Andrew McCormick ’06 was the Head Program Director for Hoos Against Hunger and Homelessness for two years. He and his wife have continued their volunteer service after graduating. We covered some of their efforts in a recent e-newsletter.

My wife, Amanda, and I (Boosters and HAHAH alums!), had a priceless opportunity to spend two months in Cambodia last summer. I had previously spent a lot of time backpacking around Southeast Asia and so I was infinitely excited to revisit such a marvelously unique part of our world. However, rather than just visiting ancient temples and eating deliciously spicy street food, we’d actually be spending most of our time volunteering. So what takes a lawyer and teacher to Cambodia for two months?

An eleven-year old girl.

During a solo backpacking trip to Vietnam, I was solicited by dozens of men offering me little boys and girls.  On one of my last nights in Ho Chi Minh City, I was approached by a tiny little girl, who donned an overdose of makeup and a shortage of clothes, who seemed to be the same age as my younger sister.

She asked if I wanted to buy her.

After a failed conversation in broken English, I could only ask her how old she was.

Eleven.

Although I had heard these types of stories before, this little girl was standing right in front of me and this was her reality.

And that can’t happen.

My wife and I were both blessed with the work flexibility to take off for a few months and try to do something about this dark world of sex slavery. Sure, we weren’t going to be changing the world in two months, but helping give a single boy or girl a second chance at life is always worth fighting for. After doing some research about various NGOs, we decided that we’d be spending our summer in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

I wrote the below blog post after only two days in Phnom Penh.  Even now, as we’ve resumed our lives as a securities litigator and special education teacher, our lives will never be the same.  And whether it is in Charlottesville or Phnom Penh, that’s often one of the unexpected benefits of volunteer work: you set off to help others, but YOU emerge as a bright, wiser, and kinder person, full of invaluable experiences.

“We’ve now been in Phnom Penh for two days, and along with the endless dust and heat, there has been plenty of heartache.

But more importantly, hope.

We’ve already had the chance to meet the girls we’ll be working with and supporting this summer. Just like any girls, they love giggling, fixing up their hair and nails, and, of course, crushing on boys. However, these girls also carry some very heavy and traumatic burdens from their dark and painful pasts. It is absolutely stunning to see their young smiling faces and to then hear the horrific things they have had to endure during their young lives.  Some of these girls are only five or six years old, but have already experienced more trauma and abuse than any person should ever bear.

Fortunately, the organization we’re working with, the She Rescue Home, is doing tremendous things to help give these girls a second chance. There are a number of awesome organizations in Cambodia, including the She Rescue Home, that help rescue and rehabilitate girls who have been trafficked. However, the She Home is also doing incredible things to help girls who are extremely at-risk of ending up in that horrible world. There are so many horror stories out there about young girls who have been stolen and put into brothels and have endured so many terrible hardships. Thus, it is SO important that the She Home is also doing some amazing things to help girls before they have to experience that sort of torment.

One such at-risk population in Cambodia is rape victims. Obviously, rape is a horrendous thing and probably the worst thing a person can endure. Unfortunately, a rape victim in Cambodia isn’t met with sympathy or support, but rather, with scorn, hate, and abandonment. Since the girl is now seen as dirty and worthless to the family (even if the dad was the perpetrator), she is often sold to traffickers or kicked out of the family home. Thus, it is so crucial to intervene during these early stages, rather than after years of torture and abuse.

Despite all that gloom, there are also many tales of victory. The She Home has been able to pull a lot of these girls off the streets and have given them the support and attention they desperately need. Just as it is difficult to hear so many tales of grief, it is absolutely thrilling to hear beautiful stories of redemption and rebirth. So many of the girls are dominating school and emerging as leaders in their communities. We’ve also had the chance to visit a few local businesses, including a delightful cupcake café, that employee some of these girls. I can’t even begin to describe the joy you feel when you see a stunningly gorgeous wedding cake that has been made by a young lady who has escaped from such a dark world and is now striving to build a new life for herself. It is truly humbling to be part of something so beautiful, so transformative, and so full of hope.

And so there are certainly some evil people out there doing some absolutely horrendous things, but hope, freedom, and restoration are winning.”

I was really excited to volunteer this week, since I hadn’t seen Yolanda, Pedro, and Alfonso since before Spring Break.  I had put more preparation into this session than usual, making my own packets of worksheets for them.  When I got there, Yolanda was making tortillas, which smelled delicious.

