Day 1

We started our day by writing a letter to ourselves and sealing it in an envelope; in the note, we thought about what makes us excited and nervous about the days to come.  Inspired by one of our mentors, Juan-Carlos, we all took a few cleansing breaths, and then thought about WHY we are here. We used those thoughts to close our letters. It will be interesting to revisit these letters towards the end of the trip, and talk about the ways in which this journey surprised us or confirmed our expectations.   

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After writing into the morning, we piled onto the bus for the short ride out to the Choeng Ek, the memorial commemorating one of Cambodia’s hundreds of “killing fields.”  These mass graves were spread throughout the country, but this one closest to Phnom Penh is where the victims of Tuol Sleng were transported when death became imminent. As we walked around the the central Stupa, there was quiet music playing to remind guests of the solemnity of the place.  The soft echoing music was in stark contrast to the graphic descriptions of how men, women and children were slain. According to the signage, the Khmer strictly adhered to the slogan that to “clear the grasses…[one must] dig its entire root off,” leading to the arrest and murder of entire families in order to avoid revenge later in life.  We were reminded of a line in the book we are reading, Never Fall Down, in which Arn Chorn Pond recounts having to bend like “grass” in the wind and do what is necessary to survive under the Khmer Rouge regime; it is powerful to think about these contradictory images of grass and everything that we learned today.

Back in Phnom Penh, we visited another notorious monument to Cambodia’s recent past. At Tuol Sleng, which was once a high school until it became known as Prison S-21, we toured the areas where prisoners were accused of working for the CIA and the KGB; victims would be tortured if they said no, or killed if they confessed.


Only seven individuals survived their time there, and we were able to meet the two who are still alive: Chum Mey and Buo Meng. Mey was spared because of his skills as a machinist, while Meng worked as an artist for the regime. Both men have co-authored books about their experiences, and we were able to pick up signed copies of their memoirs.  Although Meng was left deaf and unable to speak by the torture he endured, Mey spoke for a few minutes and our guide, Chanath, translated for us. He thanked us for traveling to his country, and shared his hopes that we would return home and teach our families about the Khmer Rouge genocide. No one spoke as we gathered around him for a picture, and Chanath reminded us not to smile as we usually would when being photographed.

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We ended our day by seeing a performance from a group of artists who have been trained by Cambodian Living Arts, a non-profit organization started by Khmer Rouge survivor Arn Chorn Pond.  Through this program, Cambodian youth are able to learn and preserve traditional Khmer art forms, which were in danger of dying out after the genocide.  Our first day in Phnom Penh left us with a much richer understanding of what happened here during the 20th century, and a growing sense of gratitude for our shared experience of traveling together.

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Buses and Airports and Chicken Feet…Oh My!


After an emotional departure from Newburgh, we started our long journey to Cambodia, which is the fruition of ten months of hard work, fundraising, networking, and researching by our students.

It is hard not to be bursting with gratitude thinking back on every leg of our long journey from New York.  It was an adventure: 6 takeoffs, 6 landings, 1 lost and re-found passport, 11 hours waiting in airports, and 19.5 hours at 15,000 feet.  

To some people, taking twelve students on such a long haul may sound crazy, but we were continually impressed by how our students took advantage of every opportunity to support one another and try new things (or old things, like the chicken feet some also ate in Ecuador).  Who knew airports were so much fun?


Our partner, Kim, has been an amazing resource as we planned over Skype and email, and seeing his smiling face in person was a comfort as we stepped of the Phnom Penh airport.

As we drove through the streets of the city on the way to our hotel, motorbikes dodged out of the way of our bus and shops illuminated the sidewalks, while our Khmer guide, Chanath, warmly welcomed the students and quickly got them all laughing and relaxed after the long trip.  He then shared a little bit about his life and the current socio-economic and political state of Cambodia. His willingness to share his story about having lost his father at the age of six immediately personalized the Khmer Rouge genocide for our students; we were grateful for his candid storytelling, as we hope it helped prepare them at least a little for what they will experience here.  Afterwards, Tamara and Elise both commented on how moved they were by both his openness and his experiences. Chanath also spoke about the extremes that exist in his country, where the majority of people live on less than $150 a month, creating a stark contrast between what we were seeing on the streets of the capital city and the life of Cambodian rural farmers.

After a good night’s sleep and a delicious breakfast, we are starting our day today with a quick writing session and then heading off to visit Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields.

More to come soon.


