Parishioners from Churches of Our Lady Queen of Peace and St. Ignatius, together with non-Catholic participants, distributing ‘love parcels’ to the poor in Cambodia. Photos by Jeffrey MacPherson
SINGAPORE – A small group of parishioners of Church of Our Lady Queen of Peace who spent a week-long mission trip at a Don Bosco school in Cambodia were inspired by the cheerful disposition and quiet servitude of the Salesian Sisters that the volunteers felt they had to share the joy of service with others.
That was Advent 2006.
With the permission of Parish Priest Father Francis Lee, the parish in 2007 launched its outreach programme – ACTS – which stands for Advent Cambodia Trips as well as “A Call to Serve” that follows the example of the Acts of the Apostles.
One of two grottos built in two schools, as inspired by a volunteer’s dream.
This mission outreach has since grown to include people outside the parish and the Church.
Led by Jesuit Fathers Joseph Yao and James Tan, some 240 participants aged from seven to 75, comprising parishioners from Queen of Peace and St. Ignatius, as well as non-Catholics, went on the Advent 2009 mission trip. Participants included those from previous mission trips; some bringing along their family members and friends.
Logistic preparation for the December trip started in June. Pre-mission formation was conducted by Father Joseph and Brothers Jovita Ho and Cornelius Ching of the St. Francis Xavier Major Seminary (SFXMS) over three sessions in October to November. Spiritual formation is an important element of this mission. Each day began with prayers and ended with an evening Mass.
The initiatives in 2009 include working on expanding several projects set in place from the previous years, including fundraising for the Don Bosco schools’ infrastructure, medical care, a food programme for 1,700 students throughout the year, educational programmes and scholarships for the teachers and students, the setting up of computer laboratories, packing and distribution of 200 love parcels that consisted of essentials for the poorest families and 2,000 gift packages to the students. Gifts to the children included an ACTS T-shirt which students of the three schools at Teuk Thla, Phum Chreh and Tuol Kork use every Friday.
Other projects last year included a well received private fundraising gala dinner held at Sheraton Towers Hotel organised by Gladys Wong and Shirley Yap. Proceeds went towards the building of a dormitory cum vocational school for girls at risk from prostitution.
In a related project, a team which included five SFXMS seminarians led by volunteer Gregory Tan worked at the Missionaries of Charity home for children with AIDS – painting and carrying out minor repairs, shovelling manure, and packing love parcels for distribution to 400 families. No one complained about the backbreaking work; there was a deep satisfaction and quiet happiness amongst the volunteers when the tasks were completed.
The initiative of building of two grottos dedicated to Mother Mary generated great enthusiasm amongst the volunteers.
The idea was divinely inspired when in 2008, ACTS volunteer Shanny Ho was chatting with another volunteer who was dozing off on the bus. When Shanny asked the latter what projects ACTS could do, the latter woke up and said, “Build a grotto in the school.”
When the then Salesian Provincial, Sister Sarah Gracia heard the story, she revealed that the Sisters had always wanted a grotto but did not make it a priority because of a lack of funds. Finally in Christmas 2009, the grottos were built at the schools of Teuk Thla and Tuol Kork, thanks to the sponsorship of two families.
Squeals of joy and delight erupted from the nuns and students when the lights and fountain were turned on for the grottoes dedication ceremony where many, including non-Catholics, participated.
Another first in 2009 was the offer of healthcare assistance, including dental care, to the students and villagers. Led by Simon Chua, the dental team treated patients, and children who had their decayed teeth extracted came out of the room, grinning.
Meanwhile, the medical team which comprised medical students from the National University of Singapore working under a separate project –Project Sabai – which offers medical services to the villagers – treated about 400 villagers on the first day of the trip. The team incorporated new technology including fingerprint readers to maintain patient records for future missions.
And for the first time, two catechists from St. Ignatius, Audrey Ruyters and Simone Lai conducted catechism classes for the students at the request of the Sisters.
Beyond all these programmes, volunteers and children bonded through dance and sports, that bridged cultural and language barriers. One of the more enthusiastically received activities was the dance programme conducted by June Lee and her teachers from The School of Dance: All the nuns, teachers and students (including the boys) were bogeying into the night.
The activities culminated in Christmas parties where the Cambodian kids received rare treats. In return, each ACTS participant was presented with thank-you letters from the children and the traditional Cambodian scarf that is given as a sign of gratitude. At one point, the celebrations erupted into spontaneous dancing, with the children going round smearing the faces of participants with powder, a Cambodian form of blessing.
Upon reflection, it was as much the participants’ physical presence that spread the Christmas cheer – which went beyond material gifts, but the hope of a better future and an opportunity to introduce them to God’s love. One of the students asked Salesian Sister Ophriini this poignant question, “Why do these strangers come from so far away to love us?”
Although ACTS is into its fourth year, its work has already attracted the attention of the Cambodian government which gave an award of appreciation to ACTS in 2008. The Cambodian government has also requested that the ACTS programme of improving hygiene and infrastructure of schools, and development of education programmes, be replicated in one of the government schools.
ACTS has also inspired scores of more affluent Cambodian kids to come to work alongside the volunteers from Singapore. ACTS is also working with the Cambodian Church to train strategic groups of people, like the medical students, to eventually assume responsibility for the ACTS programmes.
ACTS is working towards establishing long term sustainable projects to alleviate hunger and poverty, but more importantly, to allow children to hope and dream like children elsewhere in the world.
Joanne, one of the participants said: “This trip allowed me to see God in the faces of these children, as they showered us with warm smiles and hugs, showing us that happiness can be very simple. I realised that often in our hurried lifestyles, we forget to show gratitude for the blessings we have in life. Most importantly, the children taught me how to give and receive love.”
Advent is a time for reflection and preparation for Christ’s birth. But for many ACTS participants, this mission was an epiphany that has changed their lives.
By John Lee