Maryknoll Cambodia: Collaboration in action
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Members of the Maryknoll family work as one to help the poor in Cambodia

Maryknoll missioners have been collaborating among themselves as well as with other like-minded groups around the world for years. Cambodia, where Maryknoll has spent more than 25 years serving the Cambodian people as they recover from the legacy of the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s, is one of the best examples of that spirit of cooperation.

“The story of Maryknoll in Cambodia is a story of priests, brothers, sisters and lay people working to ‘seek first the Kingdom of God,’ ” says Father Kevin Conroy, a Maryknoll priest associate from the Diocese of Cleveland who has served in the Southeast Asian nation for 12 years. There the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, the Maryknoll Sisters and the Maryknoll Lay Missioners work together as an international non-governmental organization (NGO) called Maryknoll Cambodia.

While the collaboration in Cambodia has taken different shapes over the years, Father Conroy says, right now, the work overseen by the Maryknoll Cambodia Mission Team includes education support programs for low-income families, health and wellness programs for vulnerable Cambodians, mental health programs, as well as programs serving Cambodians with HIV/AIDS, victims of human trafficking and outreach to Cambodia’s deaf population.

Maryknoll Cambodia members support each other by working together as one, sharing a spirit of community in prayer and often working together in specific projects. Collaborative projects have Maryknollers from at least two groups working together.

“In Maryknoll Cambodia we look at what the talents are and what are the needs of the project,” says Suzanne “Sami” Scott, a Maryknoll lay missioner from St. Paul, Minn. “There is a sense of community, family and equality.” Scott worked with Maryknoll Sister Mary Little, who is the director of the Boeung Tum Pun Community Health and Education Project that helps families in need to give their children the opportunity for a better education and future.

Maryknoll Cambodia: Maryknoll Sister Ann Sherman, above, is surrounded by students from her English class for underprivileged Cambodian children. (S. Sprague/Cambodia)

Maryknoll Sister Ann Sherman, above, is surrounded by students from her English class for Cambodian children who are part of the Boeung Tum Pun program. (S. Sprague/Cambodia)

Scott co-directed the project with Sister Little. After Scott goes to her next assignment in July as a lay missioner in Haiti, Maryknoll Sister Regina Pellicore will replace her in this role. Other missioners involved with the project include Philippine Catholic Lay Missioner Olga Pacumbaba, and Maryknoll Sister Ann Sherman, who teaches English to underprivileged Cambodian children.

The Boeung Tum Pun program is made up of several projects. Sister Little says that these include teaching Vietnamese children Khmer, the Cambodian language, so they can enter first grade; providing health and nutrition classes in elementary schools to teach young children good health practices to prevent illness; and running a school assistance program for vulnerable Cambodian children, and two preschools and a secondary school program for students to continue studying and get better jobs.

“If they are not educated, they are just going to continue in the same cycle of poverty that their parents are in,” says Sister Little, from Stratford, Conn., who notes that most of the students’ parents have no education and cannot read because they grew up under the communist Khmer Rouge regime that exterminated a quarter of Cambodia’s population and most of its educated people in the 1970s.

The missioner says Maryknoll enables 134 elementary school children and 43 secondary school children to go to school by helping them to buy supplies and uniforms and pay school fees that parents would not be able to afford. These efforts help children to stay in school. “Now we have 10 university students, who were supported by Maryknoll for 12 years of schooling,” Sister Little says. Some of the university students are interns, she says, who “work with the younger children 15 hours a week both to help pay back the cost of their university education and to provide work experience that will be needed as they look for jobs in the future.”

Since ensuring the well-being of the Cambodian people is what’s most important, Sister Little says, each Wednesday the Maryknoll Cambodia Mission Team, along with two members of the Philippine Catholic Lay Mission, meet to share updates about the people they serve and to celebrate the Eucharist.

Maryknoll Cambodia: 2012 photo of missioners in Cambodia at their monthly Pastoral Theological Reflection. (S. Sprague/Cambodia)

2012 photo of missioners in Cambodia at their monthly Pastoral Theological Reflection. (S. Sprague/Cambodia)

The Wednesday meetings help team members see how their work in justice and peace is related to their Catholic values, Sister Little says. “There are a lot of NGOs here and you could see yourself as another NGO worker without the foundation of faith,” she says. “We are trying to make people realize that God loves them.”

Missioners often call these meetings the “glue” of their mission work. Father Charles Dittmeier, a Maryknoll priest associate from Louisville, Ky., and director of Maryknoll’s Deaf Development Program in Cambodia (DDP), says the meetings are a way to show their commitment to working as a team.

“Strong collaboration needs time for us to keep talking to each other and making sure everyone is on the same page,” he says. “We don’t have to guess what (other Maryknollers) are doing or thinking because we talk to each other every week.”

The DDP program, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, serves about 2,000 deaf people in Cambodia, about 3 percent of the estimated deaf population in the country. “The average deaf person comes to us in his or her early 20s, and they have no language—no sign language, no spoken language, no written language,” Father Dittmeier says. “The first thing that we do is teach them sign language, so they are able to communicate.”

