Everyone will tell you that mission is full of surprises. I have certainly found this to be true. Just about every moment of my mission in Cambodia has presented a new experience that I never could have imagined having; perhaps the most surprising being the Charity Concert held at Don Bosco School in May of this year. For me, every step taken to complete this event was not only surprising but also inspiring and motivating. This is my attempt to share this experience in a way that makes you feel the same.
The first surprise came at the end of my English class one day. It was a normal, hot December day (remember that this is Cambodia) and the bell had just rung to signal the beginning of the break. I had just dismissed my class when two of my students approached me with a fascinating idea. Both of these students were also involved in the Music/Band SYM Interest Group which I oversaw. As this was the first year for this group, we were starting off slow and trying to determine what the group was going to be. Then came the fascinating idea. These students told me, in plain English, that they wanted to have a charity concert. In case you don’t know the mission of Don Bosco, Salesians serve the youth, especially the poor; so you can imagine my surprise when the students of Don Bosco were asking to take on the task of raising funds for charity. At first I thought maybe something got lost in translation. “What do you want to do?” I asked. “We want to have a charity concert. You know, have a concert to raise money for charity.” Nope. I wasn’t wrong. These students of Don Bosco had decided that they wanted to do something to raise money for the poor of Cambodia. I shouldn’t have been surprised that they wanted to help the poor. The Sisters and teachers do an amazing job of instilling morals and values in the students, and despite the demographic of our students, they also encourage the students to give when a tragedy occurs, like they did for victims of a fire in Phnom Penh and for those effected by the earthquake in Nepal. But, nevertheless, I was caught off guard by my students’ request. However, once the shock passed, pride and action took over and I was ready to jump into action to make their dream come true.
The Sisters were equally proud of their students’ request and after presenting an overview of what I had discussed with the students regarding their vision of the concert, the Sisters gave us a green light. The students had many ideas: asking outside groups to join; seeking sponsorship from companies; requesting a magician (one of our past pupils) to come and join the event. After some other dates having been discussed we finally settled on May 28 as “Concert Day” and so our countdown began.
One of the most important tasks was creating and selling tickets, which we assumed would be our largest generator of funds. Before we could make the tickets or the programs, or anything else for that matter, we first needed a logo. I put it to the Singing and Music/Band groups to create a logo for our event, and one of our seventh graders stepped up to the challenge. After giving me over 30 different designs, I brought it to one of our office staff who helped make one of the student’s designs a reality. From there she also created the ticket, so we were ready to sell 800 tickets for the event. Enlisting students to sell tickets to their families and friends, asking students to sell after church on the weekend, and encouraging parents to come to the school to buy their tickets were the methods we used that allowed us to sell all of our tickets just in time for the concert. The students also took on the task of writing a sponsorship letter which we then distributed. At the same time, the students were starting to pull their performances together, many practicing every day during their break time. We also began contacting outside groups trying to find the best performers that could help promote a good image of Don Bosco School while providing bonus performances for the concertgoers. As performances were being nailed down, we were compiling a program that would be sure to please all who came to enjoy the concert.
Meanwhile, there was also a lot happening behind the scenes. This being our first large scale event, we needed to make sure our sound system was prepared. We couldn’t have done this without the tireless efforts of Pu Prambai,
a friend of the Sisters, who supplied the additional speaker power we needed and made countless trips to our school to make sure the system was ready. Without him, our event would surely have been a catastrophe.
We were preparing to sell food and drinks at the event. Our school canteen staff, students and teachers of the Food Technology and Hotel Services Vocational Training program, and some of the high school students readied to serve their delicious creations to all who were in attendance. Many aspects of the concert were going to be carried out by the students, but we needed to assign people to oversee them. The teachers truly stepped up to the plate on this one.
Whether it was collecting tickets at the gate, ushering in guests or checking to make sure the restrooms were tidy, they took on their role with zeal and ensured that everything would be concert ready and our concert guests would truly enjoy the evening. The important aspects of security and parking also had to be addressed. We were so lucky that our maintenance staff and PTA came together to organize these very important logistics of the event.
One of my favorite moments throughout all of the planning was this group’s planning meeting. Ideas had been thrown around as how to approach parking and security, but no plans had been solidified. So just 2 weeks before the event, our maintenance men, some fathers from the PTA, and a few of the office staff came together and collaborated to work out all the kinks, ensuring that they would be ready for anything come concert day. (Spoiler alert: We had no problems. They were truly prepared!)
One final piece of preparation was initiating an online donation possibility. All I will say about this, is that we are very blessed to have so many generous people who, although they couldn’t join for the event, showed how valuable and meaningful this project was through their donations. We can never thank them enough for their support from afar.
As all of these things came together, I realized that this was no longer merely an event thought up by a few students. It had become a large, collaborative, well-managed effort of the DBS, Teuk Thla community. The concert’s success, or failure, would be everyone’s. (Another spoiler alert: It was NOT a failure!)
The most important behind the scene event was choosing the charity which our concert would benefit. Some students from the Singing Group and I approached the Missionary Group, a group committed to doing service for the school and for families of our students. We put it to them to think of how the money could be most beneficial. After many great ideas were suggested, we came around to thinking we might want to build something, not really sure what we could build with the limited funds we would raise (if we only sold tickets, we would have raised just $1600). But then the father of Sr. Neath, the first Cambodian FMA, came forward with the suggestion of a poor school outside of Kampong Cham (a province of Cambodia about 2 hours from Phnom Penh). This school, Tuolvihear Primary School, was certainly in need. Serving over 300 students, from kindergarten to 6th grade, Tuolvihear has 1 school building with 3 classrooms for grades 1-6 and a small shelter (only sticks and leaves) for the kindergarten. Grades 1-3 study in the morning and then 4-6 in the afternoon. The most shocking thing about their situation is that they only have 2 toilets: 1 for the teachers, and 1 for the 300 students. Fortunately, some very generous donors have helped the community secure the land next to the school and they have begun construction on a new building with 3 more classrooms, which will help to house the kindergarten and a new library (supported by the NGO “Room to Read”). But no plans were made to expand their toilet capacity. So that became our goal. We learned that we could potentially support the building of 2 more toilets and also purchase much needed supplies and furniture for the school. So that became our dream and the motivation to sell our tickets and get as many donations as possible.
