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 didn’t know Friday (April 22, 2011) was Earth Day.  If it weren’t for this week’s kindergarten class, I probably wouldn’t have known until I saw Google’s earthy logo that day.   When I was in school, I remember briefly talking about Earth Day, and I think my class planted a tree in celebration.  But the kindergarteners are celebrating all week long, and began by learning about “going green.”

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That being said, they already knew a fair amount about the eco-friendly way of life.  A few students pretty clearly articulated the purpose of “going green” was to reduce, reuse, and recycle.  Anne Marie explained how a compost pile worked.  Mynique described the recycling process (“you give them your old paper and they turn it into new paper again”).  Everyone could point to the recycling bin at the front of the classroom.  All in all, I was really impressed with how environmentally conscious all of the kids were.

Together we learned about other ways to protect the environment by reading Miss Fox’s Class Goes Green by Eileen Spinelli.  One idea that Miss Fox had that I thought was particularly clever was a “toy swap:” each of her students brought an old toy or game that he or she was tired of and switched it with a classmate so each student ended up with a new toy without actually buying a new toy.  When I was in kindergarten I think I would have loved that idea (my friends always seemed to have more exciting toys than I did).  Indeed, the kids let out a collective “ooooh” when we read the few pages about the toy swap.  Future class project, anyone?  I think it would be a huge hit.

Whether it’s because of their parents, their teachers, or just a general change in culture, I’m pretty glad these little kids are aware of simple things to help the environment.  I certainly wasn’t aware of all this stuff when I was 6.  From writing on both sides of paper to bringing re-usable bags to the grocery store, everyone seemed to know the basics of living green.

I hadn’t seen Trudy for a while, but she was excited when I walked in.  I am always amazed by her memory–the first thing she asked was about my trip to Roanoke. I had gone home late last week and she remembered!  Earlier last week I had gone to visit the Chancellorsville battlefield with my civil war class. I sent her a post card and she told me how she had gotten it and was glad to receive it. The postcard had Stonewall Jackson on the front and we talked a while how I had seen where he was shot and killed. She shared what she had learned in school about the Civil War and it was neat to see how much she actually remembered. After catching up for a while, we went to play Scrabble in the game room. We came to a couple standpoints throughout the game but she always came up with a big word to help solve the problem. We ended up finishing the game with a few letters left we weren’t able to use but nonetheless had a fun time. We went to her room after to talk a little more, and she showed me a sheet she had gotten from a friend that told a story of an old Indian legend and how those in the tribe were taught to respect their elders. She told me how respect is what a lot of people today lack, and if her mother was still around, she wouldn’t have any part of it. I had to leave after that to get back to classes, but I’m looking forward to going next week!

The rain soaked my Sperry’s the second I ran from the car to the Student Activities Building. The room, despite the melancholy weather, was abuzz with activity as students and community members gathered to arrange rides to various sites for Cavaliers Care, the one day service event put on by Madison House.  Elizabeth Bass and the executive committee seamlessly adapted to the weather by moving those who were supposed to volunteer outside to venues inside. My job this morning was to go on a Charlottesville adventure to check in on activities at various sites.

First Stop: The Discovery Museum.  As soon as I walked into the Museum, I instantly felt welcomed by all of the big toys and the large tree house. Volunteers prepared the center for a early morning cooking class for children and their parents to cook inside, out of the downpour. My second venue of the morning was to visit the Ronald McDonald House. Here, volunteers interacted with children while cleaning and tidying the house for family members

Time whizzed by as I navigated through the puddles to the Cedar Center.  Inside, volunteers and home residents were just finishing up a bingo game as I walked in. After two more numbers, a volunteer yelled BINGO and the rest of the room groaned and commented that they were so close. I smiled as a woman commented that she didn’t want the UVA students to leave because the BINGO game was so exciting. I was tempted to jump into a game myself, but I hopped into the car to brave the traffic and visit my last location.