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Newburgh Youth Leadership Summit and Enlightenment Expo

Remember those fifteen students who traveled to Quito, Ecuador, last year?  On May 19, they hosted the Newburgh Youth Leadership Summit and Enlightenment Expo, and it was amazing to see all of their efforts and planning pay off!  Who know what’s next for these young change-makers?

A special thank you to Juan-Carlos Piñeiro, whose undying dedication led him to our school every Tuesday morning at an inhuman hour, where he helped our kids prepare for being on stage.  He even emceed the event with Jason and Naisha, and we couldn’t have done this without him.

Huge gratitude to Shawn at Phan Media!  We love connecting with local talent:)

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Eight Days and Counting!

IMG_1718 3We had our final meeting yesterday to prepare for departure, and we are beyond excited!  Our final itinerary, courtesy of Kim White and Into the Wild, includes exploring Angkor Wat and the historic sites of Phnom Penh, three days of service at Little Angels in Siem Riep, and visiting the Apopo Hero Rats and Cambodian Living Arts!

This would not be possible without the support of our sponsors.  We have received donations from so many organizations and individuals, and although some are camera-shy, here is a partial list:

Thank you, everyone!  We will carry your generosity and kindness with us to Cambodia.

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Researching Grassroots work in Cambodia

As we began doing our research into grassroots organizations in Cambodia working to make positive social change, we came across two which we thought were important to share.  We are so excited for this trip and can’t wait to see some of these places first hand.

-Eliana and Juan

The Spitler School Foundation:

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In 2005, a man and woman by the name of Danny and Pam Spitler were just a couple of tourists. Sarin, their tour guide, showed them his home village, Ang Chagn Chass (a small village in Siem Reap). Danny and Pam noticed the lack of water and poor schooling these children were getting and decided to donate $400 to build a fresh water well. From that moment a partnership between Danny, Pam, and Sarin was formed. One well grew into two, and soon after was a rebuilding of the broken down school in the village. Five full years later, they founded and were the head of Spitler School Foundation and were responsible for “responsible for two full educational compounds in that village that provide daily learning, English lessons, computer training, and annual medical services to over 1,000 children every year.” Today the organization has a complete staff of locally trained teachers, and over 650 students from kindergarten through 6th grade. A source of pride for the whole community, it has given the students and their families hope for a bright future.
Cambodia’s Children Fund:

In 2003, Hollywood’s very own Scott Neeson traveled to Cambodia and noticed that thereScreen Shot 2018-03-03 at 9.05.22 AM.png were homeless children living in the “dumps” of Stung Meanchey. The only reason these kids were surviving was because they were picking out of the trash for scraps to eat. After returning home, Neeson couldn’t get the image of those kids out of his mind, so he sold his mansion, his yacht, and left the movie business all behind him. His life was now dedicated to the children he so desperately wanted to help.  Scott Neeson became Executive Director of the Cambodia Children’s Fund. He oversees about 1,800 students and 10,000 people every year. Because of him, he helped whole communities like Steung Meanchey by focusing on education, health care, nutrition and safe shelter.


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Best of the Hudson Valley Gift Basket Raffles

If you are looking for a way to support Newburgh Youth and you LOVE dining, shopping, sightseeing and meandering around either Newburgh or Beacon, we have an amazing opportunity for you to do both!  Our Best of Newburgh and Best of Beacon raffle baskets each have over $300 worth of local gift certificates to ensure that you can have weeks of fun while you try out new places and revisit your favorites.  Tickets are $10 each and 3 for $25.   Students will be selling the tickets at the Beacon Farmer’s Market or you can donate online here and put in the comment which of the two baskets you would like to be entered to win and we will email you to get an address to mail your tickets!  Thanks for your support!

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a short documentary about our time in Ecuador

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A Different Way of Being: Our Visit to Indigenous Village 235

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School Home and Abroad

by Cindy Vaquero and Kevin Rothman

One of the highlights so far has been our work with the children in the after school program at Casa Victoria. On the first day, we were excited and nervous for the local children to arrive. Although we talked amongst ourselves for months and heard from Mamalicia what the typical schedule is for the program, we still did not know exactly what to expect. How many kids would come? How old were they going to be? What do they like to do? These were all questions that lingered for us.

When the students first arrive to Casa Victoria, they have an hour of free time. While IMG_6937many of them choose to play, others use the time to take care of their homework so they can participate in the planned activities for the second and third hour at Casa Victoria. We noticed a few young ladies that came inside and sat at a table in a quiet corner and took out their school work. We overheard them talking about how they did on their reading test and what they had for home work. Hearing this sparked our interest so we decided to join them at the table. When Cindy asked about their test, the girls all wanted to tell her their grades. This helped break the ice and opened the door for us to see more of their school work.

