Tuesday, November 19, 2013

November 2013 - Young women and Staff Retreat in Koh Kong

WARNING: This is a long blog so get a cup of coffee and sit back, relax and read! Hopefully you don't fall asleep in the process! :-)

This past weekend was Bun Om Touk (Water Festival) holiday. Normally, thousands of people come into Phnom Penh from the provinces to watch the boat races on the Tonle Sap river but over the past few 3 years, the boat races were cancelled. For us at Ratanak, we took the opportunity to go on a 3 day retreat/holiday with all of the young women at the RAP Community home as well as all our Khmer staff. We also invited a special guest and Ratanak partner Reaksa Himm (and his family) to be our keynote speaker as we didn't just want this to be a regular holiday but to have a time of connecting with the Lord on a corporate level together as one big family.
Reaksa Himm (author of Tears of My Soul) and his family

So this past Saturday at 5:15am, everyone met at the RAP home. I'm always amazed at our young women, how quickly they can be dressed and ready to go even ahead of the staff at such early hours in the morning. They remind me of typical teenagers who usually wake up late if they have to go to school or work but when its holiday time, their joy and excitement overflow and a new burst of energy appears. That day, they were busily helping each other with new hair styles and make up in the wee hours of the morning! :-)

Our home advisor Than holding baby Daniel who was fast asleep despite all the activities
Our destination was the southern province of Koh Kong close to the Thai border. It was quite a trek and the expected travel time would be around 7 to 8 hours depending on how well the roads were along the way. Our first pit stop was at 7am for some breakfast Khmer style ---we had a choice of rice and bbq pork, rice and grilled chicken or a noodle soup.
Program Manager Nary, Case Management Coordinator Malin and Home Adivsor Coordinator Reasmey waiting for their breakfast
During the bus time, we used that opportunity to spend some time worshipping the Lord as we had brought a long our worship books and some of the traditional hymms. It was quite a contest with different staff and young women all wanting to choose different songs all at the same time. Nonetheless, one of our young women Client ''TH'' is a very talented and gifted singer so we had her lead the worship time. These modern day buses have a flat screen TV and also a microphone so it was perfect for this captive audience.
Driving Through the pot holes along the road

No way to avoid this big pot hole

As we were getting close to our destination the roads deteriorated. Big pot holes covered the dusty red clay making it a bit treacherous at times to drive. Thankfully the tour company we went with had a very skillful driver who managed to navigate all sorts of pot holes. I enjoyed his creative driving!

Nonetheless after a rather tasty lunch of sweet and sour fish, fried chicken, fried vegetables and Tom Yum soup we quickly headed to our first destination on the outskirts of Koh Kong for our boat ride to a local waterfall called: Tatay Waterfall. The scenes reminded me of cottage country in Ontario and brought back wonderful memories of being back in Canada.
Some of our staff and Reaksa's family on the boat that will take us down the lake

a view of the fresh water lake from our boat
The Destination - a local waterfall called Tatay Waterfalls

Several of our staff and young women opted to go swimming and take photos at the waterfall. Unlike North America, where there are clear walk ways or planks to get to tourist places, here in Cambodia, its all natural---that means you have to find your own way through rocks and vegetation to the intended destination. Its not the most safest adventures as the rocks were somewhat slippery given that it probably may have rained the night before so yours truly opted to play it safe and hang out in the boat with other young women and staff who were happy to spare themselves from the intense early afternoon heat. Actually, one of the main reasons I opted out was the fact that fresh water lakes then to be breathing grounds for parasites so my paranoia kicked in and figured it was better to be safe than sorry later on! :-)This of course didn't stop a group of monks who happily were willing to trek through the thick vegetation to enjoy the cooling waters of the waterfall.

A minutes shortly after this photo was taken, our bus driver came hiking back to one of our boats asking if he could borrow our first aid kit and an elderly lady had slipped on the rocks and cracked her head. In the mean time, some of our other young women, spent the next hour baby sitting baby Daniel in the boat under the watching eye of one of our home advisors.
A Couple of the young women baby sitting Daniel while his mum is off swimming
Our RAP Program Manager spending time reading and resting on the boat
.After our waterfall activity, our next stop was to visit the Mangroves. This is one of the most beautiful spots in Cambodia as I'm told that Mangroves are spread along the coast from Kep to Koh Kong and they cover an area of over 50,000 hectares in Koh Kong. Mangroves are specialized tropical trees that live on the edge where rainforests meet oceans. 

This could be a picture of northern Ontario in Canada!

Our day of sightseeing ended with another beautiful boat ride to watch the sunset. All during this time, our young women and staff were busily snapping photos of each other and their surrounding locations. For our staff and young women, they have never had the opportunity to visit some of the places in their own country and so it was a real joy to see their excitement as they admired God's creation in such serene and beautiful surroundings. It was such a far cry from the hustle and bustle of city life.

