Nokor Tep Women’s Hospital Cambodia

February 2011

Dear friends and partners,

I want to share with you the beginning of our latest outreach. It’s Nokor Tep Women’s Hospital. I know there are many of you who ask, “Now where did this come from?”  I would love to say simply from my own journey with breast cancer but that’s not true – the breast cancer is the catalyst of a turning point of the journey – not the beginning.

Over the years of Tabitha a number of people have approached me about preventive health care. I have a problem with prevention because it often teaches people about their problems but in our work, there is often no cure. When the AIDS epidemic took hold in Cambodia back in 1997, those of us working in the field were told to educate people. But education is not enough – at that time – there was no treatment available – and people discovering that they were in the process of dying, really hurt.

I am happy about teaching the simpler ones like clean water, good nutrition, etc but anything more in-depth has always brought me a shudder for there is really no where to send folks who are suffering. It haunts me.

This past year a number of women have died in our program – women who could have been saved or at least comforted in their own life’s journey.  Sowanta is a woman who lived in Savy Rieng province. She developed breast cancer – by the time the breast was engorged with disease, it was almost too late. Her and her husband sold their land – the land that fed their seven children. She went to Vietnam and had a mastectomy – her lymph nodes were removed and she returned home. As a woman she was expected to carry out her daily tasks – they lived in a thatched hut – they had a few farm animals and within a few weeks, her surgical sites were infected. She had no money to return to Vietnam – she had borrowed and received help from all those she knew – but there was no more. It took her 2 months to die – 2 months of indescribable pain – 2 months to say good-bye.

Every time I go on a site visit, I am confronted with women who are in pain. Last week, I met Sina – a young mother with four children. She had asked me for help a few months ago and I had told her to go to a hospital for the poor in Phnom Penh. She came and waited for three days – that’s all the money she had. Her number never came up. She went to a local doctor – he said she had a severe vaginal and uterine infection – her womb and her uterine track are full of cysts – he removed three of them – told her not to worry – but the oozing is still there and the number of cysts keep growing. Her younger sister works for us at Tabitha – she too, has an infection and cysts – their mother died a few years ago from this same ailment – they look to me for help but there is little I can do – they are so afraid that they too will die – they are too young – only in their 20’s.

Then, I find a breast lump and with hours everything is prepared for my care. People are distraught – why you? My response, why not me – I, too, am just a person. But my question to myself is different, why do I get all the care that I need? Why am I so special? I am no different – different circumstances, yes, but the same as all the women that I meet. The same desires, hopes and fears. I too, want to live.

In my personal faith, my God says “Love your neighbor as yourself.” To do so means that I either love myself less and take no medical care or I love myself the same and provide medical care for the women that I live amongst – for they are my neighbors!

So I dreamed a dream –I want to have a hospital for my neighbors. I shared my vision with Dr. Ing Kantha Phavi – an extra ordinary woman who happens to be the Minister of Women’s Affairs. Her response was immediate and simple. I have always wanted to do this – this is my dream. Phavi’s life has been anything but easy – like so many here she suffered under the Khmer Rouge, became a refugee, ended up in France where she finished her education, became a medical doctor, and practiced for ten years . In the early 90’s she returned to Cambodia, lived in the forest for 4 years fighting her battles for freedom. She became a staff of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and ten years ago became the Minister. She is a woman of extra ordinary integrity and courage – highly respected by all who know her. Phavi has a daughter, Mony who contracted thyroid cancer a few years back – she was treated and Mony is a survivor. Both of us treated by the best in Singapore. Phavi’s husband, Trac Thai Sieng is an extra ordinary man. He loves his wife, his country, the dream – he stands with us as we move forward to accomplish our dream.

 

We have 2 hectares of land in the midst of women who work in factories – women from all over the country – who live meanly – 12 to a small room, work 12 hour days – 6 days a week – women who send what they earn, home to their families. They are so young – their youth is eaten away with the burdens they bear – they are our neighbors. Their mums and sisters live poorly – perhaps we can bring some comfort, some meaning to their lives when they are tired and ill.

