary Society of Colombia, South America, parish priest of Battambang. They purchased a farm in January 2004 measuring 3.5 hectares to start the project with the aim of improving the agricultural skills of the people of the Province of Pusat (small town south of Battambang). The computers will be used as a resource for teaching English and Agricultural subjects.
One of CROAP's objectives is to ensure that each and every child of the village gets education until the sixth grade. For those children who have successfully completed sixth grade, to support them to High School and finally after High School to further their studies in the field of Agriculture.
Father Hernan also run a school and a church (comprising two boats) on the Tonle Sap Lake, the floating church which is also known as the Karaoke church because it was formerly a Karaoke parlour. This church serves the needs of seven catholic families consisting of about seventy people of the floating village of Kampong Luong. The Patron Saint of this church is St. Peter, the Fisherman.
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AIDs is still a very big problem in Cambodia and the church through different organisation is running different programmes on education and prevention but not promoting the use of condoms. One of them is The Missionaries of Charity of Mother Teresa. Their vocation is looking after children whose parents have abandoned them (these children are either mentally or physically disabled) and also children whose parents have died of HIV.
What kind of life or future do they have? These children have no one to care for them and most are left to perish. Thanks to the nuns who devoted their lives to looking after them, they do have a glimmer of hope. For those who are found to be HIV negative, they are put up for adoption whenever possible, this is by no means one of the way out of their poverty. Whilst those found to be HIV positive, the nuns give them all the love and nourishment they need to live a decent life until their demise.
The mission of Jesus is to bring good news to the poor, to bind up hearts that are broken, to proclaim liberty to the captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free (Is 6: 1-2). It's also the mission of the Catholic Church and missionaries in Cambodia, a country destroyed by civil war for over 20 years. These wars have left wounds in the hearts of most Khmer people. Because of the war, social institutions were torn apart. Trust and confidence were often lost. Even though the war was long over, there are still so many land mines on Cambodian soil, which cause new casualties every year. Suffering and poverty are still very visible.
The missionaries are there to help restore life, and to become witnesses that the force of love and life is stronger than the force of hatred and death. They are there to proclaim the Good News essentially by their lives, by their attitudes, activities, services and love for the poor and the disabled, through prayers and words. By their presence and service they want to give the people of Cambodia a possibility to experience the love of Jesus, the Lord and Saviour of all mankind.
We are all called to be missionaries too? Do we want take up the challenge? There is much we can do. Whilst, as an individual we think that we can't, but if we all put our efforts, time or money together, much can be achieved. Even though there are the poor and the needy in Singapore that also needs financial assistance and a helping hand. Nothing can compare with the state of poverty in Cambodia and other third world countries around the region.
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As for me, this trip has been real eye opener, much more for the students from the Singapore Polytechnic, most of whom are non-Christians. They shared that they now feel more appreciative of their lives after seeing the state of condition in Cambodia. They realised that they have taken so many things for granted. They also felt anger at the parents who have abandoned their children at these homes. Some of them have expressed interest to participate in future projects like this. This is very encouraging and we should also expose our children and youths in the parishes to such overseas project.
I will continue in whatever small way I can in projects that I have in discussion with the sisters of Don Bosco and would invite anyone interested to come forth and be part of the mission that we are called.
Footnote from Dr John Lee: This project is a Singaporean driven initiative of the World Federation of Catholic Medical Association (FIAMC). Special thanks to Vicky (for co-ordinating and leading the project), Bernie & Phillip Chua (for assisting in coordinating the trip and obtaining Microsoft Licenses under the Microsoft Authorised Refurbisher Programme), Mark Foo and friends (for organising and donating costs of logistics) and Singapore Polytechnic (for donation of 200 desk top computers and 12 laptops). Last but not least the 14 students from the Singapore Polytechnic who gave up their vacation to install the programmes onto the 212 computers.