There were days while volunteering for an orphanage in Cambodia that I wanted to run and hide. I’d arrive at the orphanage in the early morning to see the ragged kids with running noses unattended, the manager still sleeping, the kitchen a mess, the area where I taught a complete wreckage… “the children haven’t cleaned it yet,” some of the older children still sleeping, the aging caregiver not yet arrived. the other volunteer not yet due… did nothing to raise my spirits.

But the children. Oh the children. I loved the children and they loved me back. I’m not a pushover by any means. While being a strict disciplinarian, I’m kind and caring, wiping many a tear, blowing a nose, taking a sick youngster to hospital, organizing free eye examinations for the children, buying fruit and vegetables and ensuring they ate them, just being with them… all the time watching what was going on. Carefully. Seeing that I could manage well on my own, the manager Mr. Dong stayed away longer and longer, sometimes not even sleeping there, he refused to eat the food the children ate and had his clothes laundered to perfection.

I had learned that the owners of the orphanage were high up in the government, very high up, in fact. One of them was Home Affairs, in the Anti-Narcotics Division which directly translates as “ruthless and dangerous.” Any attempt to get in the way of making money would be dealt with severely. I had gained their trust though, and they had given me full insight into their financials. They were a mess and I took on the manager, Mr. Dong—at first gently, then when he became evasive, more and more aggressively. I had at one stage run a financial consultancy business, so I understood financials. These were a disaster, and it was obvious money coming in wasn’t going to the kids, it was going straight into the pockets of the staff and directors.

One day my friend Alexi called me. “Does Armo need open heart surgery? I saw an email Mr. Kim sent out looking for money to have the operation. Is it true?” Armo was one of the younger children.

“Yes it’s true. But he’s had the operation, free of charge, and he’s actually standing right next to me now.”

“Then why would Mr. Ki …? Never mind, got it. We must talk.”

And we put together an idea to rescue the children—all 72 of them. We had to work carefully though. If the directors realized what we were trying to do, the least that would happen would be maybe a warning acid shower on the way home one day. It was Phnom Penh.

The plan was to look for land outside of Phnom Penh, build a decent place and move the children where the air was good for them. Get them away from Sod-’em and Get-More-a as I called it. But it had to be done with the directors’ approval, so we had to keep them informed every step of the way—make them think it was their own idea. We had 72 children to rescue with no land to take them to.

We registered an NGO and found a ten hectare piece of land outside Phnom Penh adjacent to a temple and took the directors to see it. They thought it was perfect. Then I set about looking for a donor who would be prepared to buy the land and donate it to the orphanage under strict conditions that the land would not be sold as long as it was used to house needy children. One of our directors loaned the money to the NGO, to be paid back interest free when and if the funds became available.

Now we had land and 72 children, but we needed money to build houses and we set about looking for donors. It was also school holiday time and the children returned to their villages, so I had three weeks to finalize as much as I could unencumbered.

After the holidays I returned to the orphanage but wasn’t greeted with the running hugs of the children. They were there, but strangely silent, watching me. They greeted me… carefully. Mr. Dong came to meet me. He was actually there? Strange.

“I had a meeting with the directors and they agreed that you and Alexi can no longer see the children. You’re not welcome here and are denied access to the premises.” What? I felt sick. The directors had cottoned onto our plan to rescue them and realizing they would lose their cash cows, kicked us out. I had to go, I knew that, if I didn’t I would be in danger as would Alexi. I waved the children goodbye, one or two ran up to give me a hug, but they were terrified.

I met Alexi and we dry-cried on each other’s shoulders. What now? What now? Now we had land and no children. I spoke to George our other director, what now?

“Keep going. There are thousands more children in real need, keep going.” But how?

One day Alexi came up with the idea of on a Saturday buying some food and handing it out to the beggars in the streets. She was like that, it’s what drew me to her in the first place. We were both full of the sheer joy of helping others. I grabbed the idea and took it further.

I found a tiny house in one of the poorest areas of Phnom Penh, rented it, bought utensils, hired a cook and set out to make a good meal once a week to feed those in need. Early on a Saturday morning the cook and I would go to the market, buy the necessary, he would cook, the people would come. They did. The first Saturday there were fifty, the second a hundred, they were sitting in the road outside. It was wonderful.

I particularly enjoyed “the garbage children.” These little kids would push the cart of garbage they had collected to the road next to the house, come in for a meal, then leave tummies full. They were a bunch of smiling laughing children. But it wasn’t just children who came to eat. Mothers, fathers, old people, even the dogs. They were all welcome.

One day one of the mothers asked if I would let some children stay there. I knew of two children who had no parents. Where? How could they stay there? There was no space, no caregiver, nothing. But I said yes and suddenly there were six.

