I am sitting here unnerved as the turbulence continues but I know I’ll be home in about 12 hours so I am holding onto that happiness to get me through. Toby Gardner, my friend, colleague and fellow Director of our charity is sitting next to me, we just finished a very successful 4 days in Cambodia. We covered almost every inch of the country. Traveling from the airport in Phnom Penh straight to Kompong Chhnang Province, we visited the kids at the Child Rescue Centre in the small rural village of Krang Lovea. From there we visited more children that we support in an Islamic vocational training centre in another province just outside of the capital – that was Day 1.
On the second day of our trip, we had meetings in Phnom Penh with Dr. Pok the head doctor from the National Pediatric Hospital, we met with government officials from the Ministry of Health, including the Director of NCHADS (National Centre HIV, AIDS, Dermatology and STD’s) and his deputy to discuss our regional HIV outreach program. We spent an hour with the In Country Manager for the Clinton Health Access Initiative to gain there support in our plans and we finished the day having dinner with two old friends. It was a memorable night as we dined with Mamma (Sangry) and Raesmay both from the old Missionaries of Charities (MOC) where I first met all the kids living with HIV. Mamma was the women that changed my life, she is 67 years old, she lost her husband and 4 sons in the Khmer Rouge slaughter and lives in a 6x6ft little shack and works with the HIV children getting paid $30USD per month. Her story inspired me to give up my corporate life and volunteer for a couple of years and ultimately form the International Brother & Sisters House. The night brought many tears and lots of laughter, I offered Mamma a job as House Mother in Charge of our university home that we will open later next year, she accepted with tears in her eyes and this made my day. This was one of those moments that makes everything seem right and Mamma really deserves this. Raesmey was one of the children of MOC, she has been living with HIV her entire life and she is now 23 years old. A young motivated and intelligent young lady who is in her 3rd year of studying Psychology at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. An extraordinary young lady with a unique upbringing that gives her a beautiful view on life – we also offered her a job, she has accepted a position working with the university children as a mentor/counselor. A day that will stay with me for a long time.
Day 3 was an adventure; we spent 12.5 hours traveling to and from the southern tip of Cambodia to visit 12 girls from the MOC orphanage – I hadn’t seen the girls for 18 months and for Toby it had been almost 3 years. It was a wonderful welcoming, the girls recognizing me and running and screaming “Jo”, they can’t quite get out Josh. They are all doing so well and so grown up. Their English had improved, they were well fed, taking all the right drugs at the right times to stay on top of their sickness and were very happy in their new home. Heading home from seeing the girls was an interesting time, because there were no more buses we had to walk to the main freeway in 37 degree heat and walk for a few kilometres with our fingers out – yep, hitchhiking to get home. To cut a long story short, we hopped in and out of 6 different vehicles, from riding in a luxurious Lexus to being packed into a local van like sardines and riding in another van that was going 140 km’s around the bends in the wet, we finished our multi vehicle ride back into Phnom Penh with 90min on the back of moto’s as the torrential rain came down and the capitals streets were flooded. Let’s just say it was great to finally get back to our hotel room and eat something as we hadn’t eaten all day.
Day 4, which is today, was all about visiting the boys from MOC and seeing my boy Peth. For those of you that don’t know Peth, I first met him in October 2012 in my first volunteer trip to Cambodia – back then he was 9 years old living with 2ndstream HIV, TB and a host of other diseases. Despite the challenges he was facing, he was a gorgeous young boy, inquisitive, cheeky and full of life. When I returned to MOC in January 2013 his condition had worsened – I spent 9 weeks with him and all the other boys and girls at MOC before leaving for 8 months to volunteer across Thailand, Nepal, India, Uganda and Tanzania. When I returned again in late November 2013 Peth has been in and out of hospital 6 times over the last couple of months. I spent most of December that year with him in hospital trying to understand the healthcare system in Cambodia, ARV drugs, why he was resistant and feverishly making network and connections in the hospitals, the government and any organization I thought might be able to help me save Peth. I went home for 3 weeks over 2013/2014 and before leaving I promised Peth that I would move the world to get him the drugs he needed to survive. I returned with Ashley on the 14thJanuary 2014 and again, his condition had worsened – we spent the next few months negotiating our way through the government system trying to figure out how to get Peth 3rd line drugs and the costs associated. On May 6th after hundreds and hundreds of emails, phone calls and meetings and with the help of Dr. Pok from the National Pediatric Hospital, The Bill Clinton Foundation and NCHADS we were successful in getting 3rd line drugs into the Kingdom of Cambodia for the very first time. I remember getting the call and at the time I was 90min away in the provinces. I hopped on my moto and was down at customs within 60min, breaking every law I had to get the drugs as fast as I could to Peth (that is a lie, I did not break any laws and there are none in Cambodia). I had to bribe the assholes at customs with $2,000 to release the drugs and I hand delivered the drugs to Peth and his caregivers who were now The New Hope for Cambodian Children. We believe Peth was hours away from dying. So, seeing Peth today was remarkable, I hadn’t seen him since January this year when Ashley and I were last here. He has gained more weight, his illnesses are under control, he is back in school, talking a little bit of English and is back to his old cheeky self. It makes me very happy that I was able to do this for Peth and it has been the driving force to everything we are trying to achieve in Cambodia with our rural HIV outreach program.
