In Cambodia, 10 percent of all children are orphans.
Honestly, this number isn’t as bad as the 12 percentof all Sub-Saharan Africa children.
But this isn’t a story about orphans or orphanages.
This is a story about children. A story about what it’s like to grow up with 99 brothers and sisters.
To be honest, I don’t really know what’s it like to have that much family. I do know what it’s like to go to school with them, live with them, eat with them and travel on family trips with them.
In 2008, I lived in a pretty well off orphanage in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I know that sounds funny but we weren’t starved for resources. The students had a plethora of caring donors, an adult staff who were like family, and a slew of energized volunteers.
The orphanage had a great methodology to unite the children together. They had youth ages 20 and under living under the same roof in a girls and boys dormitory.
The children were divided into smaller subsets of families. The oldest children were assigned seven or eight other children of varying age ranges to look after on a day to day basis. There were only five full time adult staff. So it was up to the eldest crew to look after the younger ones.
If the orphanage took in an entire family then that group had it’s own micro unit.
The weird part was they weren’t all orphans. Some of these kids had aunts, uncles, cousins still alive in the country. Some had seen their parents die of illness, some of a violent death. Most often, these were village street kids.
Somehow neglected basic care or education. Somehow recommended to our safe haven.
In my six months of living in Phnom Penh, I never truly understood the education system. Everyone in the country was required to take four hours of school. If you could afford it you could take eight hours of education.
However, the tests were based on the eight hour curriculum. A small twist in the tale, eh?
The children woke up at 5:30 a.m. sharp to grab a quick meal of rice and beans before walking as a herd of wild elephants down the street to school. Our kids studied for four hours in a public school and four hours in the orphanage school.
Mr. Pole, the man that ran the home cared about these kids. He taught them in English because he wanted them to be internationally competitive with other Cambodians. That pressure often led to our eldest students to study day and night in preparation for exams in both of their schoools.
It wasn’t all work though! These kids knew how to party. A mere $50 was enough to throw the whole orphanage a dance party with some fried chicken and fresh bread! This was a real treat since the typical dinner consisted of white rice and fish.
These dinners were usually timed with birthday parties. Since there were so many children, they were celebrated as a monthly celebration. Each student received their very own cake and would blow the candles out together.
Afterwards, speakers four times the size of an adult were dragged out to the main quad. From here, a mix of Cambodian pop artist and traditional dances were played until the wee hours of the morning.
All in all, these kids, while living an unusual life style, were just like any other kids. They laughed, they played, they struggled with the definition of beautiful, they dreamt, they yelled, they fought, they pouted and they cried. They just happened to have 50 brothers and 50 sisters.
It wasn’t often you’d get a story about their days before the orphanage and when you did it wasn’t pretty. For these kids a new pair of shoes were a rarity although a hand me down was just as exciting.
Maybe it was the Buddhist in them, but they seemed happy to travel as a pack.
They always had enough players for a soccer or volleyball game.
Always someone around to help them with their homework.
Always someone around to take the fireworks away from them.
Always someone around to ensure they got into bed on time.
It’s been five years since I was together with this beautiful family and not a day goes by that I don’t send them love with all my heart. Check them out for yourself here.
Olga Feingold is a traveling vagabond goddess, who found a passionate full-time job in Boston. She keeps her soul smiling with her dedicated yoga practice, running away to the wilderness in her free time, and practicing gratitude. She loves finding things to climb, people to hug, and harnessing her inner domesticated side.
~Editor: Kate Bartolotta