Despite all the social activity, we quickly checked into our hotel after a quick dinner and it was time to end the evening with a time of worship and also a time of sharing from Reaksa. In spite of it being a very long day, God used Reaksa's testimony to minister to all staff and the young women. Reaksa shared  how he survived and crawled out of one of the mass graves as a 13 year old boy after he had witnessed the killing of several of his family members and  how years later after studying in Canada at seminary and becoming a pyschologist, he came to know Christ and learned that true healing, true freedom in Christ comes from forgiving those who harmed us. Thus, his return to Cambodia led him to find the killers of his family and extend forgiveness  and grace to them.
Reaksa sharing his testimony as our staff and young women listen

 His testimony left an indelible impression on everyone and he encouraged everyone to write on a piece of paper anyone that they wanted to forgive.(We will take these papers and burn it as a symbol that they have been nailed to the cross.) Following that, he asked if anyone wanted to come to the front for prayer to experience more freedom in Christ as they chose to forgive those who had hurt them. Amazingly, all of our staff and young women came forward and one by one we prayed over each one of them some shed tears, as we anointed them with oil and asked the Lord to bless them with more freedom from past hurts, wounds and traumas inflicted on them by those who had wounded them. What a special moment that was seeing the Spirit of God move and touch the hearts of all who were there that night. Despite the late hour, the Lord was at work!

Day 2: Sunday November 17th and the Lord continued His work as I sat listening to two staff over breakfast sharing how they had held onto hurts for 5 years and because of Reaksa's testimony, felt God convicting them to choose to forgive those who had hurt them. Our morning began with a worship time and another timely message from Reaksa who was preaching from John 11: 38-44 about how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. In this message, we learned about walking out of darkness into the light and that the Tomb while being a place of darkness was not the end but rather the place that transformation begins. He reminded us that the ''smell'' in the tomb, is a reflection of our sinful nature and that it takes time to clean the smelly things in our lives, that transformation takes a life time to go through the process. And finally, the grave clothes, demonstrated that we all need others to help us unwrap these clothes. We need others to help us to transform from the darkness to light. Ultimately transformation is a journey moving towards the life we want, but the life that only Jesus can give! At this end of this message, Reaksa once again asked if there was anyone who wanted to surrender and submit their lives to Christ. Again, the Lord surprised us! We have two  staff who had not yet given their life to Christ, but were on a journey to discovering Him. But this morning, they encountered the Risen Lord and both came forward asking to receive Christ as their personal Savior.
One of our staff members repeating the sinner's prayer 

But that was not the end, the Lord used their initiative coupled with an encouraging message from our Program Manager Nary who shared that even though we may have all gone to church for a long time, we may not necessarily have a personal relationship with Christ. She shared from her own experience and those words, prompted two of our young women to come forward for Reaksa to lead them through the Sinner's prayer and pray over them to receive Jesus as their Personal Lord and Savior!

RAP Young women coming forward to say the sinners prayer and receive Christ as her Savior!

RAP Young woman coming forward to say the sinners prayer and receive Christ as her Savior!

As I reflect on these two sessions in which Reaksa shared, I am once again reminded that God never wastes our pains, sufferings and traumas. He will use them for our good and for His purposes to bring about His glory. Reaksa's life and story represents the life and story of many Khmer who deal with daily trauma and suffering. For Reaksa, when He discovered The TRUTH, He was set free but that journey of freedom took time, yet it was a journey well worth the time and the energy because it was a journey that led to a new life, a new hope and a new song in his heart! So too for our Khmer staff and young women at RAP who themselves have experienced their own personal traumas, we pray that the seeds planted this weekend, will fall on good soil, soil that will lead to transformation from brokenness to wholeness and from captivity to freedom as the Lord continues to work in each of their hearts!

After these spiritual encounters, the rest of our day was more light hearted as we went to visit Safari World---yes there is such a thing in Cambodia. 

We attended several different shows --- one involving orangatans in a boxing match, a bird show, a crocodile show which showed some impressive acts by the staff at Safari World and finally a Tiger show. Our young women were thrilled to have their photos taken in some of these shows with the animals!

A parrot riding a bicycle!

Day 2 ended with some personal down time, which was perfect as we each were able to retreat and continued to enjoy the beauty of God's creation at the place we stayed. 

Ratanak Cambodia - All our Khmer Staff from both the Operations Office and RAP Home
Today we are all back from our 3 day excursion, a time where we had many laughs and lots of fun times together. These opportunities to laugh and play together don't happen too often but we realize the importance of them for our soul care as they foster team unity,  bind us together in Christ and most of all gives us the opportunity to not only breathe life into all of our dry bones, but they provide us with a special time of encountering our Risen Lord, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. And so on behalf of our team here in Cambodia, we are thankful to many supporters and donors who give to our work in so many different ways, for as you do, you are being used to build the kingdom of God first in our hearts and ultimately, you are partnering with us build to His kingdom in this land!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Happy 1st Anniversary RAP Home!

