Tour of duty to help kids in need

By on February 23, 2014
Australian volunteer Courtney Benvenuti with some Cambodian children.

COURTNEY Benvenuti, 23, was following the tug of duty when she left her cozy, safe north Brisbane home to volunteer with children in Cambodia.

“I had the most amazing upbringing, all the opportunities I could wish for and a loving supportive family,” the former Wavell State High and Aspley State student said.

“It would be easy, comfortable even, to stay in Brisbane inside my very own safe bubble, where I was exposed to very little.

“But that for me is being shallow minded, especially when I am so aware of how great my life is.

“I almost felt like it was my duty to volunteer with children who aren’t as fortunate as I have been,” she wrote from her basic housing at Chom Chao, right next to the busy Phnom Penh airport (“If I forget that fact for a moment the deafening noise of a plane flying directly over my guesthouse reminds me!”).

Yearning for the simple life

Ms Benvenuti arrived about five months ago in the Asian kingdom, which borders Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. “I wanted to escape the noise that is Western society; with all our self-preservation, self-improvement, owning more but having less.

“I wanted to live raw and simple.”

Courtney-Benvenuti-11To achieve that she’s been volunteering at the Sunflower Orphan Centre, while also teaching English to local kids, and helping at a home for boys with disabilities.

“I had no experience working with the disabled and that in itself has been a huge eye-opener for me.

“The exact age of some of the boys in not known as they were abandoned by their relatives.

“I would hate to think what their lives would have been like if they weren’t living at the Missionaries of Charities Home.”

Capable of more

But then again, Ms Benvenuti said Cambodia had expanded her understanding of a person’s capacity to endure. “I have learnt that the human body is as resilient as we train it to be.

“The harsher the conditions we expose ourselves to the more we will be able to endure.

Courtney-Benvenuti-33“People here bathe and drink water, without any health issues, that we would deem to be contaminated.

“We put limitations on many things, but what exactly is it based on? Here no one is too young, too old, no space is too small. They make it work.

“For example, there’s no way we would trust a one-year-old to sit still and behave on a motorbike with no harness. Yet here every second motorbike has a toddler perched up the front, taking it all in, sitting perfectly still.”

Heart-wrenching to leave

Naturally, Ms Benvenuti has become fond of the children she helps, so she’s struggling as leaving day – March 1 – looms ever larger.

“It will be very hard to leave them because I know that this is it.

“It’s not as if I will be able to fly back all the time nor will I be able to keep in contact with them.

“It’s one of those situations where you just have to accept that you’ve shared in an incredible experience but it will come to an end,” said the only daughter of Owen and Kim Benvenuti, of Bridgeman Downs.

Own less, earn less, smile more

Cambodia is still struggling to overcome the genocidal 70s Khmer Rouge regime and war with neighbouring Vietnam that persisted to the 90s.

The people do without much that is taken for granted in Australia. But Ms Benvenuti said it was a mistake to assume fewer possessions and comforts meant lesser lives.

Owning more, earning more, working more does not mean you are happier than someone deemed ‘poor’

“Owning more, earning more, working more does not mean you are happier than someone deemed “poor”, the recent Queensland University of Technology science graduate, with ecology and journalism majors, said.

“Everyone here seems happier. They aren’t rushing everywhere, they take daytime naps, they’re always in groups chatting and laughing, linking arms.

“There is definitely a sense of camaraderie that I only see on the sporting field in Australia. I’m not sure exactly why this is.”

Hi stranger, let’s be friends

“Everyone here are friends, even if they’ve just met, because they have one very crucial thing in common, they’re Cambodian.

“I would leave my tuk-tuk (rickshaw) driver for a moment and when I returned he would be sitting in the tuk-tuk with another driver laughing and chatting away.

“I asked if they knew each other but he said they’d only met.”

Courtney-Benvenuti-22There were strict limits though. Outsiders were only allowed in so far, and then the barriers go up.

“I would very much like to be accepted into this secret club but I’m a ‘barang’, meaning ‘white’, and I think that will always be the case no matter how long you live in this country. But perhaps that is fair enough. When you look what this country and its people have been through with the Khmer Rouge, which only occurred in the 1970s, it gives insight into why they are just happy to be alive.”

Don’t sweat the small stuff

Whereas Western societies tended to over-complicate things, and focus on and exaggerate trivial matters, Cambodians had bigger, more important things to worry about and didn’t sweat the small stuff, she said.

“Here it would seem that people are always looking at the bigger picture because it was not that long ago that millions of people – their mothers, fathers, teachers, neighbours – were ruthlessly murdered.

“Their goal is to survive, ours is to prosper.”

Home, then off again

After her time in Cambodia ends on March 1, Ms Benvenuti will tour Vietnam for a couple of weeks then fly home to meet her godchild. No doubt Dad Owen, who retired from the Brisbane City Council two years ago, and Mum Kim, who works a day each week at Aspley State School, will be pleased to have her home.

Then after a couple of month she’ll jet off again, this time to Turkey to reconnect with a woman with whom she worked on a research project for dolphins in the Bosphorus strait.

“I wanted to have one final adventure overseas before I start my career.”

Ms Benvenuti’s legacy will outlast her stay. She has raised $A7000 to buy five motorbikes and helmets for the SOC children.

Visit sunflowerorphanage.org for donation details. (Editor’s note: The website was not working properly when Northern Life visited it.)

Courtney Benvenuti with the five motorbikes she bought for Cambodian orphans with money she raised from donations.

LET’S RIDE: Courtney Benvenuti with the five motorbikes she bought for Cambodian orphans with money she raised from donations.

About Nick Moore

Nick Moore is the editor of NorthernLife.com.au. He also edits the printed Great Wait. Nick started as a journalist in 1993 and has worked for Fairfax, News Corp and APN.

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