Monkeys and Tigers and Otters…Oh My

When we visited the Wild Life Sanctuary, we were literally walking through the forest with wild animals. According to Trip Advisor, there are over 1,200 animals. Some animals were caged but others were loose such as the deer and monkeys. We saw many different animals, from monkeys, to bears, to lions, to tigers, to deer, to water buffalo.

However, what grabbed our attention the most was the people. They were carrying fruit and sugar cane to sell to us so we can feed the animals. They were strongly pushing for us to buy their products so they can support their families. This was a fundraising tour and 100% of profits went directly to the rescue, rehabilitation, care and release of wildlife. It also helped the workers who are living in poverty. They even had small children and a baby there that had no diaper on. We noticed there were many children, then learned this was a strategy used to influence tourist to give into buying their merchandise. This opened our eyes to see how poor and desperate they were to make an income. We learned that many children live so deep in poverty that their parents can’t afford to put them in school, so they end up in places like this animal sanctuary, working. I (Aiyanna) was able to talk to a ten year old girl that was following us as we traveled through the wilderness of this sanctuary. The little girl ended up there because her parents were divorced. She had other siblings but happened to be the youngest, and she also mentioned how her father was very ill and unable to get out of bed. This little girl at the age of ten was working in this sanctuary, and that has to be one thing that struck my attention the most.

By our conversation I could tell that she was very selfless, as she talked about how she was saving up money in hopes to help her father get proper medical attention. This visit to the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Sanctuary definitely made a lifetime impression for the both of us.

With love from Cambodia,

Aiyanna and Alexis


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Blessings and Cockroaches

We’ve been super busy and the wifi has been a bit spotty, but here are a couple of our favorite moments in the last day and a half.  Hopping on a plane to Siem Riep this afternoon!  xoxo

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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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