I started off the new year traveling to Cambodia to work with an NGO in a rural village outside of Phnom Penh. Last fall, when my client at The Heart Touch Project suggested I join them for their annual trip to work in Cambodia and do art projects with the kids, I didn’t think twice. I had been wanting to do service work abroad for years, and at the same time would have an opportunity to travel in Cambodia. The Heart Touch Project is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to bringing compassionate, therapeutic touch to medically fragile individuals dealing with chronic illness, pain, and end-of-life issues. They have been travelling to Cambodia for many years to work at New Hope for Cambodian Children (NHCC), a residential facility for more than 270 orphans and abandoned children who are HIV+.

I was assigned a former girl’s dormitory and set up a makeshift art studio. Day 1 was beyond overwhelming, with dozens of kids ages 3 to 18 bursting into the classroom, calling out “cha, cha!” (for “teacher”), and simultaneously clamoring for paper and supplies. I quickly figured out a better system and got things running smoothly for the next two weeks. In addition to living with chronic illness, most of these children are dealing with deeply challenging and traumatic pasts. It was extraordinary to see the therapeutic value for the children of making art, the joy and sense of contentment was palpable when they were working in the studio. Self-portraits, animals, and hearts were popular themes, along with depictions of home and family. I had brought along a children’s coloring book of iconic Cambodian imagery, and several of the children were inspired by the book and proved to be very skilled copy artists.

In spite of little access to art classes, these children have amazing natural talent and I saw their work evolve in the short time I had the pleasure to work with them. On my last day, I got the news that the children had so enjoyed the painting studio, that the founders of NHCC were motivated to designate a building on the campus for art classes. Many thanks to Kathy and John Tucker, the founders of NHCC, for creating an art space going forward for the kids to continue expressing themselves and exploring their creativity. Working with the wonderful kids at NHCC was one of the best experiences of my life–I feel that I got back as much or more than I gave, and can hardly wait to go back next year. I’m currently working on designing and producing a catalog of the children’s paintings that will be available later this year through The Heart Touch Project.

The artists at work and a selection of work produced shown here.

Hongvey was inspired to draw and paint an image from one of the
bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat.
With Nita, a gifted artist and writer, she painted the written piece above. Nita is fluent in English and became the unofficial translator in the art studio, translating for her fellow students who speak primarily Khmer.
I think Vantho has a future as a brand designer…
From left: With students Sokla, Buntaeum, and Hongvey outside the art studio at NHCC, Kampong Speu, Cambodia.