I hired a caregiver and an English teacher, bought bedding and the kids moved in. Then I told George what I was doing. He told me not to take more until they could build a place. I took more. How can you say no to desperation? I couldn’t—still can’t. And then there were eleven… and then seventeen children and I could no longer care for them from my small income. There were too many. I went out to work.

Alexi found me a job editing a newspaper in the mornings and two nights of the week. But I started losing Alexi. She was slowly falling apart physically and mentally, things she had been fighting for years. Then she got ill to the extent she had to leave Cambodia to get proper help. Now I was alone, except for George, our remaining resident director. I worked to care for the children, also teaching Alexi’s English classes until she returned. Alexi was doing fundraising in her home country and money was trickling in but not enough and not with speed. George was doing what he could, I was sending out daily begging emails. No one wanted to give money to care for the children’s daily needs.

Then George found a donor for one house and the fencing around the property. He and I sat down and designed a house. I drew up the plans, did a site plan and looked for a builder and supervised the building.

He chided, “Remember, no more children. Where are you putting them anyway?”

“Shoe boxes,” I joked, “I put them in at night and take them out in the morning. Shoe boxes.”

I was laughing, but it felt that way. There were more children that needed help, but I couldn’t take them. Not until we had more houses. Only one house wasn’t good enough. Yes, they could move there, but it would be extremely lonely for the children and caregivers. They needed at least three houses. It would be far better for the children and the villagers. Easier to integrate into the new community and schools. Three houses, then they could move. Not a house before.

I spent every minute I could between working times with the children. I was their “mom,” they were my children. I took them to visit places—the palace, the animal sanctuary, the airport, the dentist. Everywhere they went people would look on in amazement as these seventeen laughing, happy children giggled and ran their way through buildings.

There were the very dark times. I received a call from a village chief some 120 km away. There were two children, a boy and a girl, their parents had died and they were living with their aunt and uncle. They took care of the little girl, but the little boy was kept outside. He had to look after himself. Had to find food, find clothes and sometimes he was chained. He was ten. Could I take them? My answer was always, “yes.”

On the back of my manager’s motorbike I did the 120 km trip. At the village I was greeted by the chief and some villagers. The aunt and uncle and little girl weren’t there; the villagers fetched the little boy while the chief tried to contact the aunt and uncle on the phone. I had to have their permission to take the little boy. It was the law.

A tiny ragged scarecrow made its way across the open patch of ground. Shaved head, skinny beyond belief, dusted down with some powder to kill lice, he didn’t look up. I ran over to him and got down on my knees taking his hand, talking gently.  The villagers surrounded us trying to get him to greet me. He stayed silent. I got up and held him close trying to take away the pain. He remained stiff as a board. Who knows who else had held him like this and why, I thought, letting him go but keeping his hand tightly in mine all the time murmuring gently.

The chief had the aunt and uncle on the phone. They were in Phnom Penh with the little girl. I shuddered. Why? What were they doing with the child? They refused to let me take the boy. The chief argued, villagers shouting at them in the background to let the boy go. They wouldn’t budge. I couldn’t have the child.

“Come, mom,” my manager said, “there’s nothing you can do. We have to leave him.” I was distraught. The child, the poor child. He didn’t even look crestfallen. He was used to this, hadn’t expected anything else. He drew his hand away and silently walked back to where he’d come from. Tears ran down my cheeks. The village women hugged me and tried to comfort me. The chief said he would try and convince the aunt and uncle, but he didn’t hold out much hope.

“Can’t you just let me take him? Please let me take him,” I begged. “You know where I am, you know where he is. You know he will be safe.”

“I cannot,” he shook his head in sorrow. “I cannot.” I tried to think of a way my manager and I could creep back at night and take the child. It was a ridiculous idea. I could do it, but the repercussions to me and the NGO would be horrific. But what about the child. The child.

“Mom, there are some you can save. Others you cannot and you must let them go.”

And each child I couldn’t save took a piece of my heart clenched in their hands. And over each bleeding gap, I would grow scabs which turned to scars. Eventually the wounds healed, but the scars remained, strengthening her and hardening her heart a little. But sometimes the tears still flowed.

In the meantime I had seventeen nutty, goofy, smiling, fighting, screaming, healthy wonderful children that brightened my days, and their boisterous “Mommy, mommy!” smoothed a little salve on the bleeding wounds.

Read Jane Olivier’s article on THE ORPHAN INDUSTRY: How to avoid corruption and sponsor an orphan effectively>>

Names have been changed.

1 Images courtesy of Anthony Wallace and Jane Olivier