Our hospital is called Nokor Tep Women’s Hospital. It is a vision, a dream that includes prevention and education, that includes research into the most common of women’s illnesses here. Our vision is not cheap – it will cost 5.5 million to build and another 5.5 million to outfit because women’s cancer is part of this dream – and the machines required are expensive. It sounds impossible but not if the burden is shared by many. To build we only need 120 people to donate $50,000 each or 240 people to donate $25,000.00. each. To outfit we need to do the same.

For our poorest neighbors – treatment will cost very little – perhaps a dollar – for our neighbors who can afford more – we will charge more. For all women, we will have an open door.

I have shared this vision with a few of you. Your response has helped us to clarify our vision – to dream big dreams – to make sure we do it right. To share my personal journey as we do this process – I have created a blog that contains some of my reflections – it’s jannenokortep.blogspot.com.  A friend is working on a formal web page – I am limited in IT skills.

I thank my God for the privilege of dreaming dreams – of showing me the way forward – I thank my God for each of you who share this journey with us. It is so very good.

 Janne

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January 2011 Update

January 14, 2011

Dear friends and partners,

Happy New Year’s everyone.  May 2011 be filled with the blessings that you have brought to so very many.  For myself, the new years has started well.  I am back at work with very little restrictions, doing what I am meant to do.  That is so very good.

This week I went on two project visits, something I was unable to do the past six months.  I thought I would share with you what these visits tend to be like.  Usually we leave, the community development driver, Da and the community development supervisor, Srie, at six in the morning.  It means the sun is not quite up and city traffic is just beginning.  As we drive to the projects, the sun comes up and infuses the countryside with a glow – very beautiful.  As the day’s heat takes over, the glow disappears into a hot haze and the harsh reality of life takes over.

This week’s visits were very typical – we looked at finished schools, approved new ones to be built and talked with students and teachers about the marvels of education.  One young lady of 6 attached herself to my shirt and hung on no matter what.  Her mum had died last month and I seemed to be a good replacement.  I felt for the little one.

  

Then we visited families who had received houses from our volunteer house builders.  It’s so good to see the improvements being made by each family.  We met a family that had put bricks on the bottom and were slowly replacing the tin with wood.  They had taken off the Tabitha sign and were protecting it.  They will have a ceremony when the house is rebuilt and then proudly hang the sign on the wall.

Others have bought new stairs, others have extended their homes and many have built or are in process of building a latrine to go with the house.  Some plant flowers around the borders of the house, others put up curtains – all reflect the pride and joy they have in their new homes. For you house builders that come and build, the starter home you built, is the start of new hopes and dreams.

We visit the many families who have received wells and who are earning incomes.  We talked with Hout and his wife – they have eight children- they are middle aged – their faces worn with the cares of life – they are proud and smiling – all eight children are in school – all the time – they are earning enough not to keep their children at school.  It is so very good.

   

We visit vegetable fields – corn that is taller than I, spring onions that I can’t have because they only chop of the green parts for selling – bak choy and cabbages, pumpkins and aubergines, chillie peppers – we look at pigs and see fish – and it’s all so good.

The last item on all site visits is to see the new areas.  I sigh – how can people live so meanly?  Houses are so small and so inadequate – there is no water, there is so little food, and almost no clothes.  We see a number of men drinking under a tree – Srie and Da are disgusted – I say, if I lived like this – I too, would drink.  Life can be so sad.

   

Then we travel home – tired and dusty – but the sun is setting – and the country takes on a warm glow.  It is once again stunningly beautiful.  I am very tired but I am also at peace.  We have done much and there is so much more to do. I thank you for standing with us – I thank my God for the privilege of living this life.  Happy New Years everyone.

Janne

October Update from Tabitha Cambodia

Dear friends and partners,

This week is Pchum Ban Festival in Cambodia. Pchum Ban is equivalent to the Christian holiday of Christmas in significance for the people here. It is the time that Cambodians have to honor and remember their parents and grandparents who have passed away. There are very specific ceremonies that need to be completed in the 15 days prior to the actual Pchum Ban day itself.

