I have been home from Cambodia for six days.  I still have many stories I want to share about this country of contrasts: of huge mansions owned by a small number of the elite amid a city of extreme poverty; of garbage strewn in piles along every road in Phnom Penh and beautiful, lush landscapes just outside of the city; of shiny late model SUVs parked on narrow, broken roads alongside rickshaw bicycle taxis whose drivers consider it a good day if they earn five US dollars.  I loved the easy eye-contact and friendly smiles of vendors and people on the street, while having to remember to keep my purse clasped close to my body to avoid losing it to thieves.

Phnom Penh street

I find myself missing the chaos, the tuk-tuk taxi rides, the vendors lining every inch of every street selling produce, newspapers, moto parts and anything a person may need to survive on a given day.  There are no big-box stores in this country, and one must know where to go among the thousands of small store-fronts if looking for something specific.  Our tuk-tuk driver, Mr. Key, has a thorough knowledge of vendors in the city. One day we were in search of beach toys to bring on a trip with the Harpswell students to the seaside town of Sihnoukville.  No problem! He took us through the confusing maze of streets and vendors to a tiny store we would not have found on our own where we purchased two soccer balls and three badminton sets.

What I miss most about Cambodia are the young women university students who live at the Harpswell dormitories I came to know over the course of the two short weeks I was there. I think of them every day, about our conversations that were typical of college girls anywhere—“I am not sure I like my computer science major anymore, what should I do?” and of conversations showing maturity far beyond the university-aged girls I know as friends of my sons—“How can we develop Cambodia economically without hurting poor farmers and without destroying the environment?”  Both are important questions, and I want to continue to have these conversations with these remarkable young women. When I said good-bye to them on my last visit to the two dormitories before my departure, we blew kisses back and forth. The girls taught me to “catch” the kisses with my hands and hold them close to my heart, as is their custom. I feel like I left pieces of my heart back there at the gates to the dormitories.

Saying goodbye...with a promise to return

I am sitting here at my cherry desk, in my nicely decorated home office in Midland, Michigan, and I worry that I will not be able to weave the details of my experiences into the rich tapestry that is my memory of Cambodia.  I want to share these memories with others because the more people who know about the Harpswell Foundation and its programs, the more ideas are generated about how to help empower women in Cambodia.  I have received creative and valuable input about potential business and job opportunities for the Harpswell graduates, how to market the beautiful clothes from the women in the remote village of Tramung Chrum (June 2nd  blog), as well as leads on how to obtain the laptop computers requested by the village school director in Tramung Chrum. I am uplifted by the many people who are expressing an interest in participating in some way toward helping Cambodian people help themselves.  The possibilities are infinite!

I am so very grateful to Alan Lightman, founder of the Harpswell Foundation, for allowing me to “shadow” him for two weeks during one of his twice-yearly visits to Phnom Penh. Seeing the Harpswell Foundation’s work up-front and in-person, and meeting the many people Alan interacted with during the course of his visit was an amazing introduction to Cambodia. It was a gift I will never forget. As a bonus, I came to know about Alan’s family back home: his wife, Jean, who the Harpswell students refer to as “Mom,” his daughter Elsie who will marry in August, and his younger daughter Kara, who works in NYC.  The entire Lightman family is involved in the work of the Harpswell Foundation in some way.  Alan is proud of his wife and daughters, and I am in awe. I hope that my husband, Mark, and I can meet them soon.

Evening English class for Harpswell students

Visit to Sihanoukville

I will be writing more about the Harpswell Foundation students and the extra educational programs they attend in the dorms: English lessons and critical thinking skills sessions in the evenings, as well as leadership development training sprinkled throughout the year. I will also write about the unique sisterhood these women share that will continue after graduation as they begin their work to improve Cambodia from the inside out. I want to tell you about the wonderful day we spent at the beach, and the discussion I had with a group of the girls about arranged marriages and the influence of family approval on Cambodian girls’ choices in life.

I also want to write more about Phnom Penh and this city of contrasts:  of the morning I toured the beautiful grounds of the Royal Palace followed by a tour of the ghastly Tuol Sleng prison, where more than 20,000 men, women and children were tortured and executed between 1975 and 1979 by the Khmer Rouge.

I plan to write about my visit to an organization called “A New Day Cambodia,” which rescues children scrounging in the Phnom Penh garbage dump to support their families, and provides them housing and sends them to school. I’ll also tell you about the visit Alan and I had with Carol Rodley, the US Ambassador to Cambodia, and her multiple trips to speak to the Harpswell students in their “Hall of Great Women Leaders.”

This week, Alan asked me to serve on the Advisory Board of the Harpswell Foundation. It took me about a millisecond to agree.  There are many ways I want to assist this organization in its mission of Empowering a New Generation of Women Leaders in Cambodia. When I embarked on this trip to Cambodia, I hoped to discover how I could combine my 30 years of business experience with my interest in helping to empower women in developing countries.  I was looking for a focus for this “next chapter” in my life following my retirement from the chemical industry. I found many opportunities to make a difference, and I am energized and anxious to get to work!

Stay tuned for more stories over the next several weeks.

For more information on the Harpswell Foundation, go to http://www.harpswellfoundation.org/

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