In 1989, Maryknoll Society members, Sisters, and Lay Missioners began a collaboration in Cambodia to assist both refugees and the poor. Cambodians had been deeply affected by the Vietnam War, Khmer Rouge regime, and Cambodian-Vietnamese War. Because of these conflicts, many people were without work, healthcare, or education. This month we take a look at a few of the projects Maryknollers began to address these needs. Please click on the photos to enlarge and view captions.

Seedling of Hope

Like in many parts of the world, HIV carries a stigma in Cambodia. People with HIV are often ostracized by their family and neighbors. Without community support, they may lack basic medical care, a place to live, or a job. Seedling of Hope was started in 1996 by Fr. James Noonan as a hospice for people with HIV. He believed these people deserved a safe, accepting place to live. Eventually, Fr. Noonan collaborated with other Society members, Maryknoll Lay Missioners, and global Catholic funding agencies to start more programs to support those with HIV. These include Bridges of Hope, Karol and Setha, Little Folks, and Little Sprouts. They provide healthcare, HIV prevention education, housing, jobs training, elementary and secondary education, and emotional support to adults and children living with HIV or whose close family members live with HIV.

Sr. Juana Encalada and Fr. James Noonan chat in the street about a Seedling of Hope project, c. 2000

This week, for instance, making my hospital rounds of pastoral care, I met a woman dying of AIDS. She told me her husband had died of the disease, and now she and her elderly mother were trying to take care of her four children… [She] was concerned about the children, all of whom had stopped going to school. “Don’t worry,” I told her. “We can help you.” I explained our Little Folks Program and assured her I would ask a field worker to visit her to get the children enrolled. Her face radiated relief.

Fr. James Noonan

Fr. James Noonan and Lay Missioner Lisa Pirie talk with children enrolled in a Seedling of Hope program, 2008

Boeung Tum Pun Community Health and Education Project

When she arrived in Cambodia in 1991, Sr. Joyce Quinn saw that poor and orphaned children did not have access to good education or healthcare. Without this access, a child may never break out of the cycle of poverty. To address this need, she began a Community Health and Education Project in Boeung Tum Pun (a neighborhood in Phnom Penh). Currently, the Project is managed by Sr. Ann Sherman and Sr. Mary Little, who work with other Sisters and Maryknoll Lay Missioners. The Project runs preschools to provide children with an educational foundation and after-school programs for elementary and secondary students. These programs give children a safe place to play and work on homework and job training. The Maryknollers also lead a health education program to teach good hygiene and nutrition.

We are participating in rebuilding the foundation of the country, by keeping children in school – from the little ones to the university students. We are bringing the Gospel to the poor.

Sr. Regina Pellicore

Sr. Regina Pellicore with young students of the Boeung Tum Pun Community Health and Education Project, 1997
Sr. Mary Little, who currently co-manages the Project, with students in the after-school program, 2012

Deaf Development Program

Lay Missioner and Maryknoll Priest Associate Fr. Charles Dittmeier began working at the Deaf Development Program in 2000. There is little support for deaf people in Cambodia. Most deaf Cambodians struggle to find a job or go to school if they or their community do not know sign language. The Deaf Development Program gives people with hearing loss access to sign language lessons, basic formal education, job skills training, sign language interpretation, and social services.
Fr. Dittmeier teaching a sign language class, 2008
Over time other Maryknollers have worked with Fr. Dittmeier, including Lay Missioner Julie Lawler, an Education Advisor at the Program. In a recent blog, Julie tells how much of an impact the Program can have on deaf individuals.
Lay Missioner Julie Lawler in the field in Cambodia looking for potential new students for the Deaf Development Program, 2020

[One day] I joined our outreach staff in a field work trip to the countryside to find families with deaf individuals… With no formal education and no previous training in sign language, the deaf individuals that we met were shocked to see sign language and not sure how to respond. They were used to communicating only with a combination of gesturing, miming and home signs that their families had made. Meanwhile, in talking with the rest of the family, the hearing staff was able to spread awareness of issues related to deafness, answer questions they might have, and share how education is possible for their child and what to expect at DDP and once they graduate from there: Their deaf family members will have learned basic literacy in Khmer and will be able to get married, have a family, get a job and support their family.

Lay Missioner Julie Lawler

As you can see, Maryknoll’s collaboration in Cambodia is still going strong. In a time when many people are divided by different opinions, it is refreshing to see an example of people working together to make life better for others. The Maryknoll programs in Cambodia remind us that by focusing on the greater good, collaboration can still be done!