Yesterday was the 1 year anniversary when we welcomed several young women into the RAP Community home. It was fitting that a Ratanak team from Canada was visiting Cambodia during this time. The team is made up of both Ratanak staff from Canada and some of our volunteers who work in raising awareness through their fundraising activities our hosting events for us. So we were especially blessed by having them come and celebrate not only the 1 year anniversary but also the 1 month birthday of Ratanak Daniel!
Ratanak Canada team

The festivities began at around 3pm when the team arrived and as part of our warm up games, the young women at RAP and our staff had to guess who were Ratanak staff and who were Ratanak volunteers. That led to a few rounds of laughter as the young women assumed that the older ones were staff and the younger ones were volunteers. Then the tables were reversed and we mixed up the Khmer staff and young women and the Canadian team had to choose who was staff and who was living at the RAP home. One of the advantages that the Khmer have is they all look so ageless so it was a bit of a challenge for the Canadian team.
Musical chairs

Jessica and Joy our two Ratanak staff had prepared a few ice breaker games and brought prizes along for the winners. We have found this to be very valuable in helping the young women at RAP overcome their initial shyness as we rarely have guests or short term visitors to the RAP home as a way of not infringing on the young women's privacy given that it is their home. But as well, we are mindful that these young women are still on a journey of healing and learning about healthy attachments with their caregivers. So the need to limit visitors is of primary importance to support ongoing bonding with those who walk with them on a daily process.

We started with the all too familiar musical chairs game which left a few minor injuries as one of our heavier weighted staff promptly sat on the leg of one of our young women---she has recovered from the soreness of that event!:-)

3 legged race with Canadian and Khmer staff

''Papa Brian matching pictures with one of the young women''

Following that, several other games ie: 3 legged race outside and a matching picture game all led to more laughter. But one of my favorite games was one in which each person was giving a picture of an animal and they had to find others who had the same picture but this could only be done by making the sound of the animal. We figured this was a good cross cultural game since it only required animal sounds and no verbal language. However we all discovered that as people walked around trying to find others who had the same animal sound,  there was a translation adjustment. Did you know that a Cambodian pig goes ''ou, ou'' while a Canadian pig goes ''oink, oink'' or that a Canadian cow say ''moo, moo'' but a Cambodian cow says ''more more!'' You can only imagine how difficult it was trying to match these sounds in a room crowded with 30 plus people. Suffice to say the game was a huge success with peels of laughter and to top it all, there was even a cross cultural lesson discovered! As an aside,  I guess next time when I sing to Baby Daniel,  I will have to change the version of the kids tune ''the wheels on the bus go around and around and the cows on the bus go ''more more more'' :-)

From there, it was the young women's turn as they locked arms with some of the visitors and took them on a tour around the RAP home to see their rooms as well as some of the office rooms with some of our staff  When everyone returned to the main entrance, '' Papa Brian shared a small speech thanking the RAP young women for allowing the guests to come and visit their home and congratulated them for adjusting to many changes and challenges as they moved from a shelter to the RAP Community home. At the end, the Canadian team had prepared little gift bags for the young women and also our staff. So often everyone focuses on blessing the young women but it is equally as important to remember that without our staff, we could not provide the care and services to support the young women.
Bloom cake for the Young Women and a 1 month birthday cake for baby Daniel
 We ordered a wonderful cake from our favorite bakery Bloom for the young women in honor of their 1 year anniversary at the RAP home and also a little birthday cake to celebrate Baby Daniel's 1 month. In the midst of all the games and activities, baby Daniel was busily sleeping his life a way immune to all the laughter and noise!
Baby Daniel with Sokunthy our social worker

Our evening of celebration continued at the Pizza Company for all of our staff and young women. Some of whom slowly began to practice their English on their Canadian visitors. It was wonderful time for the Canadian team to spend time with their Khmer counterparts and the young women. After all, our staff in Canada and our volunteers so often work in jobs behind the scene and spend countless hours praying for our team and the young women on this end.

All in all it was a light hearted entertaining afternoon and evening. A time to join together as one big family in Christ. Epheisans 3:4-5 says: For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. As the team returns to Canada shortly, I am reminded that whether we are Canadian or Khmer, we are all one in Christ. We all have the same purpose. To see God glorified in the lives of the young women! It is our efforts together as a team, whether praying, whether fundraising, or those of us who work on the front lines ministering directly to the young women ---we are all on a journey together walking with them so that they too will encounter the one glorious hope that we all have in Christ. It is that glorious hope that enables all of us to continue to persevere in the midst of challenges and stresses knowing that as He binds us together, He is the One that unites us and He is the One that will sustain us because He is the One that is doing the work of redemption as we remain faithful to that which He has called each of us!