Half the Sky

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Happy August! Can you believe that it’s already here? I haven’t even done much this summer, and yet it’s been flying by!

Today is the first day since I started the cleanse that I actually feel normal and back to myself again. I woke up early and in a good mood, and I’ve remained in this mood throughout the day. I’m back to my normal weight (in the months following our wedding all I did was eat and drink and thus I packed on about 8 post-wedding pounds) and feel great! As crappy as this cleanse was/is, it certainly does work.

In other news, I am very excited to be introducing a new campaign I’m working on with The Mission List and Half the Sky! For those of you that are unaware, Half the Sky is a book that focuses on turning oppression into opportunity for women throughout the world. It shares the courageous and inspiring stories of women that have overcome what appears to be insurmountable odds. Half the Sky is also being made into a two part movie series, which will premier on PBS on October 1st and 2nd. This is the first post in a series I will be writing to bring awareness to the issues raised in the book, share the inspiring stories behind the women, and hopefully get people pumped up to take action and join the Half the Sky movement.

I have been a huge fan of Nicolas Kristof for years. He has lead the charge on many human rights and social justice issues such as human trafficking, and has single handedly spread awareness on huge humanitarian issues that have been ignored by the mainstream media for decades. Many of the issues presented in Half the Sky are near and dear to my heart, as I have witnessed firsthand just how horrific and unfair the conditions are for women in some parts of the world. I’ll be writing a lot about human rights issues in the coming weeks, but today I thought I’d start with my personal experience.

In the summer of 2007 I volunteered an orphanage in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I’d been traveling around Southeast Asia for a couple months, having the time of my life, and I thought it would be nice to do something to “give back.” I emailed a few NGOs that worked with orphanages in Cambodia, and the response I received was overwhelming: they needed help and would take as much of at is they could get. After a few back and forth emails, I became a volunteer for Children of Cambodia’s Orphanage Development Project.

I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into.

The orphanage I ended up volunteering at was one of the poorest in the city. Almost all of the children at the orphanage were either mentally and/or physically disabled, and the older kids that appeared to be healthy were all HIV positive. On my first day, I didn’t know if I could last six days let alone six weeks. The conditions were horrible, it was stifling hot, and the place smelled disgusting.

It is amazing how quickly I got used to this.

The majority of my time was spent in a “playroom” filled with about 20 kids between the ages of 10 months to 10 years old. Almost all of them were severely mentally or physically disabled. Many of the children were unable to walk or move, so these kids would simply lie on a mat, immobile, and watch the other children play. Diapers were essentially nonexistent – occasionally they would get a shipment from some ngo or aid group, and when that happened the kids would all get one diaper, which we were not allowed to change until completely soiled (one pee is a waste of a diaper). The rest of the time, which was most of the time, the kids wore old tshirts that made been made into a pseudo cloth diaper and tied around their waist. You could tell when they needed changing because the material would be completely soaked and a different color. Most of the children were not potty trained, so a lot of them wore diapers well after the age of 5.

The orphanage would occasionally get some healthy kids, and these kids were the lucky ones. They were almost always adopted by families in Canada or Europe before they turned three. But the other kids? Well, the other kids lived there indefinitely. I asked what happened to them once they turn 18, and the answer was horrifyingly simple: that is rarely a problem because most of the kids don’t live to be 18.

Despite the unfairness of the life they were born into, the kids at the orphanage were all great kids. My favorite was a four year old with down syndrome. Her name was Srey Kao. She was very smart for her age and I taught her how to say many words in English. Her favorite activity was brushing my hair. My other favorite was a little boy I nicknamed Monkey because he would climb all over everything. He was healthy, and I had the privilege of being there the day that an Italian family arrived to adopt him. The whole family was there, two parents and two older kids, and the excitement and love in the room was palpable. There wasn’t a dry eye to be found.

I’ll never forget that day.