Yolanda and Pedro sat down at the table a little later, and told me that Pedro lived elsewhere now.  Yolanda also told me that she was using the picture dictionary we gave her to teach an English speaking co-worker Spanish!  We set off reviewing some vocab from previous sessions- body parts, fruits, and vegetables.  I planned to teach them colors, but it turned out they already knew those.  We starting trying to put some sentences together (“The apple is red”) and interjected into the lesson a lot of discussion about the favorite vegetables and preparation.  They told me about a delicious-sounding stuffed cucumber dish that Pedro loved. 

We used my packets to learn months and days of the week in English, and I had them practice writing dates in MM/DD/YY format instead of DD/MM/YY.  They again surprised me with how quickly they picked things up, and how much English they already knew. 

As our group packed up, I couldn’t stop laughing as the kids spent all of their post-studying energy running around the small family room.  The youngest boy was screaming out U.S. presidents’ names that he had just memorized and cracked us all up when he called our 16th president “Hammerhead Lincoln.”  His energy was infectious and stayed with me all the way back to Charlottesville.

All I was told about the three new adults I was tutoring was that their names were Pedro, Yolanda, and Alfonso, and that their native language was a local Mexican dialect, Otomi, with Spanish as their second language.  Not having any idea what to expect, my carpool set out for Waynesboro.

We arrived and were welcomed warmly at the door.  As we rounded the corner into the living room, more and more kids kept appearing, who were also receiving tutoring.  In a fairly typical scene for Migrant Aid volunteers, we rustled around for a bit, trying to find space for everyone to sit, and finally I settled down at the kitchen table with the three adults.

We conversed for a bit in Spanish, and I asked if they had ever received English tutoring before.  They all shook their heads, so I started off with “Good Morning,” “Good Afternoon,” etc.  and moved on to “One, two, three, four…” but it became clear that they already had at least those basics. 

In my experience, the migrant adults are generally very modest about the amount of English they already know, so it can be difficult to judge their skill level.  Happy to move on to more vocabulary, I brought out the Level 1 packets for “Clothing” prepared by Migrant Education.  We were even able to put some sentences together. 

I made motions to signal “It’s cold,” explained in Spanish, and after some prompting with “I need… significa ‘Yo necesito’…” they were able to say “I need jacket.  I need boots.  I need hat.” During this part of the evening, it became clear that they were very literate and somewhat familiar with the English pronunciation of words, since they were able to sound words out (with inevitable errors due to our senseless spelling rules) without hearing me say them first.  They were also very quick with the writing exercise in the packets.  This was a bit of a relief for me, since a common challenge in adult tutoring is limited literacy in Spanish. 

The learning fatigue started setting in, so we took a bit of break to get to know each other a bit better.  Pedro, the father, was very talkative and friendly, and discussed how difficult it was for him to learn English since he is constantly around people who speak only Spanish and when he meets an English-speaker, they often don’t have the patience to help him find directions or whatever other question he might have.

After the break we did some job vocabulary, learning how to say “I work/I worked at…” specific to their skills.  This part had some awkward moments when it became clear that they were currently looking for work, but we practiced vocabulary from their past jobs. 

We also worked on a practice job application with “Name:  Last, First, Middle” and things like that that can be very confusing for Spanish speakers who keep both their father’s and mother’s last names, and add their husband’s too.  I explained that Americans usually just keep either their father’s or husband’s last name, but that they could either make their mother’s last name their middle name or hyphenate the two.  They seemed to think this was quite silly, but they were glad to know how to introduce themselves to English speakers.

My favorite part of tutoring adults in the opportunity to discuss cultural similarities and differences, so I had a great time conversing with Pedro, Yolanda, and Alfonso.  I also greatly appreciated their patience as I broke back into my Spanish! 

Every day at the Hope Center brings a new challenge. Time commitments, for one, are hard to stick to, because of the nature of the job, and plans must often be changed.

This week I went twice, on Tuesday and Thursday, to paint with one of the Hope Center’s frequent visitors. He and I have been painting together since December, and we’ve gotten to be friends. He tells me about all the many places he’s travelled, and I am consistently fascinated by his life story. He’s only known English for six years, but I can understand him perfectly.

On Tuesday, though, he was feeling too sick to paint. We spent two hours looking through old magazines and nature books to find inspiration – he loves to paint landscapes and birds, although he recently finished an amazing acrylic of the Chicago skyline. I was disappointed that he didn’t get to work, and Thursday, the building was locked, we didn’t have a key, and all of our art materials were inside. The goal of these paintings is to generate him a better income, so it was frustrating that we had an unproductive week.

It seems silly to get upset over two unsuccessful days. This man’s life has been full of ups and downs that reached points much higher and lower than the disappointment of a locked building. I should learn from him that these two days mean nothing in the bigger scheme of what we’re doing, which is slowly building him a better life – and, in talking and looking through photographs, also enjoying the idle time.