Today Peth ran at me with a huge smile on his face and hugged me like he never wanted to let go, it brought tears to my eyes and knowing that I only had a couple of hours with him and all the kids was saddening but we made the most of our time there – he asked about Ashley and had been told about our little baby girl Indie so wanted to see all the photos and then of course he wanted to use my phone to play games. Saying goodbye was not fun, he wanted me to return tomorrow but I told him I had to return to Ashley and Indie as said we would be back to see him in about 6 months – he became very somber but gave me a big hug goodbye and a big smile as we rode off to the airport. The end to a whirlwind tour, an incredibly inspiring time and to top it all off we achieved everything we wanted to and more, the most important thing being the governments approval and the Clinton foundations support of our rural HIV program that we will start in February next year that will touch over 17,000 people living with HIV and AIDS in Cambodia, most of whom are in the far most regional parts that no one has been able to get to but with our mobile clinic headed up by Dr. Pok we will get to them, test them, educate them, counsel them, build a database and work with NHCHADS and CHAI to get them the meds they need to survive.
A lot on in Cambodia, but also a lot on in Nepal and Tanzania. A quick update; we are now fully committed and partnered with Namaste Community Foundation in Pokhara Nepal and we are supporting 12 children their at the moment through their secondary education with the view to get them all successfully into University. We are also working on plans to register as a local NGO so we can move them into our own IBSH house when they transition into university early in 2017. In Tanzania we are about to open our first IBSH home in Arusha, which will support 5 children through university. We are also building a school for 74 orphan children, construction started 2 months ago. We have restructured our board and have brought on two new faces, Brian Ford from Boston, USA and Gordon Forrest from Brisbane, Australia both with a huge amount of passion, experience and love for what we are doing.
On the personal front a lot has happened since my last blog, my daughter Indie Jai Porteous was born at 7:28am on the 22ndApril 2015 – what an incredible experience that is. If you were in Sydney at the time, you will know that April 21st brought a huge amount of torrential rains and gale force winds. At about 11pm on the 21st we were told to evacuate where we were living because Queenscliff lagoon was about to overflow – Ashley had been in labour for hours and the weather was not helping the relaxing environment we were trying to create. The evacuation was very timely as when we arrived at the hospital Ashley was already 5cm dilated. I will not go into the details of the rest of the night, but for me to say that Ashley was amazing is an understatement and then little Indie “popped” out and all our priorities in life changed. She is 4 and a half months old now and every bit her mother – such a calm and beautiful soul, I hope she stays that way and doesn’t get her fathers high-strung ways.
On July 13th, just less than 3 months after Indie’s birth Ashley and I opened Bare Naked Bowls in Market Lane – our health food café situated in Manly that gives 10% of our profits to IBSH. Healthy eating for a healthy cause is our focus. To say it has been a busy time does not do it justice, a new born and a new business plus the charity to run – our hands a full at the moment but we wouldn’t have it any other way. Ashley goes about her business being a Mother as naturally as fish in the ocean; she blows me a way every day with her commitment to Indie, and me and the café. I am truly a blessed man. Indie, god bless her, has spent half her life at Bare Naked Bowls and she does it with a smile on her face and just loves meeting all our customers. We have been blown away with the support for our café and love that people keep on coming back and bringing their friends and living a healthy life.
I will leave you with a quote “greatness is not obtained through what you achieve but what you do to help others achieve”.
Love to you all.
Founder & Managing Director – IBSH