Me and Monkey

The NGO that I volunteered through also had a shelter for girls that were victims of the sex slave trade. I was told that the day the shelter opened, over 50 girls showed up. I can’t even imagine how much these girls had to risk just to get there, but at that time the shelter could only accommodate 25. So, they took the youngest. All of the girls in the shelter were between the ages of 7 and 13.

Cambodia is a beautiful but very corrupt country, and the sex slave trade is rampant. Many families can’t afford to have any extra mouths to feed, so instead of giving up their unwanted babies to an orphanage like the one I worked at, they sell them to a brothel.

If the kid appeared disabled or sick in some way, they would usually drop them off at an orphanage. It wasn’t uncommon for babies to be left in front of the orphanage gates.

The time I spent in Cambodia changed me in ways I can’t even begin to describe, and these experiences are deeply engrained in the soul of my existence. I’ll carry them with me until the day I die.

Half the Sky discusses many of the issues I came across in Cambodia, along with a heartbreaking amount of stories relating to other causes of gender-based violence. Though witnessing something in person is more powerful than reading about it, I challenge anyone to read the book and not find themselves changed.

Half the Sky will premier on PBS in two parts on October 1st and 2nd. In the next few months I’ll be shedding light on many of the issues addressed in the books, and ways to take action and get involved. In the meantime, I encourage you to watch the trailer and read the book.

If you haven’t already, get the book. Seriously. It will be the best $11 you spent all week.

I also want to give a shout out to another campaign that The Mission List is working on, Blogust:

“Blogust is a first-of-its-kind blog relay for good that is bringing together 31 of the most influential online voices in the country to change the world through blogging. Each day throughout the month of August, one influencer will post about someone that inspires them and then “pass the baton” to another blogger for the following day. The twist is this: every comment on a Blogust post will initiate a $20 donation to help immunize a child in a developing country.”

Blogust started today, so please pleas please read today’s post and leave a comment. This simple act should only take a minute or so, and it will give kids in developing the chance to get much needed vaccines.

I can’t reinforce this enough… click over and comment.

For those of you that read this far, thank you.


**I’m working with The Mission List in a campaign on Half The Sky, a book and upcoming series that focuses on turning oppression into opportunity for women throughout the world. This is the first post in a series I will be writing to bring awareness to the issues raised in the book, and to share the inspiring stories behind the women in the book. The Mission List supports me about writing about the causes I care about, but all opinions are my own. **

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KevinAugust 1, 2012 - 4:59 pm

Great post, I’ve commented via that link.
Never heard the story about Monkey.. love it!

DanielleAugust 2, 2012 - 8:40 am

so proud of your Serena. thanks for inspiring me and reminding me what matters love d

Patricia McClainAugust 2, 2012 - 9:28 am

I commented also. I am planning to recommend Half the Sky for my bookclub.

LindseyAugust 5, 2012 - 2:58 pm

Great post! I commented on today’s post about vaccinations for Latinos.

Kari HughesAugust 6, 2012 - 12:14 pm

We also have been inspired by Half The Sky. After reading the book last year we started a retail company and website that carries only items handmade by at risk and rescued women in the developing world. We just decided to do “what we could, from where we were, with what we had”. It is a completely time consuming labor of love. I found your post by chance and would love to repost on our blog if you are open to that.
Kari Hughes

Free Music from Half the Sky » SpillerenaSeptember 13, 2012 - 3:04 pm

[…] as part of the Half the Sky movement, female musicians from around the world are coming together to give away free music for 30 days. […]

[…] I’ve mentioned before, Cambodia holds a place near and dear to my heart, so I hope you’ll […]

MichelleDecember 14, 2012 - 9:07 am

Awesome post! I definitely want to look into Cambodia and see if there’s something we can’t do to get over there and help out for awhile…

[…] since my time in Cambodia, human trafficking has been one of the social justice issues I feel most strongly about. According […]

[…] few months ago I wrote a post for the Half the Sky campaign I was involved in, and one of the comments I received was from Kari […]

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