The first thing we noticed was that their home work involved copying worksheets and textbook pages exactly into their notebook – including pictures! img_2423-2.jpg When Cindy asked if this is a typical assignment, they all said that this is the normal routine for their learning. We were shocked to hear this. As a student, this has not been the learning experience for Cindy.  Although there are times when she is asked to answer questions from textbooks and on worksheets as well as copy definitions of words, she has never been asked to copy these items exactly.   Mr. Rothman could only think about how he, as an administrator, works very hard with teachers to move away from rote learning experiences in an effort to involve students in more authentic learning experiences. Both of us wondered what value the teachers of these young ladies thought there was in having them copy things directly into their notebook. We also thought about how students in the United States would react if asked to do this every day. Not very well, we thought.

On the second day, we again decided to help students with their school work during their free time. Cindy helped one of the young ladies, Johanna, study for a science test on circuits. Johanna was trying to read over her notes – keep in mind this is an exact replica


of the textbook. Cindy noticed that she was struggling to memorize the definitions for the test. This was an opportunity for Cindy to introduce flash cards, a tool she often uses to study to help her memorize definitions. Because this was totally new to Johanna, Cindyhad to show her step by step how to make the flashcards (cut from paper) and how to use them as a tool for studying. Johanna really appreciated the help and it really seemed to help her remember the information. The other exciting aspect was the fact that she was learning about circuits. We happened to bring with us, as part of our donation to Casa Victoria, Snap Circuits, which is a hands on way to learn about the same content that was going to be on her test.


We are happy that we were able to see a bit into the school life of the children here in IMG_7021Ecuador. We are also glad that Cindy was able to introduce a new tool for studying and that our donated items will provide authentic learning opportunities for the children at Casa Victoria. It helped us appreciate the school system we have in the United States and especially the learning opportunities at Excelsior Academy. This experience has also left us with a few lingering questions: What does a typical school day look like? Are the teachers strict? What resources are available for learning in school? Is there high school and how is it different from our school? 


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Exploring Quito


JAYSWAN: “Elise was so excited that it was her birthday!!!! To start off the day, all of us gathered in the dining room to surprise her with flowers and a song.”


The ten minute ride up the Teleferico not only offers a beautiful view of Quito, but also gives passengers time to reflect on their experiences as travelers.


Maribel: “After the ride up the Teleferico, we were able to get at least one picture that everyone is in to capture this happy moment.”


Cindy:  “It was a long way to go for us to go up Pinchacha, but some of us decided to go on a horseback ride even though we were exhausted.”

Aidan: “Running up a steep hill at 13,000 feet with friends was hard at first, but got easier as we adjusted to the altitude.”

Aboya: “The sweet taste of victory when we reached our goal of making farther up the mountain than anyone else in our group.”


Colton:  “All my years of hiking, and yet this is the most beautiful view I have ever seen.”


Taina: “Looking out into the city and seeing the beautiful things we were surrounded by made the hike all worth it. Sharing this view with some of my best friends was and will be an unforgettable moment.”


Iggy and Nestor taking horses for a ride at 12,000 feet!

Iggy:  “Even with how insignificant we seem when we are looking down at the city, we still plan to make an impact by sharing individual expertise with each other and the kids at Casa Victoria.  I was thinking about this as we all wrote on top of the mountain.”


Alejandro: “Inka burger reminded me of home and was delicious. The food truck court had all of the choices anyone could want.  There was one truck that had a signature dish from every latin American country.”


Lili: “Four meats in one burger! I’m surprised Colton finished it… and then went back for more wings.”


Elise:  “Here we are looking down admiring Guayasamin’s artwork from above in the Chapel of Man.  We could see a huge circle of red, which represents the suffering of man, specifically the Latin American people.”


Nestor: “Outside of the Guayasamin art museum by the pool, we  sent our love to our friends back home who couldn’t be in Ecuador with us.”


Addison:  “The Virgin of Quito is a landmark that lets people know which direction they are facing wherever they are in the city.”


Gabby: “The beautiful view of Quito from the restaurant that we visited, Pim’s, reminded me of the stars at night.”


Brendin:  “We finally got to see the Virgin of Quito up close, after seeing it in the distance from Casa Victoria, and everywhere else we visited in the city.”


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