I arrived just as the Hope Community Center volunteers were finishing their cleaning. The room looked spotless and smelled of sweet lemons. The volunteers proudly gathered for a picture in the room they had just cleaned. My little sisters in the mentoring program, who graciously kept me company in the car, congratulated them with me and literally danced in the rain upon finishing our marathon 4 places in an hour and a half.  A full day of service!

“But I’ve already seen this!”

This week I sat down with the class to hear the teacher read Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.  A few kids seemed excited, but their squeals were drowned out with the groans from the others who already knew what happened in the story because of the movie.

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Throughout the semester, this has happened before.  When celebrating Dr. Seuss’s birthday a few weeks ago, almost all of the kids said they had seen The Cat in the Hat, so they did not want to read the book. Same for Where the Wild Things Are.

As much as I love movies (especially children’s movies), as an English major I must admit my dismay that these kids seem completely uninterested in a book if they have already seen the movie.  Books are a great source of entertainment and a way for young kids to expand their imaginations while learning at the same time.

For example, one of the (fantastic) illustrations in the book had an enormous pancake flopped on top of a house.  Laughter erupted when the teacher turned the page around so we could see the picture.  She asked, “What would you do if a pancake this big landed on your house?”

Immediately, without any hesitation, a girl raised her hand and boldly stated, “EAT IT!”  Everyone laughed.  She said she liked pancakes so much she could eat the whole thing herself.  A little boy said his dad’s truck could tow it off of the house.  Another girl said she would find a giant to eat the pancake.

This kind of interaction, discussion, and creativity is simply not possible if you’re watching a movie in a crowded, dark movie theatre.  The movie experience is more passive (although arguably more visually stimulating), while reading a book with a group of friends is a lot more stimulating.

In the end, even the kids who had “already seen it” enjoyed reading the story.  Everyone liked looking and talking about the details in the pictures.  After a few pages, everyone stopped saying they knew what was going to happen and listened in with full attention.  I’m glad that even with all the action a movie can provide, the students are still capable of being captivated by a good old-fashioned story reading.

On this stormy day we drove over to visit our grandmas and I found Trudy eating lunch in the cafeteria.  Due to a longer visit today we were able to go play Scrabble in the common room. We don’t talk much while we play, just because I think we’re both concentrating on the game. I need to especially to hold my own (she’s so much better than me!). I kept only being able to come up with 3 letter words while she was spelling out 6 to 7 letter words. But I guess they say with age comes wisdom! We finished the game and I had to go catch my ride but she said she was going to stay in the activity room to wait for the director and that today they were going to play cards. I’ve always been interested in learning to bridge, I asked if maybe she could teach me, but she said she used to play that long ago and doesn’t remember anymore. I probably wouldn’t be able to remember how to play at 93 either!

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The woman at the end of the race power walked on the heels of the pace car.. I almost missed her arrival because nobody cheered or clapped excitedly like when they had seen the other runners. My job was to act as a traffic controller and stop oncoming vehicles from making either a left or a right turn onto the corner from the side street between the Bank of America and the church. Many drivers were enraged that they would have to walk to Starbucks or Mincer’s from the Bank of America parking lot. I shrugged and continued to gesture to drivers that they must turn around and reverse down the wrong way OR wait until the last runner passed the bank. Many chose to idle and wait for the last runner, but where was she or he?

I was so busy arguing with a woman about the safety issues involved if she tried to maneuver her car through an opening between runners that I almost missed the last runner. The police car lights caught my eye and I swiveled around mid sentence. There she was. Running alone at 9 am, almost 20 minutes behind the last few racers we had seen. I mentally checked her number and began to clap and cheer this woman on. I admired her strength to run the race in the cold, alone on the heels of the pace car. To my surprise, she smiled and stopped for a second. “Thank you for staying to make sure I was safe and cheer me on. It was important to me,” she said. I smiled and yelled that I wouldn’t have missed her run for the world and mustered one more rousing good luck. For a minute, I watched her determinedly walk up the hill. To me, she was the most inspiring runner because her spirit was unyielding.

