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Lady with World Vision Cambodia T-shirt and two children smiling
31 March 2023

Seeing children empowered left me empowered

Unlocking that potential within every human, to thrive rather than just survive

Siân Rowland, who lives in London, has been a World Vision sponsor for 20 years. In 2023 she visited her sponsored child in Cambodia, as part of an arranged World Vision trip. She shares her adventure…

I admit I’m prone to a bit of hyperbole. My social media posts are littered with “brilliant” and “amazing” but what happens when I experience something so special it exceeds all my usual adjectives? Our recent trip to Cambodia, and World Vision UK’s first sponsor expedition since Covid, was indeed amazing and brilliant. It was also humbling, inspirational and, yes, life-changing. But something else as well.

When I was offered the opportunity to visit my sponsored child I couldn’t sign up fast enough. 

I’ve been sponsoring for almost 20 years, first a child in Bolivia, then Honduras, then a little girl in Cambodia. It felt right as I had recently read a book about the Cambodian genocide and wanted to learn more about this scarred country and its hopeful, resilient people. I was sent a photo of a tiny child with huge eyes staring out of a very serious little face. I’ve loved watching her grow and learning a little about her life - school, her pet dog, how she loves to eat amok at Water Festival time. But there’s always been that distance. Getting to know her world and hear the changes World Vision has made to the community in the 15 years they’ve been embedded there would bring the sponsorship to life.

READ MORE: How Child Sponsorship works

The adventure begins

Fast forward and I’m at Heathrow with other sponsors, a packed case and a stomach full of butterflies. Terrifying? Yes. The adventure started as soon as we stepped off the plane at Siem Reap into blazing sunshine and loaded ourselves into a minibus while our luggage puttered off tied precariously to a tuktuk.

We met up with the local World Vision team for dinner under the stars at a local restaurant. We were all a little shy but with deep breaths we dived in and the ice wasn’t so much broken as smashed to a million pieces as we exchanged stories and laughs. The last laugh was on us, however, as a large plate of crispy fried crickets emerged from the kitchen. It was time to really engage with local culture!

Woman and child sitting, Cambodia
Siân with her sponsored child Samphors

Empowerment through education

Our first day started with a bumpy bus ride and a glimpse of the real Cambodia - dusty orange roads, homes on stilts, roaming cows, empty paddy fields that will be lush and green come rainy season. After a safeguarding meeting at the office, it was back on the bus to visit our first community project, a school. As someone who has spent their whole career in education this was what I had come for. We spent some time watching a young teacher read to a group of students and while we didn’t understand a single word, her skill in engaging the group and their focus despite being watched by a group of strangers was impressive.

Next was an afternoon reading camp run by parent volunteers, trained up by World Vision. Khmer is not an easy language with 33 consonants, 23 vowels and 12 independent vowels so the 90-minute weekly reading camps are key to fluency in reading and writing. Empowerment through education is a major theme of the support that World Vision aims to embed in these communities. After the session we watched as the children clambered onto huge, adult bicycles - either a family or community bike - and cheerfully pedalled off home.

Sponsors and children meet in Cambodia
Sponsors and children meet in Cambodia

A real highlight

The next day began with a community safeguarding meeting. As well as education and health, safeguarding is a key component of World Vision’s work, empowering both children and adults to ask for support and protect themselves and their families. The meeting took place in a community space while daily life carried on around us - chickens scratched, men chatted and vast towers of logs balanced precariously on small engines pootled past every few seconds. I loved that learning is done openly so whether you’re a member of the meeting or not, child or adult, you understand its importance at the heart of community life. 

A visit to a water purification plant was – unexpectedly - a real highlight. The local water committee explained that they were able to pump fresh water into homes across two villages and while the process was relatively simple the difference it made was vast. We visited a home with a fresh water tap and the matriarch explained how she had spent her entire life trekking to the well to collect water.

We headed out to a Keeping Children Safe class. Like the reading camp, this is a volunteer-led session with structured sessions. As a PSHE (Personal Social and Health Education) specialist myself I was excited to see the children learning a lesson I’ve taught many times. I was even invited to the front to talk to the group and we enjoyed sharing a snack of the sweetest, tastiest corn I’ve ever eaten.

Class in Cambodia
Sponsors at a Keeping Children Safe class in Cambodia

Confused rendition of Old Macdonald!

The day we got to meet our sponsored children and their families my nerves kicked in again. I spotted my sponsored girl while we were on the bus and tears threatened. Was I really about to meet the small, solemn child in the grainy photos? First there were group songs and games and before long we were laughing and feeling at home. The Cambodians giggled at our attempts to remember Khmer numbers and looked slightly confused at our rendition of Old Macdonald had a Farm but it was all very good-natured and felt like meeting old friends.

Each sponsor and family were assigned a World Vision staff member to translate and we separated into small groups to chat. The first thing my sponsor child’s mum asked was “how long did it take you to get here?” Her eyes filled at my answer. “All that way to come and see us,” she whispered.  I had made a scrapbook of photos to share which was a great ice-breaker. Photos of the seasons and British animals proved to be a helpful leveller.

Feeling like old friends we posed for photos, shared toys and games and chatted over lunch. I was incredibly moved when the mum said something and both kids placed part of their food on my plate. The meeting felt surreal and magical and I know it was the same for our sponsored families. As a whole group we shared our experiences and feelings and, yes, tears were shed on all sides as we hugged and said our goodbyes.

Sponsoring has a deeper meaning for me

Sponsoring now has an even deeper meaning for me. When the photos and updates arrive I’ll remember the smile on my sponsored child’s face, remember the kiss her mum dropped onto her hair as her eyes shone with pride in her little girl, smell the warm earth and hear the cluck of chickens scratching around in the dirt outside the classrooms as children chant their reading.

And this takes me back to why I sponsor in the first place and why I chose World Vision. World Vision is about empowering and upskilling local communities, giving them the breathing space to unlock that potential within every human, to thrive rather than just survive.

Now I know what that perfect word is to describe my adventure of meeting my sponsored child. It’s empowering: seeing communities empowered to embed changes, children empowered to use their voices and adults empowered to make the most of their skills and do their best for the next generations. There’s something about this country that reignited a real lust for life in me and has left me feeling empowered too.

A staff member said he felt sad that Cambodia is most remembered for its genocide and the Killing Fields. “We want to be remembered for our living fields,” he said and when I think about Cambodia now I know a small piece of me will forever be part of those living fields too. 

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