The belief is that people must honor their parents/grandparents by going to seven different pagodas and bringing gifts of food to the monks. On Pchum Ban day itself, everyone must bring a variety of cooked foods plus a variety of dry foods to the pagoda before 11 o’clock in the morning. At that time, all offerings must be completed and the monks sit down to eat. The belief is that deceased parents sit down with the monks and eat the food as well. Why seven pagodas – basically, the parents are wandering souls and are looking to see if there children are honoring them – if they cannot find the offerings of their children, the souls of the parents become angry – and the children will suffer from nightmares and problems at home. A secondary problem is of course, the amount and variety of food a person brings. A small offering of just rice would not satisfy the hunger of the parents nor sustain them through out the year so pressure on families is immense.

For families in Tabitha programs, Pchum Ban becomes progressively easier as their incomes increase. When SokLee joined Tabitha 4 years ago, she lived in a small thatched home with her husband and seven children. During those years, we often talked with this family about getting a field well and using their land to better use. SokLee had lost all her family during the Khmer Rouge years – she met her husband who was also considered an orphan, the sole surviving member of his family. Over the 18 years of their marriage, bearing children was one of the few things they did well, sadly several of their babies died before they were a year old. When I would ask them, why they didn’t dare change their lives, SokLee would talk of being bad – she would re-iterate again and again, we are suffering because we are bad – I lost my family, my parents, my land, my right to go to school, my right to earn a living, my right to be a Buddhist because of the Khmer Rouge. My children die or are always sick. I have bad dreams – my parents come to me and ask me why I am so bad. I cannot think anymore. I cannot do anymore.

Their home was small and decrepit – her husband was often away trying to earn money from jobs on the border – their children would go to bed hungry. Malnutrition is a disease that weakens the body and tires the soul. Encouraging this family, like so many others takes hours of talking. Peuw, who is our project manager got increasingly frustrated with this family so last Pchum Ban, he took SokLee and her husband and 9 other family heads on a day trip to Tanong, – he did it by force – threatening dismissal from our programs unless they came and saw. In Tanong we have several hundred hectors of land under continuous use with vegetables and rice. Both groups met and talked and talked some more. They talked about being bad; they talked about being of no worth, of not being able to think anymore. They talked of the nightmares. Then our Tanong families talked about changes – about dreaming and thinking again – about working their land – about working together to make sure everyone did well. They talked about learning the markets and growing off season vegetables which results in more money for their crops. They talked about growing rice three times a year and never going hungry. The men talked of no longer needing to leave home to earn money for their families; they talked about the health of their children and the schools they are attending. They talked of the homes they have rebuilt and how good it all is. Then they talked about Pchum Ban, how the nightmares had gone and how their parents were at peace.

SokLee and her husband listened – and he did the unthinkable – he wanted a field well. It’s been 10 months since that field well was installed. The change is remarkable – this family grows mushrooms, and cucumbers’ and they make rice wine – their income has increased to $20 per day – each day. Unbelievable! But the biggest change is in them – SokLee and her husband laugh a lot – they are eager to have me come – they are eager to feed me good food, to show off their achievements, to brag about their children. They are eager to show me their neighbors and all that is going so well.

    

For so many of our families, Pchum Ban is no longer the feared holiday of the year. The nightmares are leaving, their parents are at peace. How good that is.

I thank my God, that I am so blessed and unafraid of life – I thank my God that all of you are a part of the healing of so many. May all our Pchum Bans be seasons of joy and thankfulness because of the peace we bring to others.

Janne

August Update from Tabitha Cambodia

Dear friends and partners,

This month marks the end of another program year. It’s been a phenomenal year thanks to each of you.  This year we were privileged to be able to work with 33,466 families with 267,728 dependents in community development as well as 641 families with 5,128 dependents in cottage industry.  Let me share just a few highlights if I may.

This year you helped 28,754 families achieve food security of which, 19,153 families are now able to eat three meals a day.

 

You enabled another 9,387 families to be able purchase basic household goods such as pots and pans, dishes, drinking glasses, tables and chairs.  Another 11,380 families were able to purchase beds, blankets, clothing and mosquito nets.

