Shelo is a teenage orphan at the Palm Tree Center. She is one of the few kids who owns a bike, albeit an old one, and uses it all the time to get to and from class. Without a bike, she would have to walk two miles through town in ten minutes to make her schedule. For her, a bike is not only fun, but essential. A few days ago Shelo visited the old market in Phnom Penh and someone stole her bike. Just this morning she came to Mr. Pole, the director of the Palm Tree Center, expressing her sadness and wondering what to do. "I told her, 'don't worry', said Mr. Pole, '"All children get bikes today.'"
"I didn't believe him," she told me later, smiling, standing proudly next to her deep-sea blue cruiser, parked with 88 other bikes in a neat row in a secure place at the orphanage. "But then when you came, I thought--maybe..." She smiled the most grateful, joyful smile. "And I love the color," she added, beaming...
At about 3:45 PM on Friday, January 12th a buzz ran through the orphanage. Kids started running around, yelling, jumping up and down... what is the world was going on?
Jared and I ran outside with Mr. Pole, all the teachers, our friend Lindy, a volunteer from Montana (and our initial connection to the Center), and Terry and Jim Kellogg of Friends of Cambodian Children, who visit the orphanage often from the United States and support its programs.
The kids--who were excused from late afternoon classes today ("it's just too big of a day for them," said Terry)--were going berserk.
And one word rang out from all their little mouths in a glorious uproar that filled the courtyard and echoed through the orphanage:
Suddenly, the gates to the orphanage swung wide open, and a massive truck loaded to the brim with brand new bikes, backed in!
My friends, I will never forget that moment. It was a scene of such jubilation I have never before witnessed. "Most of these kids have never owned anything," said Terry to me earlier, "let alone a bike."
The bike shop folks unloaded the bikes into the orphanage courtyard as the kids ran and yelled and jumped and raced up to Jared and me, bowing with their palms together and saying over and over, with the widest smiles, "Thank you! thank you!"
All the little faces watched the gleaming new bikes appear. Each one knew that there was a bike for him or her. No one was getting left out today.
When all the bikes were unloaded, Mr. Pole gave the word and all the kids rushed to claim their bikes. We had envisioned a more orderly affair (well, they had, I sort of liked the pandemonium), but the kids swept through the bikes in an enthusiastic wave, claiming their new ride, tearing off the wrapping and hopping on to bike around. I thought there might be fighting and pushing, but no. Everything worked out just fine, and the kids--with Mr. Pole and his staff's help--sorted out which bikes went where.
Then it was every kid on the saddle! From little four-year-olds on tiny, shiny blue dirt bikes with training wheels, to the beaming teenagers like Shelo cruising around on their new rides...
Jared and I hung out until well past dark, laughing with the kids, utterly enjoying the moment and shooting a ton of images and tape. Later, we took a picture of each child on his or her new bike, with the photo of their sponsor.
The kids were still riding when we finally broke for a little celebratory dinner.
When we returned to the orphanage the next day, Mr. Pole told us that around 5 o'clock that morning a cacophony of little bike bells began to ring--like miniature bells in 88 belfries--as the kids took to their bikes right after waking up. "Many of the children took their bikes to bed with them, they were so happy to have them," said Mr. Pole.
But the biggest surprise of the morning was a bag Mr. Pole handed us on our way out. "These are the thank you letters from the children to their sponsors," he said, "almost every child wrote a letter last night."
I was so indescribably moved. On top of their jubilation, 88 kids found the time to write a thank you letter to the special person who bought them their bike. On one letter a little boy had drawn a picture of his bike; on many of the others the kids had written their thank you in both English and Khmer.
We left the orphanage that day to a throng of children waving and smiling, hugging us, thanking us, hardly letting us move.
As we pulled away , the kids returned to their bikes, some riding out into the city, some just riding around the orphanage for fun; I bet they're still riding now...
Thanks so much to everyone who helped pull this off: the 88 bike sponsors, the bonus bike sponsors, the folks who donated smaller amounts, our friends who sponsored the helmets and locks and footwear and to all who offered good wishes for the project, help with logistics, or just help spreading the word. That incredible, indescribable "moment of happy" will stay with us forever.
I shot a ton of stills and video and we'll be posting plenty of images soon. We're also planning a follow-up trip in the summer. Terry and Mr. Pole are working to start a bike repair shop on-site and several of the kids have already begun their bike repair apprenticeships, which could lead to careers and a revenue stream for the orphanage.
But practical applications aside, the happiness of the children was the most beautiful gift of all.
Indeed, let us never forget the importance of joy.