The car in front of me menacingly inched forward and a woman rolled down her window to kindly as me if now she could drive to the dry cleaners. The race was over and all the runners were safe. I reluctantly lifted my hands in the air and signaled that all the cars can now move freely on the streets again.  I do not know if the last runner finished the race, but in my eyes she will always be the winner of the race. The Charlottesville 10 miler was a race of endurance–this woman mentally surpassed the front runners!

After Spring Break, TaMarah and I kept having scheduling conflicts (who knew a six year old had such a social scene?). Four phone calls and a three emails later, TaMarah’s mom and I decided that I would take TaMarah to her school carnival. Tickets in hand, we walked into the school and TaMarah’s jaw dropped—a moon bounce, cotton candy, ice cream, face painting, Wii, games galore in the gym, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. To say TaMarah was excited would have been an understatement. Not long after getting there, we had run into all her best friends and their parents. All night, we scurried around making sure we hit all the hot spots (some multiple times).

Three hours of fun and we were worn out, so we headed home. I walked her in and I started chatting with her mom about her upcoming wedding. We talked for about 40 minutes about the decorations, her dress, and all that jazz. As I got in the car to leave, I came to a realization that big sibs is more than just hanging out with your little sib once a week. It is about truly becoming part of their lives, building a relationship with them and their family.

Today I visited Trudy for the first time since spring break. Not a lot had changed on her end but she did notice my tan. I was more than happy to share the details of my vacation in Mexico and she was interested in all the things I did. My reminiscing about my spring break led us to get into a discussion of her favorite vacation spots growing up.

Some of her favorite vacations that she remembers were her family trips to Virginia Beach. She shared how her whole family, often including her cousins and aunts and uncles, would all pick one week out of the summer to head to the shore. I told her how that sounded like a blast, but at the same time very crowded!

Today we sat in her room, and didn’t have a lot of time, so we didn’t get into our usual scrabble game. We talked some more about her jobs that she had all her life (she only had two total) and retired about 30 years ago from her seasoned position at Dominion Resources. It was ironic that she mentioned Dominion because in business class the week before break the president of Dominion Resources came to talk to us about his company. It was neat that I knew enough about Dominion to relate to the things that she was telling me about her old job details. I always ask her advice for what I should major in and each time she tells me to be a teacher. Each time I tell her I wouldn’t really like being a teacher, but she still persists!

I can’t think of a much better way to ease back into the throes of law school after a stressful and work-filled Spring Break than playing snowball Bingo with some kindergartners.

Each week the students receive new “sight words;” basically just flash cards with new words and pictures so they can learn to spot the words and know the meaning. This week the kids were working on distinguishing among old sight words; recognizing that the addition or change of a single letter can make a difference on the pronunciation and meaning of a word (“in” versus “it,” “sad” versus “said,” etc.).

One of the great things about working in kindergarten on Mondays is that there are a couple of other helpers, so I get to work more closely with a smaller group of kids. This week I was with two or three students at a time, distinguishing sight words by playing Bingo.

Since each of the student’s Bingo board had all of the same words, everyone won at the same time.  None of them found it unusual that they all called out, “BINGO!” at the same time.  The kids had a blast trying to be the first to find the word on their boards, and I was really impressed with how quickly they can find words now.  I’ve been volunteering with the same class since September, so the progress they have made is really remarkable.

It actually took less time than I thought to finish a round, so we spent our remaining time building things out of the little Bingo markers and talking about St. Patrick’s Day.  One girl squealed, “Oh, St. Patrick’s Day!  If you don’t wear green, you get tickled!”  She proceeded to tell the rest of the table about the tradition, which in my experience consisted of pinches, not tickles, so I was happy about that change.

I can’t wait to get back to the classroom next week to hear about how everyone celebrated.  And to see what adorable construction paper creations I’m sure they made!

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