A few months ago, I had just finished teaching my cardio kickboxing class and one of my students stayed after to talk with me. We were discussing how she had recently burned her hands while cooking. There was another lady in the room that was working out during our conversation. I had never seen this lady before. She had her ear buds in and was sort of just hanging out in the back of the room. My student was telling me she was feeling very self concious about her injury and I was trying to make her feel better about it, saying it will heal up in time and giving her some tips on scar creams. This conversation comes to my mind right now, because a couple days ago, I went to drink out of my new thermos and, instead, poured the scalding hot water down face (I know.. I'm brilliant), resulting in this lovely vampire-ess burn that I have been rocking the last few days. I'm sure it will go away, but nonetheless, I feel very dumb for pouring hot water on my face. So, back to my story, after my student left the room, the lady that had been working out in the corner came up to me and started telling me about her life. She had just recovered from breast cancer. She went into detail about the toll that chemo had taken on her body. When I was younger, my grandma had breast cancer and went through chemo, but I don't think I really was able to comprehend just how difficult that all was, just how physically draining it was for her. My grandma was always putting on such a strong face, that you wouldn't have known just how debilitating the cancer was. This woman painted the picture very clearly for me. She said how it made her body far more sensitive to everything... when it's cold, she's colder, when it's hot, she's hotter. She could feel the chemo all the way in her bones. Then she showed me her scar, which made every scar on my body look invisible. It ran from the top of her chest, all the way down to the bottom of her ribs. And it didn't bother her at all... not one little bit. After everything she'd been through, she was still a shining light of optimism. She was glowing with confidence. This woman is such an inspiration and a true staple for beauty. Even with a scar running halfway across her torso, she was still beautiful. Because beauty comes from within. Our scars do not define us. They are simple a small part of a larger story.
I was 12 years old when my dad took me to see "Tomb Raider," starring Angelina Jolie. It was the first movie I had ever seen that had a strong female lead. I never knew that women could be such bad asses, until I saw Lara Croft swinging through the tombs of the Ta Prohm temple, while taking on death-defying dangers with her combat skills. This movie played a big role in shaping my life, inspiring me to become a martial artist and to empower myself as a strong female. As I grew older, I had grown to respect Angelina for more than just her on screen portrayals of strong female characters. In high school, I saw a photo of her at an orphanage in Cambodia and always thought "if I ever become famous, I am going to do that same thing." She is an amazing actress, but her humanitarian work has always spoke volumes to me.
Let's fast forward a bit…
A little over a year ago, I was walking my dog though my neighborhood when, out of nowhere, I was attacked by a large breed dog. I will spare you the details, because, to be quite honest, I'm kind of sick of talking about it. This event changed my life. I was diagnosed with PTSD and spent the last year of my life in therapy for it. I never thought I'd find myself laying on a shrink's couch, sobbing, while talking about how I'm too scared to even walk out the front door. I wasn't able to go to parks, the beach, Petsmart… really, anywhere where there was any possibility of seeing a large dog. Let alone, I will never walk my dog through a neighborhood ever again. I've always been a huge animal lover, so having this fear constantly hanging over me has taken a mental toll. This hasn't been the easiest year of my life… in fact, the last few years haven't been the easiest. I had two back-to-back hip surgeries right before this and was just coming out of recovery when this happened. I've spent the last year wondering why things happen the way they do. I've been searching for the light in this whole thing and just really wasn't able to find it. I wanted something good to come from all of this, to see the positivity in it. I needed to gain some perspective on life and see that, in the whole spectrum of things, my problems are not really all that big. There are people in the world that have nothing at all and here I am, born into a place with so much opportunity and possibility for a successful future. Once again, I was brought back to that image of Angelina Jolie at that Cambodian orphanage. So I started thinking "I don't need to be famous or rich to do something good. What is keeping me from doing that right now? Why can't I make a difference now?" And, thus, I started my research to find an organization to volunteer with. Weeks of research led me to a company called International Volunteer Headquarters (IVHQ). I signed up and booked my flight to Cambodia. I didn't know anyone that had ever done this or anyone that had gone through this company. To be completely honest, I didn't really even know if it was a legit company until the moment I stepped off the plane. Everyone thought I was crazy and kept asking why I wasn't afraid to leave by myself. I let fear run the last year of my life and I wasn't going to let it stop me from having this experience. This was something I had to do and it was something I had to do on my own.
I arrived in Cambodia on June 18th, 2016.
I was placed at The New Hope Orphanage, located in a small village in the Province of Kampong Chnnang, with two other girls. It was hours outside of the city. We were put into the teaching program, teaching English to the children. We were fortunate enough to actually live at the orphanage with the kids. The kids were amazing. The first hour we were there, one of them ran up to us and handed me a drawing that he made, signed with his name, then ran off. There was a clear language barrier at times, but their hearts were so pure, it was hard not to fall for them. We had breakfast at 7am every morning and started our first class at 8. We taught 3 classes a day; beginner, intermediate and advanced. The young, local villagers were allowed to come to our classes as well, so we had a packed class. It's amazing how eager the children are to learn there. In America, kids are so preoccupied with video games and TV that I think it takes away that thirst for knowledge. We had one girl that was so dedicated to learning, that she would come get us and tell us that she was ready to start class. I have no doubt that she will go on to become a doctor or something great one day. I really enjoyed teaching the kids. Something in life seems to always pull me towards teaching. It was challenging, but I enjoyed the challenge. The children's faces lit up with enthusiasm when they knew an answer to a question I asked. That, in itself, was very rewarding.
The kids don't have much. Many of them wear the same clothes nearly everyday. They rarely wear shoes. One little boy would wave goodbye to us every morning at breakfast, as he walked off to school, with the same ripped yellow t-shirt that he wore everyday and his backpack hanging open, from the huge gaping hole in it. I don't think he even cared though. He was such a happy little boy, always laughing and getting into something. All of the children have sponsors, which is how the orphanage provides them food and shelter. They don't get many gifts though. One of the older boys told me that Christmas is the most exciting time of the year for him, because his sponsor sends him a gift. Last Christmas she sent him a new backpack, which he was thrilled about.
The kids are so grateful for everything. The whole time we were there, they never asked us for anything. We would offer to buy them snacks and they would say no, even though I think they really wanted it. They were just happy that we were there. I had no idea how much I would love these kids and how much I would miss them when I left. I have been home for 2 months now and not one day has gone by that I haven't thought about the children at the New Hope Orphanage. I think about this little village, what the locals call, "The Mango Village" every single day now. I have always wanted to make a difference in the world, to do something greater than just being content with where I am. A few weeks at an orphanage didn't change the world, but it's one step closer. If we all just take one step together, it creates a giant leap for humanity and that is truly making a difference.
I don't know if I ever did figure out why things happened the way they did. Sometimes you are just at the wrong place at the wrong time and there is no real reason for it, I guess... but this journey brought me to the realization that if you can't find the light in a bad situation, create it.
The New Hope Orphanage
If you would like to donate to the orphanages of New Hope for Orphans, please go to seapc.org. SEAPC is their USA partner.
Me at the Ta Prohm Temple, where Tomb Raider was filmed, in Siem Reap, Cambodia