By Som Rasavanh
It brings a smile to my face when my Facebook memories pop up in December, reminding me of the pictures we posted when we were in Cambodia for Christmas in 2016. The scent of tropical flowers, hibiscus, and plumeria lingers in my memories. I love seeing the photos of our two girls, Victoria and Sarah, playing with the baby chicks that Ly and Sarin Mak, directors of LifeSong Learning Center (LLC), raised.
Another favorite is of the girls with the LLC youth with a caption that reads, “Clearly Sarah is the favorite here!” Although the trip was five years ago, it doesn’t seem that much time has passed. Perhaps it is still fresh in my mind and in my heart because every year when my husband and I talk about international travel again, specifically to Southeast Asia, we are determined that Cambodia LifeSong Learning Center will be one of our frequent stops.
To give a little background, my husband, Boun, was one of the seven men from LifeSong Church of the Open Bible in Des Moines, Iowa, that participated in a short-term mission trip to Cambodia in the fall of 2007. The men visited a few landmarks, walked through the villages, and prayed for the locals. They used some of the money raised by our church to build a playground for one of the schools. I cannot remember all the details, but it was after that trip that the vision for LLC began.
I remember wondering how our little church could raise enough money to start a school. Looking back, I see how little my faith was. Today LLC is another affirmation of how big our God is. As Jesus said in Mark 10:27 (NIV), “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
Ly and Sarin used to attend LifeSong Church with us. They are like a brother and sister to my family. My husband and I refer to them as such; our kids call them aunt and uncle. When the Maks moved to Cambodia to oversee the building of the new school, it was always the plan that we would see it in person.
The 2016 reunion with Ly and Sarin was as wonderful as I had expected it would be. The icing on the cake was that both our girls were able to join us. We had specifically traveled during their winter break so they could come along. Our eldest, Victoria, was a senior at Iowa State University in Ames at the time and our youngest, Sarah, a sophomore in high school.
The night we arrived in Phnom Penh we ate dinner at 1:00 a.m. local time, which is a slightly late lunch for Iowa people! Before we left for the trip, Sarin had asked my husband what he would like to eat while in Cambodia. He obliged her and named a few tropical fruits that he couldn’t wait to eat. “Ask and you shall receive” (Matthew 7:7)! Sarin had her tropical fruits lined up. We tasted every one of them at about 2 a.m. that very first night!
We arrived in Cambodia only a few days before Christmas, prepared to get down to work doing whatever Ly and Sarin had in store for us to do to prepare for the Christmas day event. To our surprise, they had planned a few days’ fun trip to Siem Riep, about a six-hour drive from Phnom Penh, for eating, shopping, and sightseeing. Nothing perks up girls like shopping! But we were so grateful to be able to spend this time together with the Maks to catch up before heading to LLC.
I would have expected the Maks to be a little stressed out from planning the Christmas day event or to be frantically texting and calling people to coordinate the final details, but I sensed none of that. They were calm and present, one of many reasons I admire them so much. They are so grounded in their faith. They trust that God is in control.
Waking up on Christmas morning to the beautiful sights and sounds of more than 800 children moving around the Center, I felt like a kid discovering piles of presents under the tree on Christmas morning, only better. The LLC Christmas day event was everything that I had imagined it would be and so much more.
The night before, Christmas Eve, several volunteers had stayed up past midnight finishing up decorations and food and gift preparation. Ly and Sarin could not have slept more than a couple hours that night if they slept at all.
We were surprised to learn that children in the village apparently are early risers. They started arriving at the center at 6 a.m.! Thankfully, the Maks are experts by now. They have lined up trained youth leaders and a dozen friends from the city to volunteer each year. Their crew handled a crowd of 1,000 people with ease, an amazing sight to watch. The stage was decorated with fresh orchids and Christmas decorations. The children enjoyed typical Christmas programs, music, songs, and dances, and a short skit of Mary and baby Jesus at the stable.
