Setting the stage: We journeyed together from New York City, Toronto, four days in Shanghai, on to Bangkok arriving in Phenom Penh late evening in time to acclimate ourselves to the dramatic changes we were already experiencing in Cambodia, and those we were yet to discover the following day in our amazing LaValla site visit.
To explain, seemingly overnight, Phnom Penh had evolved from thousands of moving bicycles and old tutuks to hundreds of thousands of motorcycles carrying 2-4 passengers, motorized tutuks, and expensive cars and SUV’s.
Massive construction, cranes, spectacular high rises dotted the city skyline holding forth along the Makong Delta, and an invasion of foreigners — predominantly Asian — were crowding the expanded and updated highways, streets and many establishments.
Early the next day at our favorite old historic Hotel Raffles Le Royal, we were met by Visal, a young man educated, nurtured, embraced early on by Br Terry in 1999 before LaValla School was established an hour out of the city in its current location (2000). Visal continues to be employed as a driver and videographer by the Brothers. We were most eager to speak with Visal about his personal experiences with Br Terry.
Our adventure began in excited anticipation of being able to view the ongoing construction progress of the new village four years in the planning. This development includes a freestanding Music and Arts Center, an Agriculture Village, several double rowed buildings with tiled roofs for classes and those slated for student living accommodations, a covered walkway planned to extend from the existing LaValla School facilities to the end of the new property, plus to learn of various projects — both educational and vocational — and, without reservation whatsoever, most desired of all, for the three of us, was to see and experience … the children!!
As our vehicle entered LaValla’s gates, awaiting us in sweltering heat was an enthusiastic group of the children (ages from 6 to 20’s) … bright beaming faces all smiles and waving greetings “hello sister!” … “hello brother!” Among those warmly welcoming us were Marist Brs Brian, Tony, and Michael (Music Educator and Coral Master) along with several staff members and teachers. Mutually clasped hands in front of faces expressed respectful greetings. Hugs and name exchanges ensured recognition, acceptance, and love. Many of the children, along with several teachers and the Brothers asked about “Mama” — Viola Wheeler who, in her mid 90’s, had visited LaValla (2015) and fallen in love with all of the children, as well as Br Terry.
Our collective anticipation had been and was emotionally shattered on having learned of the sudden physical deterioration and confirmation of death and loss of everyone’s beloved Br Terry Heinrich. Br Terry was an extraordinary visionary who in the course of 20 plus years had guided LaValla’s development and projects, it’s students, staff, visiting interns, donors and foundations from orphanage origins to a powerful presence in supporting and nurturing disabled Cambodian youth, ultimately to ensure the sustainability of LaValla School Marist Solidarity Cambodia and its mission.
While the children returned to their classrooms, we visited Br Daryl’s grave stone and, passing from the original Village to the new, saw the mound of earth the children had built to elevate the monument’s base that will memorialize and support a bust cast of Br Terry Heinrich commemorating his legacy as cofounder of LaValla School. On guided tour of the new Village development with Br Brian and Br Tony (who had offered us hats to protect from the intense sun), we took many pictures, asked tons of questions, getting an excellent understanding of progress now that the rains have subsided and of the needs required, all the while cherishing the extraordinary legacy!
Bordering to the right of a muddy dirt path we walked were rows of farming — plantings, crops, orchards, and flowering vines and trees. To the left, initially, was the foundation of the new 2-story Music and Arts Center, followed by several double rowed beautiful white pillared concrete buildings with red tiled roofs, engineered for coolness and natural ventilation, that will house classrooms and dormitories. A summation of the Village Project and the future life of Marist Cambodia will be sent to us by Br Brian, Pagna and Br Tony. Completion is scheduled for March 2019. Freshening up before joining the Brothers in continued relaxing conversations, Arlene and I privately took turns sitting in Br Terry’s chair outside his private quarters next to a cabinet full of books, pictures and mementos. His presence could be felt everywhere.
We were delighted to join the children, Brothers, teachers, staff and residential visitors for the midday meal, and were enchanted listening to the children proudly use the one musical instrument they all have — their voices! — in singing grace loudly and in unison. Helping with cleanup, hugging the teary eyed wonderful chef and barely able to leave the children in all of our goodbyes and promising to return soon for the official opening of the new Village, Visal safely return us to our hotel. That evening Br Brian, Br Tony and Visal joined the three of us with local friends Dana and Kandal for an emotional and spiritually enriching, delicious formal dinner in the main dining room at Raffles. Such a rare opportunity to truly get to know and enjoy one another was beyond rewarding!
In summation: Our joy during the visit was frequently peppered with tears and overpowered by grief. We clung feverishly to commitments of making a difference and to the continued support of LaValla’s vision for academic advancement, technology-internet, agriculture, music and arts education, and to partner in providing support for LaValla’s model. The school was established and exists for children and youth who are disabled or compromised in any capacity. Students must be able to sustain themselves in both ablutions and the capacity to learn self care, in order to ultimately be able to fit themselves into their lives productively once they have left LaValla and returned to their own villages or communities.
Our amazing site visit confirmed what we know. Investments of any kind in a child’s learning at any age, most especially young, can be transformational … especially for children affected by cultural trauma, rejection, differences, displacement. Harnessing the proven power of learning by inclusion, play, education, music and art, thus paving the way for a bright future of care where spirits and opportunity may soar is our mission for sustaining Br Terry’s legacy. We can’t wait to return!!
With abundant love, Dr. Christine Wheeler