January 23, 2009

The Wat Opot Children’s Community

Text by Miwa Ikemiya and Gail Gutradt

What is the Wat Opot Children’s Community?

The Wat Opot Children’s Community is a community in rural Cambodia where orphans with HIV/AIDS and their siblings are able to grow up without fear of being abused, rejected, exploited or neglected, as many children in their situations often are. Created by a former Buddhist monk, Vandine San and a reformed ex-Christian missionary, Wayne Dale Matthysse, the atmosphere at Wat Opot is one of religious tolerance and acceptance of everyone, especially those that everyone else rejects. The number of children fluctuates between about 65 and 80, and there are about 25 infected adults who live and work at Wat Opot.

The story of how the Wat Opot Project came together

Wayne Dale Matthysse, Director of the Wat Opot Children’s Community, was a Marine medic in Vietnam during the war.  Half-blinded while tending to the wounded in a battle near Da Nang, he was the single survivor, and his conscience drew him back to Southeast Asia to offer service to the people affected by the war.  He wound up in Cambodia, volunteering for COERR, a Catholic relief agency.  There he met Vandine Sann, who had been training Buddhist monks in the villages to teach AIDS awareness and prevention, and helping families of the infected to care for victims of the burgeoning AIDS epidemic.  Together Wayne and Vandine formed Partners in Compassion, a non-governmental organization embodying the commitment of Wayne, an American Christian, and Vandine, a Cambodian Buddhist.  They took over a small clinic located on five acres donated by a Buddhist temple named Wat Opot, and began a program of community education and caring for people dying of AIDS. That was in 2001, and there were no anti-retroviral medicines available in Cambodia.

In 2003, Médecins Sans Frontiers Belgium (MSF, Doctors Without Borders) was looking for a location in Cambodia to begin a program of distributing anti-retroviral drugs.  MSF needed to locate near an existing facility to be sure someone was available to monitor drug compliance, provide transportation for patients, supervise home care and community education in AIDS prevention and treatment.  Because Wat Opot Project already existed and had a strong relationship with the surrounding villages, MSF decided to open a clinic nearby and began distributing ARV drugs to Wayne’s patients and to village people who needed them.

141In a short time, Wat Opot Project was transformed from a hospice for the hopeless to a
community of people affected by HIV/AIDS.  Unique in Cambodia, where fear and ignorance of AIDS and its causes abound, where infected people can be shunned or stoned or worse, Wat Opot today is an intentional community where people with and without AIDS live together as family.

The Wat Opot community is located on a dirt road that runs through rural villages and rice fields.  Although they were offered land anywhere in Cambodia, Wayne and Vandine chose this place because of its poverty, hoping that their presence there would help buoy the community.  In the ensuing seven years the Buddhist temple next door, which donated the land, has been renovated with new murals and a fine tile roof; community pride has improved and neighbors in the villages have begun fixing up their homes.  Medical facilities at Wat Opot are available to the community.  The World Food Program has started a program of food distribution to families affected by AIDS.  Currently, 1,000 local families receive rice, oil and salt every month, distributed through Wat Opot.  The home care organization, operating in Phnom Penh and several other villages, conducts community outreach programs to educate villagers in AIDS prevention and care for the afflicted, and to help reduce the stigma of those living with AIDS in the villages.

What’s so great about the Wat Opot Children’s Community (WOCC)?

schoolkidsThe WOCC is unique in Cambodia not only because of its open views towards religion (as many missionary orphanages often alienate people from their communities), but also because there are children with HIV/AIDS living with children without. It is rare, and perhaps unique in Cambodia, for HIV-infected and non-infected children to live together as family, sharing homes and meals and playing together.  This sets an example for the community, and its effect on increasing tolerance and diminishing fear cannot be overstated.  Many orphanages are simply holding tanks, where fortunate children are either adopted out, or warehoused until they come of age.  Wayne sees Wat Opot as a loving extended family, a place where children will want to return to visit after they have left to live in the larger community.  It is open to everyone, the poorest of the poor, the most rejected and abandoned, regardless of religion or past experience, and to young and old. Money is tight, but Wat Opot runs on the less quantifiable energies of love and kindness, service, faith, and commitment.

At Wat Opot there are beds, food, a school, a clinic with medical care available to people in neighboring villages, fish ponds to increase self-sufficiency and dozens of happy, energetic children who are no longer dying, but realizing they can grow up, get an education, and live decent lives.  They are the first generation to face the challenge of growing up with AIDS in Cambodia, and the children of Wat Opot are writing the book.

Wat Opot: the Happiest Place on Earth!

smileDespite the children’s unbelievably difficult histories, I believe that Wat Opot is the happiest place on earth.  It’s a place without time, a place of acceptance, a place of second chances and a place where family is not defined by who your parents are or were.  It’s also place where children who would have otherwise been abandoned and left for dead, are being nurtured and told they can reach beyond the small dusty village they grew up in. I found the children were eager to learn, held a deep appreciation for any and all visitors, constantly displayed their love and affection and demanded that I live with them in the moment.  These kids took absolutely nothing for granted, and there love of life was infectious.  Living there I soon became a part of their extended family.

What does Wat Opot need help with?

–  Basic monthly expenses for about 100 children and adults, including food, housing, clothing, transportation, non-HIV medical care, lower school education, and local employee salaries:  $4,000/month

Health and Education Coordinator to oversee daily life and education questions for the children at Wat Opot. As the children learn to look forward to a productive life and career, they need guidance; the “new” Wat Opot wants to help!

Self-Sustainability efforts are underway at Wat Opot. Chicken, fish and rabbit farming, gardening and composting are some of the areas in which the center can become less dependent upon donations for daily food needs.

Other projects you might like to help with (please contact Wayne Dale Matthysse):

Sex ED Project for Children with HIV in Cambodia. What will these children’s lives and sexual roles be?  How do they have to conduct themselves differently than other children might?  These are important questions especially as the oldest children with HIV are coming of age.  Workshops, training, films, activities, curriculum development, lodging, food at meetings.  Initial cost:  $1,000- $2,000

READ program: to improve education for the children and for the surrounding village kids in order to give back to the community that has now accepted them.

Vocational education and language lab programs. Training in skills that will permit the children to find work after they have left the center. Installation of a language laboratory with software to help them learn English, French and Chinese.

How do I donate?

Please see this page: https://www.wocf.us/donate

How can I volunteer?

Short-term and long-term volunteers are invited to live, work and play with the children. English teachers, teachers of all kinds, musicians, artists, medical people, or people with imagination who like to have fun with kids! Please contact Wayne Dale Matthysse at vfjwayne@yahoo.com for more details.

Compiled by Gail Gutradt and Miwa Ikemiya