When it was time to pass out the gift packages, Ly and Sarin made sure no child was left behind. A package containing a new school uniform, school supplies, and a lunch bag prepared with love was given to each one. The lunch bags contained a sandwich, dessert, and a water bottle. At first I was surprised that the kids didn’t immediately dive into their lunch bags to devour their treats, but then I learned that most of them wanted to take their bags home to share with their families!
Boun, Victoria, Sarah, and I were given plenty of opportunities to help hand out the gift packages and lunch bags and to pose for pictures. It was such a heart-filled and blessed day for everyone, filled with happy faces and joyful sounds! My heart was so full, my spirit lifted. I was so thankful my husband and I were able to take part in the event, and most important, to have our girls be part of this unique endeavor.
The trip was a humbling experience for both our girls. It helped them understand the joy of giving and serving in any capacity and showed them they could bring so much joy to others. Afterward, Sarah joined the worship team at LifeSong Church and began helping with Sunday School when her schedule allows.
She shared her experience as follows:
At the time, I had just turned 16. I was young and didn’t have much interest in God; perhaps I was even skeptical of Him. I was aware that our church had these programs going on [in Cambodia] and that we continued to donate towards this cause, but that’s kind of where my contribution ended.When we went, I was able to witness the church’s, really God’s, work right in front of my own eyes. I think after spending so much time with the other kids and watching the preparations happen, I was able to better understand how God works in each and every individual. What these children lacked in resources was instead filled with God’s love and strength. I could see it myself. We in America think that these villagers have so little, that they are so poor, but they themselves don’t see it that way. To them, what God has given them is enough, and they are so grateful for it. It definitely changed how I appreciated the little joys in life and now recognize that they were given to me by God.
Victoria became a volunteer light/sound engineer for the church she attends in Minnesota. I can see both girls going on other short-term missions trips in the future.
Although Ly and Sarin didn’t outwardly display signs of stress, it is clear that so much work and so much love goes into their yearly Christmas programs. It takes a village, literally, to cook 1,000 meals, package 1,000 gifts, and coordinate an entire program.
I know Ly and Sarin have said this before, but it really could not have succeeded without much prayer, financial, and physical support from God’s army all over the world. I’ve taken part in fundraisers here in the States for this annual Christmas event in Cambodia since the inception of this ministry, and every year the number of children in attendance has grown.
At first our target was to raise ten dollars per child to cover the cost of a school uniform, school supplies, and a small lunch for each of the children. I believe it was the second year that the number of kids who participated grew to 300, and then we pretty much lost count after that. In 2016, the year we participated, Ly and Sarin reported around 900 participants.
As I’m writing this article, LifeSong Church is gearing up for a fundraiser for Christmas Cambodia 2021. With the COVID situation, the Christmas program plan for this year is still somewhat unclear, but the Maks and their ministry team always find creative ways to reach the children and their families in the villages. Ten dollars (equating to two Starbucks coffees) could help pay for a child’s school uniform, enough school supplies for a whole year, and a nice meal the students can share with their families. For many of them, this is their first encounter when they have knowingly experienced God’s love.
God is doing amazing work in Cambodia. I feel blessed beyond words to have seen this ministry in motion. If you ever want to participate through prayer or financial support or if God is calling you to be on the front line, I’m sure Ly and Sarin would welcome you with open hearts.
To learn more about the Maks’ ministry or to donate, go to: www.openbible.org/mission/global-outreach/missionaries
If you wish to give to help the Christmas outreach of Lifesong Learning Center, please send your check written out to Open Bible Churches and write in the memo, “Christmas Lifesong.”
About the Author
Som Rasavanh lives in Ankeny, Iowa, and works as an IT Application Development Manager for ITS Inc. (SHAZAM). She and her family are longtime members of LifeSong Church of the Open Bible in Des Moines, Iowa, where Som is currently serving as a board member. Som and her husband, Boun, have two daughters, Victoria and Sarah. Victoria has since moved out of the state for work, but you’ll find that Boun and Sarah are often part of the worship team on Sundays.