Cambodia (MNN) — In a remote village in Cambodia, a little boy and his sisters have become warriors for social justice. Their weapon of choice is education, and their impact has proven to be immeasurable.
Kendra Szabo works with Food for the Hungry field staff in the 20 countries they serve, and each week she shares updates from the field to reveal how God is moving to end all forms of human poverty. Her story of Hean Nimol, the 7-year-old advocate with a heart for transformation, shows the power of community in affecting Gospel-centered change.
“Hean lives in a village where things like personal hygiene are not common knowledge,” shares Szabo. “The people didn’t know about things like washing your hands after you go to the bathroom or before you eat, washing dishes after you’ve eaten off them, or cleaning underneath your nails.”
Peers teaching peers
Szabo says, in many communities around the world, Food for the Hungry educates via a cascade model. “We educate a smaller group who are selected by their community members. They then teach their peers basic principles about health, sanitation, and nutrition.”
In Hean’s case, the education came through Food for the Hungry’s other primary method of training — within the schools. “We teach the teachers, who then teach their students. Hean was able to go to school where he learned these basic principles and he really took to them. He and his two younger sisters returned home to their family, and they became almost warriors in their community for this idea of good health and sanitation. They were able to teach their mom about these principles and demanded that she make a difference in their home. And so they built a latrine, they started washing their dishes and only drinking water that had been boiled for purification. They started planting vegetables to have a better nutritional diet.”
What makes the story even more compelling is the teacher who was willing to invest in the life of Hean and his friends. “The Food for the Hungry staff community leaders had been working with middle schoolers and with high schoolers to teach them these principles,” says Szabo. “They said, ‘You know, we need to teach the younger kids these as well.’ So they got one of the seventh graders who was the leader in his class to essentially be a kindergarten teacher to teach these principles to the younger children in the community, including Hean.”
Thoughtful training is essential
Working with communities on issues of nutrition, health, and hygiene isn’t always easy, shares Szabo. Cultural challenges mean patient and thoughtful training is essential.
“You think a lot of times when you’re talking about human rights work and nonprofit work how important it is to keep their original traditions intact. And it is. It’s so important to keep their cultural interests alive. However, sometimes those cultural traditions are wrong. For example, a community in Asia did not want to use the latrines we had built because it was common folklore there that evil gods dwelt under the earth, so no one would ever expose a naked part of their body to a hole in the ground for fear that they would literally lose their soul. This is something you would never think would be an obstacle. It took a whole reeducation of this community about what was true and what was healthy so we could change that tradition.”
What might be considered by some to be small changes in sanitation are anything but, shares Szabo. “Using a latrine, or washing your hands — those things are the things that are truly life-changing because they impact generation after generation. They create health, general well being, and they do alleviate a lot of diseases. And when you stop that, you have a higher rate of children going to school. And when you have a higher rate of children going to school, you have a lower crime rate, you have a higher job rate, a higher rate of secondary education. Those children are able to really take hold of their communities and change them for the better. So you think of it as a small sanitation issue, but when you think about the way sanitation impacts health and the way that can impact education and the future, you see how really important those small things can be.”
Filling spiritual hunger
“There’s a saying, ‘What does it mean to gain the whole world but lose your soul?’ We believe the same thing is true when we’re dealing with issues of poverty,” reflects Szabo when she considers the spiritual impact of Food for the Hungry programs. “What use would it be to bring prosperity to a community without spiritual prosperity? Ultimately what matters in this world — the basic need — is Christ. We want to fill that spiritual hunger as much as we want to fill that physical hunger.
“Now, in places where Christianity is not allowed or is discouraged, including places like Cambodia, we do our work very differently. We teach biblical principles and biblical ideas. Coming back to the latrine issue, if you actually look at Scripture, using a latrine is literally a biblical command. It says in Deuteronomy 3:13-14, ‘You shall have a spade among your tools, and it shall be when you sit down outside, you shall dig with it, and you shall turn to cover your excrement. Your camp must be holy, and He must not see anything indecent among you or He will turn away from you.’
“We do all these things as we give them up to Christ. We’re always there because of Christ.”
There are a number of ways to join Food for the Hungry in ministry to children like Hean. Prayer is always essential, and child sponsorships are available that provide physical, educational, and spiritual support. And items featured in their online gift catalogue include latrines, keyhole gardens, livestock, and more.