After weeks and months of meeting, planning, programming, organizing, practicing, selling, fundraising, advertising, decorating, and so much more, concert day was finally upon us. About 2 weeks before the concert, we put up a countdown calendar, and every time that we put an X over another day finished, we all took a collective deep breath and prayed that everything would work out fine. For a while I was living in the comfort that since this was the first attempt at this kind of project at DBS, anything would be a success. But I realize now that I never really had to worry.
When concert day came, we were so prepared for anything and everything.
Sound system – check. Lights – check. Performers – check. Food stalls – check. Tickets sold – check. Parking – check. Restrooms designated – check. Emcees – check. Ushers – check.
We were ready and all we had to do was open our gates at 3:00pm and it was go time.
I cannot imagine how this event could have been more successful! We had 20 different performances. There was singing (solo, duet and group), dancing (traditional Khmer and pop), a Magic show, and a Tai Chi and Kung Fu demonstration. We had nearly 1000 people in attendance. Once it got dark, every seat in our hall (over 900) was filled!
We had to drastically limit the number of people that were coming into the concert, since our hall can only contain so many. Once we sold out of tickets the Wednesday before the concert, and then even throughout the concert, we had people coming to the school asking if they could still get tickets. Concertgoers and performers alike were enjoying the many different fares available (rice porridge, noodle soup, sandwiches, sweets). Throughout the evening I was keeping an ear cocked ready to solve any problems that might have arisen (all for naught, I am glad to say). I also monitored all donations being made throughout the night. We were very blessed to have had a friend of one of our teachers donate over 200 notebooks
and 600 pens which we added to those already donated by our very generous 6th grade students, which we would be able to add to our donation to Tuolvihear School. And, just in donation boxes from the night, we raised about $100! Because ours is an open hall, we did worry that the show might not go on if it rained heavily enough (rainy season had just gotten underway), but God smiled down us through the sun that never stopped shining until it set and the moon took its place, not a cloud in sight. We closed the evening by inviting all those who had been instrumental in making this concert possible onto the stage to be recognized. Each of them, from the students to the parent group, smiled their appreciation. (See top photo.) But I could tell that their smiles were not so much about being thankful for being thanked, but rather being thankful for having been a part of this amazing event. The energy on that stage with all of those dedicated and passionate people made me realize that this project was beyond simply raising money for the poor. It was also forming young people to understand compassionate giving. It was bringing a larger community together for a common cause. It was instilling in others the truth that everyone has something to give. It was creating formative memories that will live on in the minds and hearts of all those who were touched by this project. It was bringing Don Bosco and his mission to life in Cambodia.
Charity Concert 2016 at Don Bosco School is something that I never could have imagined happening in my wildest and most ambitious dreams of doing mission in Cambodia. But it is okay. Because I don’t have to imagine it. It did happen. I was a part of making this amazing event happen. And I am going to keep that with me forever.
After the Concert
All in all, after the tireless efforts of students, teachers, parents, volunteers, and Sisters we raised over $3000! This was far and beyond what I or anyone ever guessed we would do. All of our hard work had truly paid off. Our dream of supporting Tuolvihear was going to come true. We did it!
The students had done so much good work we thought it was only right that they should get to visit the school that they were supporting. Although we would have liked to take all 290 of our students, we (and funds) could only take 34 accompanied by 6 teachers, 2 parents and 3 Sisters.
On June 24, 2016, we embarked on our journey to Kampong Cham to visit the students and teachers of Tuolvihear School. After a long and muddy trek, we arrived in Srok Kang Meas and were welcomed by the students of Tuolvihear School.
After a very warm welcome by the Principal, we got to work cleaning the school and planting trees and flowers. In a couple hours the students and teachers of DBS, having worked alongside the students of Tuolvihear, had finished their work leaving Tuolvihear School spic and span (as much as possible – this is Cambodia, which is an extremely dusty country.).
After lunch the real fun began.
We put on a mini-concert for the students of Tuolvihear, singing and dancing. Then, we got the students involved playing Freeze Dance and Simon Says. To keep the merriment flowing, the students distributed the donated notebooks and pens and also gave donuts and a milk to all of the students. (We were able to bring the milk because all of the students in the high school paid for 1 to give to the students at Tuolvihear.) It wouldn’t have been a complete day without just a little more dancing, but then we had to say farewell and begin our trek back to Don Bosco. As Tuolvihear students left for home on foot or bicycle, we climbed into our bus and headed back to Phnom Penh. After a day of fellowship and service our students were all smiles, laughs and snores. I can’t be sure what was going through all of their minds after the day we had, but I do know that this is something that will not leave them, or me, soon.
Don Bosco School’s Charity Concert was conceptualized and completed by poor students of Cambodia for poor students of Cambodia. I have learned so much through this experience, but I think the most important thing is that we can always give. There is no minimum or maximum, but we should always find a way to give of ourselves for those who are in need. My students showed me that they were willing to dedicate themselves to serving others and I pray that I can always follow their example.
(Special thank you to all who helped contribute photos to this post – Charlene, Sr. Gema, and Catholic Social Communications of Cambodia.)