Maryknoll Cambodia: Lay Missioner Dee Dungy and Father Robert Wynne visit the elderly and their relatives in Cambodia, as part of their efforts in Anlong Kngan. (S. Sprague/Cambodia)

Lay Missioner Dee Dungy and Father Robert Wynne visit the elderly and their relatives in Cambodia, as part of their efforts in Anlong Kngan. (S. Sprague/Cambodia)

Father Dittmeier says collaboration also means coordination between projects. He says that just talking with other members of Maryknoll Cambodia benefits the people they serve. He gives the example of a young deaf man with disabilities who was staying at one of the DDP hostels where students live while they are enrolled in the program.

“He started taking all of the electrical fixtures apart,” Father Dittmeier says. “We were afraid that he was going to electrocute himself or burn the place down or electrocute somebody else.”

Father Dittmeier talked with Father Conroy, who runs a mental health program through Maryknoll Cambodia. Together they were able to talk to the man using sign language and work with a psychologist to get him help. Now the young man is learning new skills and becoming “more sociable,” Father Dittmeier says.

“In the organizational world they call that synergy—that different organizations produce something greater than the sum of the parts,” says Maryknoll Lay Missioner Russ Brine from Seattle, Wash. After working as a lay missioner in Kenya for 15 years, Brine came to Cambodia and has been overseeing DDP’s staff of 84 people. “I was very much drawn to the fact that we have a Cambodia mission team, that we have a collaborative model.”

Another example of collaboration in Cambodia is the work of Maryknoll Lay Missioner Dee Dungy, from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Father Wynne with people in Anlong Kngan, a former rice paddy outside of Cambodia’s capital where thousands of poor people had to resettle in 2001 after a fire burned their homes. Although the condition of the area improved over the years—it now has water, electricity, schools and a health center—many residents are still in need of assistance.

(S. Sprague/Cambodia)

Maryknoll priest associate Father Charles Dittmeier goes over a sign language chart at Maryknoll’s Deaf Development Program in Cambodia (S. Sprague/Cambodia).

For years, the Maryknoll Health and Education Anlong Kngan Development program has helped hundreds of children to attend primary school by providing uniforms, books and an after-school tutoring program where they also get nutritious food five times a week. “We try to keep them in school,” says Father Wynne, who is originally from Worcester, Mass. “They come from very impoverished families and parents would take the kids out of schools to collect garbage cans or beg in the street.”

Another project Dungy worked on in Anlong Kngan is an outreach to abandoned elderly, who have no family support and depend on neighbors for help. Dungy helped provide holistic health assistance, hot meals, and planned trips and activities to keep them active.

Dungy also created a trafficking awareness program to educate adults on how best to protect themselves from potential dangers while working abroad. This training included how to travel safely, what people’s rights are and warnings about human trafficking. The program included a focus on raising awareness among young men. “A lot of people think only women are exploited, but it also affects younger guys,” Dungy says.

Maryknoll Cambodia: Maryknoll Sister Mary Little is the co-director of the Boeung Tum Pun Community Health and Education Project, which helps children in need to have the opportunity for a better education and future. (S. Sprague/Cambodia)

Maryknoll Sister Mary Little visits children who are part of the Boeung Tum Pun Community Health and Education Project. This multi-layered project, which Sister Little co-directs, helps children in need to have the opportunity for a better education and future. (S. Sprague/Cambodia)

Even though the work in Anlong Kngan is changing as the 80-year-old Father Wynne is set to return to the United States and Dungy has been assigned to mission in Kenya, they expect the influence of Maryknoll Cambodia to be long-lasting. This aligns with Maryknoll’s long-standing tradition of turning over ministries missioners have started to the local people they served to carry on. So, the two missioners have made arrangements with other NGOs, local church volunteers and Maryknoll Cambodia to transition the running and support of the children’s education program, as well as the communication, education and public awareness program for migrants and the care for the elderly.

“Because of our long journey and connection with them, the spirit of Maryknoll disseminated in the village and the quality of the care will continue on through the people we served,” says Dungy.

Over the years, Maryknoll collaboration “has taken various shapes, depending on the gifts, interests and commitment of lay people, sisters and Maryknoll priests,” says Father Conroy, adding that the Maryknoll Cambodia Mission Team will continue working together to reach out to those on the peripheries of society while supporting each other in prayer and sharing their wisdom and understanding of Cambodian society.


Featured Image: Noun Rosef (l.), talks to Lay Missioner Dee Dungy and Father Robert Wynne at her home in Anlong Kngan in Cambodia.  (S. Sprague/Cambodia)



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About the author

Maria-Pia Negro Chin

Maria-Pia was born and raised in Lima, Peru. She earned a master’s degree in multimedia journalism from the University of Maryland and a bachelor’s degree in communications/writing from Loyola University Maryland. As bilingual associate editor, she writes, edits and translates articles for Misioneros and Maryknoll Magazine for the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. Her work has received awards from the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada. She lives in New York with her husband and son.