I went to Trinity this past week and found my adopted grandmother quietly asleep in her nursing room bed. I decided not to wake her, and instead, I played bingo with the other elders. I got into a brief conversation with one, Natalie, after the bingo game, and like the start of most great talks, we started with the weather.

It was a windy, cold day this past Saturday, so I mentioned that and she agreed, saying, “Yes, it’s been so cold lately.” I agreed, and she agreed with my agreement, and we went on with head nods and small comments about global warming until she mentioned the giant pile of snow at Barrack’s.

“Oh yeah. It’s huge!” I said, and she went on to say that there is a competition to see when exactly it will melt.

“Well, June I expect, maybe July,” she said and I agreed. With that, she sighed a little and asked where I was from. I told her I was from UVA, and she said, “Oh that’s nice.” She looked around the cafeteria, down back at her lap, back at me. Unconsciously, I nodded an agreement. She said, “Oh well. It was very nice talking to you. Good luck with everything.” She wheeled away, and I just nodded.

I’m amazed at how such tenuous conversation could somehow seem to mean much more. We simply talked about the weather, about the cold and how we all couldn’t stand it anymore, but in a way, we both seemed to know that seemingly pointless conversation does have a point.

It’s not simply what you say or how you say it. It’s not simply talking as if you care. It’s simply talking, making noise, filling a void that would normally be filled with silence. So don’t let go of the mundane talk. It’s very much needed. Sometimes I like just nodding my head and chewing the minutes with weather-talk as if sitting in a rocking chair with an afternoon of rocking behind me.

I could not make it into Trinity Nursing Home this week due to the lovely but inconvenient white precipitation that makes everything white but blank at the same time. So I apologize, but I think this week is a perfect time to talk about the meaning of volunteering. I know. This is a forever-clichéd, over-emphasized, over-dramatized subject with lovely catch-phrases and taglines like volunteering is not only for others, but for yourself, and I do good because it makes me happy to see other people happy, etc. I don’t intend to negate these lovely nuggets of volunteer-idealism, for they should forever be held in the hearts of those who serve. But I also find these nuggets, in their expansive generality, to be mildly inconsequential and blank when used for specific instances of human-to-human aid.

This past semester I volunteered at Trinity Nursing Home, and my job was simply to provide company to one grandmother in particular, listening to her stories, listening to her playing the piano, listening to her talk to her friends. I was her listener, her designated Sony deep dish, receiving ancient signals as best I could and interpreting their messages in my head.

Sometimes I would regurgitate the static and try to meld the generational divide with comments like, “Oh yes, well my mom does that too…” and even diving in with, “Oh well, I remember my grandma telling me that..” And these little moments of verbal interaction were always well-received by my designated grandmother, for if she heard right, she would smile in agreement and continue on to the next subject. She was my designated “smiler.” And these moments made me not think why I was volunteering, rather it made me think about the diversity of human character in this world.

Here is a lady who has a wealth of personal experiences, like we all do, and it is just terribly exciting to catch just a glimpse of her life in conversation, to receive just freckles of wisdom from her long journey. And it is this excitement in what may seem a mundane, blank conversation that makes me want to come back to Trinity, want to volunteer. It isn’t because I pocket a general mantra- do good and good will come to you- rather, it is because volunteering brings about individual, personal, exciting experiences that reveal not necessarily the commonality in us all, but rather, the unique differences that define us all.

And so, it is funny how white snow, with all its blanketing and homogenous features, can prevent me the volunteer experience, one that is heterogeneous and specific, unique.

My first semester of first year, I learned what it felt like to value a volunteer experience. In high school, I had done the requisite community service hours to “look good” for college applications, but never enjoyed the experience because it felt like a chore and I had little interest in spending my Saturday making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for six hours.

In my first weeks at Migrant Aid, I was blown away by the experience of “service learning.” I felt that I was providing a valuable service to Elizabeth as I helped her work through history readings, but I was also deeply challenged every week to learn how to be an effective teacher and to learn about this large migrant community right outside the bubble of U.Va. I also felt that Elizabeth and her family were providing me with an enormous service through their endless positive energy that always started my week right, even with the two hours of travel involved.

The hardest experience I had during that semester when Elizabeth’s mother asked me to translate a letter she had received. As I stumbled through the explanation, I had to tell her that the family’s application to Medicaid had been denied because they had not resided in the United States for five continuous years. The shamed look on her face as she quickly retrieved the letter is something I will never forget. That night deeply affected me, and was the first time that I truly understood the plight of the underprivileged in my own country.

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