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A helping hand, a world away

For children growing up in Tsawwassen, there is little worry they will be abandoned by their parents, sold into sex slavery, or be left all alone after their family dies of AIDS.

But that is the sad reality for many children growing up a world away in Cambodia. In the past 40 years, the South East Asian country has been ravaged by war, genocide, and poverty.

Yet hope exists, and as the country struggles to rebuild itself, humanitarian projects such as the Place of Rescue AIDS Centre and Orphanage outside the capital of Phnom Penh offer a chance for the country’s abandoned children to build a life for themselves, and escape the cycle of violence.

Founded by former missionary Marie Ens in 2003, Place of Rescue is home to 426 children, 23 destitute grannies and 27 AIDS families. When the facility was founded more than 10 years ago, it consisted of 15 houses for families dealing with AIDS. Place of Rescue now has three campuses as well as three university dorms housing 40 former orphans now attending post-secondary school.

Ens, along with a group of dancers from the school aged eight to 10, will be visiting the Tsawwassen Alliance Church on Jan. 23 at 7 p.m. to perform “Celebrate,” and share their story.

It’s a story Tsawwassen Alliance Church staff member Rhoda Brooks knows well. She was one of the two dozen local church members who travelled to Cambodia in 2012 to volunteer with Place of Rescue.

“It’s like a breath of fresh air,” she says of the facility. “It’s an amazing place amongst the chaos and poverty around it.”

In addition to fundraising for Place of Rescue, Brooks and the other members of the church volunteered teaching English classes at the orphanage’s primary school.

“I found it really humbling,” she says of her experience. “If this doesn’t change you, there’s something wrong with you.”

Despite the fact that everyone of her students had experienced horrific trauma in their lives - two girls in her class had even witnessed their father murder their mother - Brooks said she was surprised at how resilient the children were given everything they had been through.

“The kids are just kids, the same as you’d see here,” Brooks says. “There’s the mischievous types, the princess types, and the smart alecks.”

Tsawwassen Alliance Church has been helping to raise funds and raise awareness for Place of Rescue ever since Ens first visit the local church close to five years ago.

Brooks said the church had been looking to focus its humanitarian efforts on just a few select foreign projects, and Place of Rescue was the perfect opportunity for them to make a difference.

“When you try to do so many things, you don’t see the progress,” she says. “But when you focus on one project, you can see tangible results.”

The local church is currently fundraising to send another group of volunteers to help with the orphanage.

Ens, reached by Internet video chat from Cambodia, said she was grateful for all the help the Tsawwassen community has contributed over the years.

Ens first came to Cambodia in 1961 to do missionary work with her husband Norman, after a seven-week voyage on a ship across the Pacific Ocean.

“You rarely saw a beggar in those days,” she says. “The terrible slums we have now didn’t exist.”

That changed after Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge reduced Cambodia to the Stone Age, forcing the population to work on communal farms, known as the “Killing Fields.”

Between 1975 and 1979, more than 2 million Cambodians died - close to 25 per cent of the population.

After being evacuated form the country 1975, Ens and her husband worked with Cambodian refugees in France. When her husband died, Ens returned to Cambodia

“I was quite scared in a lot of ways,” she says. “I was quite nervous being there by myself without Norman, but God really dealt with my fears at that time.”

After retiring from missionary work, Ens founded the orphanage after recognizing that there was no where for the many children left parentless from the AIDS epidemic that infected as many as three per cent of Cambodians at its height.

“There was absolutely no where for these children,” she says. “So we decided it was up to us.”

Of the children coming to Canada: two are from the AIDS Centre where they live with their HIV positive mothers, one is an abandoned child and seven are orphans. Some have been at Place of Rescue since they were babies; all have come from tragic circumstances. At Place of Rescue they have a new kind and loving “house mom” and new siblings (nine other children living together in a house). Their lives have changed dramatically and they now have every opportunity for a good future.

“Your heart is never really the same after an encounter with Marie and kids from Place of Rescue,” says Brooks. “We are very excited about having the children come to share their dances and stories with us. Place of Rescue is an amazing place and we look forward to celebrating with them.”

Place of Rescue has been invited to perform their program of traditional dances at Missions Fest 2014 in both Vancouver and Winnipeg and will be touring and sharing their story while in Canada. There is no admission fee for the event on Jan. 23, and donations will be accepted.

• For more information (including a complete tour schedule) please visit www.rescuedancetour.com

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