  

 1,561 wells/ponds/reservoirs were installed which enabled another 3,610 families to have clean potable water and to earn incomes on average of $2000.00 per year – up from $300.00 per year.

  

2,224 families were able to buy bicycles this year, 5 schools were built and the savings program enabled 189,333 of our children to attend school.

  

4,621 families were able to raise pigs, 4049 families were able to raise chickens, 3,533 families raised ducks and fish.

  

1,486 families were able to raise rice year round; another 6,113 families were able to raise vegetables while another 6,676 families were able to buy farm tools and implements such as fertilizers.

We had 2,280 volunteers come from all over the world to build 1,053 houses in all project areas. Phenomenal!

These are just a few of the highlights this program year – so much more happened.

As Tabitha staff, all of us are so very thankful for the privilege of serving so many. I thank my God for each of the staff, for each of you – it is very humbling to be a part of all of this. 

Thank you,

 Janne

July Update from Tabitha Cambodia

Dear friends and partners,

It’s been a remarkable week.  Every so often I get to see the fruit of what I have done. Back in 1995, I and June Cunningham took over Cambodia House, an orphanage that had been abandoned by the person who established it. We had 32 children from under 1 to six years of age. As Tabitha was just beginning and Cambodia was still very unstable, we decided that running an orphanage was not what was best for the children and so we started a process of adoption. Over the next two years we placed all the children in adoptive families around the world.

In the ensuing years, many of the children and their families have returned to Cambodia for reunions and house building. It was good to watch these young people grow and mature. This summer marked another passage for these young people – they are either finishing high school or their first year at university. They came for a reunion – they came to house build. 

In the past, a number of these young people would talk about their desire to return to their birth country and work with the people here. They knew firsthand about the poverty and the suffering of so many. As they would say to us as parents, this could have been us. This summer was no different except that they are now young adults with a vision in mind. Several are training to be teachers, architects, contractors, etc.  Their adoptive siblings are also young adults who have caught the vision. What was clear was that house building was no longer enough. They wanted to continue impacting their birth country even while they were studying and developing skills. Over the past 6 months, these young people had done fund raising themselves and they had raised enough money for twenty houses. For them and their families it was fun and it was concrete. We talked about what they could do.

We talked about Theoun, one of our children, who had died in a tragic fire a year ago. We talked of his legacy, a school for impoverished children in Kompong Thom – a school that will be finished in August. They talked of their desire to also build a school. And so that is what they will do.

Theoun's School

My daughter Miriam is part of this process. She came home so very emotional about the impact of this past week. Mum, these are my brothers and sisters, she said. That’s what we call each other – we are all Cambodian, we are all adopted. We all want to help our fellow Cambodians. And their families mum, these are also my family. We know each other, we understand each other, and we take care of each other.  I wondered at her maturity. I want to be a doctor mum, or at least a nurse – then I too can come back and help.

Some of the 450 Students

As a parent, I often wonder if I am doing the right thing. As Cambodia House Chair I often wonder if I did the right thing. As founder and director of Tabitha I often wonder if we keep doing the right things– this week, I know it is right. 

I thank my God for the privileged life He has granted to me. I thank Him for these young people and their families for being a part of their lives. I thank my God for Miriam and her life. I thank my God for each of you – for being a part of all of this – for these young people and their families are also yours. We are doing the right thing. How good that is!

Janne

Follow Janne’s Journey with Breast Cancer

At the end of May, Janne Ritskes updated the Tabitha Singapore website with news of her early-stage breast cancer diagnosis. Please read a further message below from Janne for access to her personal blog. 

I am taken aback by the phenomenal support and response I have gotten from so many of you.  I am also a bit overwhelmed with your responses.  So many of you would like to know how it is all going, so with An Lee’s help – I have started a blog and you can keep up with the progress.

 The blog spot is: http://janneritskes.blogspot.com/

 Thanks

 Janne

Letter from Janne Ritskes – May 2010

Janne Ritskes

An important update from Tabitha founder, Janne Ritskes

Dear friends and partners,

It’s a bit of a hard newsletter this morning – I have been diagnosed with early stage breast cancer – prognosis is excellent – but the process is a bit daunting. Continue reading