Summerville college student helps Cambodian children

SUMMERVILLE — Every day in homes across America, children walk into bedrooms filled with toys and declare they have nothing to play with. Families search through pantries and refrigerators stuffed with food and still can’t find anything they want to eat.

It is a different story in Cambodia.

Catie McDavid and her friend, Sara Johannesmeyer, spent a month this past summer as volunteers at a Maryknoll orphanage in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Each day they were astonished by the differences between the United States and the impoverished third-world country.  

“I appreciate everything I have so much more,” McDavid said. “Everything I want is at my fingertips, while they struggle for survival each day.”

Both girls are college juniors, with Johannesmeyer at the University of South Carolina and McDavid at Clemson. They decided to make the trip, she said, because it was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up. McDavid’s aunt, Erin Soto, works for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Cambodia and gave the girls a place to stay, plus meals and transportation.

“I can’t even begin to explain how little they have,” McDavid said.

Each day, she and Johannesmeyer were able to take a warm shower. Then they would head to the orphanage and see Cambodians standing outside their make-shift homes washing with pans of water, she said. At night, they sat at a table to eat and thought about the people fishing in the rice paddies, trying to catch their next meal.

It was a humbling experience, McDavid said.

At the orphanage, all of the children have AIDS but, according to McDavid, they are given daily medication and live in better conditions than many people in the country.

Before she went on her trip, McDavid asked the parishioners at St. John the Beloved Church in Summerville to donate books, coloring supplies, toys, and arts and crafts. She had a suitcase set aside for the goodies, and ended up taking two suitcases plus shipping several boxes directly to Maryknoll.

Her mother, Connie McDavid, is the secretary at St. John the Beloved and said they were overwhelmed by the generous outpouring.

The children were thrilled with the gifts, McDavid said. They had never seen a balloon or a hot wheels car, and they spent hours with the coloring books.  

McDavid said she and Johannesmeyer spent most of their day with the older girls at the orphanage. They taught English classes while the regular teacher was out of town, and even coaxed a few outdated computers to work again.

One of her best memories, McDavid said, is of playing soccer with the boys aged 10 to 17.  

She remembers the soccer shoes that were donated to the orphanage and how the boys would wear them all day, everywhere they went — until they played soccer. Then the soccer shoes came off, and the boys played barefooted because they didn’t want to get the shoes dirty.  

She and Johannesmeyer remain in touch with Father Kevin Conroy, who works at the orphanage. McDavid described the priest as being “like a Dad” to the boys.

“We really miss them,” McDavid said.

She said she hopes to join the Peace Corps when she graduates so she can help those less fortunate in other places like Cambodia. Many members of her family have served in the Peace Corps, and McDavid said she grew up hearing stories of their travels and the people they met.  

“It seemed to change all of their lives,” she said. “They’re such good people and involved in giving back.”