Stories

The day in Laos I will never, ever forget

Tuesday 1 September is a day I will remember for the rest of my life. The journey to this day was a long one. It began in October 2013 when my sister-in-law Kathy got the ball rolling for us to start fundraising for ChildFund’s work in Laos in memory of Gavin, Lea, Jade and Manfred. At that stage I could never have dreamt it would come to this.

We chose to fundraise towards the construction of a new preschool because our little Jade and Manfred were of preschool age and they were so lucky in Australia to have the choice of many great schools. The total cost to construct the preschool was $81,000. Incredibly, thanks to the generous people who love and cared for Gavin, Lea, Jade and Manfred, we not only raised the amount, we actually surpassed it! It was these people who got us to Tuesday 1 September, the opening of the preschool in Pha-En village in rural northern Nonghet district.

It was with great anticipation we set off on that Tuesday morning for Pha-En village. We didn’t really know what to expect, but we knew it was going to be something special. Dad and I were accompanied by my husband’s uncle, four of our friends and Lea’s older brother, Seng, who lives in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. It was wonderful to have someone from Lea’s family with us.

The village is in the mountains near the Vietnam border, so it isn’t an easy trip to get there. It was a bumpy ride, to say the least! Being wet season, some parts of the road were a little worse for wear. I still don’t know how the drivers did not get bogged. The terrain was beautiful – so green. It was a mix of corn fields, rice paddies, valleys and beautiful jungle.

When we arrived at the village, we drove through a gate and into a large grassed area. It was here that I saw a sight I will never ever forget. The impact on me was huge. Even as I write this I get tears in my eyes just remembering the feeling.

The entire village was lined up creating a path to the steps of the preschool. First in line was the village chief, followed by the children, some of whom were dressed in their traditional clothing and holding flowers for us, then the men and women. They clapped in unison as we greeted and wandered through all of them. I think it would’ve been impossible for anyone to see this and not feel emotional. Certainly within our group, there wasn’t a dry eye amongst us.

Coming to the preschool, I felt so many emotions all at once. I felt so proud, so happy and so lucky, but still sad at the same time. Sad that even though this was all about my brother and his beautiful family, they would never get to experience this incredible greeting. I didn’t feel worthy of the welcome, if only we could’ve had all the people who made this happen along with us.

When we arrived at the steps of the preschool the first thing I noticed was the plaque on the wall with Gavin, Lea, Jade and Manfred’s name on it. I am so proud that this will always be here in their memory.

 

“Looking back on this day, the welcome is what I will always remember. I could never have anticipated anything like it.”

In the speeches that followed, it became clear just how grateful the community was for the preschool – the first of its kind in this village. They told us with their words, but they especially told us with their smiles, their hugs and the amazing welcome and wonderful day they put on for us. The message couldn’t have been clearer and we don’t even speak the same language!

After being blessed by the community’s spiritual leader, we spent the rest of the day getting to know the village and its people. We enjoyed a delicious meal prepared by some local families and were treated to traditional dance and music performances.

When it was time to go, we dragged out our goodbyes and thank you’s as much as we could before reluctantly getting back into the cars. I will always remember their smiling faces and I really hope I get to go back. I would love to take my kids there. I think they would have so much fun playing with the local children.

Driving back it all seemed a bit surreal. The preschool opening had come and gone. At first I felt like it was all over but I’ve realised it has only just begun. I am so so proud.

ChildFund Australia CEO, Nigel Spence says: “On behalf of ChildFund staff here and in Laos, I would like to thank the Rhodes family for their generosity and commitment to children in Nonghet. Without their support, children under five in this remote village would not have access to early childhood education, which we know is critical for their healthy development.”

The Rhodes family recently shared their story with ABC’s 7.30 program in a very moving report. Watch here.

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