By JOHN SKINNER

The road to Chenda’s village is barely passable, bringing to mind a ride on a mechanical bull in a cowboy bar. The flood waters receded only days earlier after carving deep ruts that have our high-sprung pickup truck rolling and tumbling. Only the skill and patience of our driver, Vannak, keeps us upright and moving forward.

Tino Touch directs driver Vannak over a makeshift bridge of palm tree logs after floods washed out the road near Chenda's village.

I’m with my partner Daphne Bramham and Tino Touch of Plan Canada, riding resolutely, if slowly, toward the village of Daphne’s sponsored child near Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia. On both sides, the shallowing remnants of the flood waters pool in the rice paddies as skinny cattle and hulking water buffalo graze idly.

We hang on to whatever’s available as the truck plies the last 10 kilometres. The truck lurches and I bang my elbow on the frame.

I should complain. When Chenda’s mother and father heard we were arriving today, they left their sweet-potato field 100 kilometres from the village and journeyed home — by foot, boat and on the backs of motorbikes — to join their daughter, her three brothers and sister for an important day in Chenda’s life: a visit from her sponsor.

Plan Canada is part of Plan International, a non-governmental aid organization whose 8,000 staff and 60,000 volunteers work with children, families and communities in 68 countries.

At once grinning and shy, Chenda is a bright nine-year-old with a evident flair for photography.

Chenda’s village has no electricity and no running water. Her family lives in a wooden house on stilts — flood season makes raised homes mandatory — and until a new Plan-financed well was dug recently, Chenda walked two kilometres to get water for her family. The family’s only luxury is a small TV that has seen better days. It runs off a car battery.

Our arrival is greeted by a ragtag swarm of children. The teenagers hold back, too cool to participate. In the middle of it all is Chenda, at once grinning and shy, and her mom and dad, Huoi and Heav. Heav cuts open two coconuts, inserts straws and invites us to join the family at the table outside their home. It’s about 33 degrees and very humid.

As we talk (with Tino interpreting) out come the cameras and we start snapping. Chenda is enchanted. With hand signals and encouragement, Daphne shows her how to use the digital camera, and the nine-year-old is off. She spends the next hour wrangling her friends and family into various groups and snapping merrily away. She smiles with delight at the results of her work, chattering to her pals and showing them her pictures.

Chenda took to the camera quickly.

We do and we don’t understand what she is saying. The words are incomprehensible but the body language is clear: Fun is being had.

Yet, life in the village is hard. Chenda’s family depends on a small rice paddy nearby and the far-away potato field in Heav’s mother’s village. Those plots supply food for the family with little left over to sell. Other necessities — soap, shampoo, toothbrushes, clothing, blankets — are not always affordable.

But because of Plan sponsors like Daphne, Chenda goes to school every day and has access to health care. She is happy, energetic and curious about the world around her. And very bright, if her quick grasp of photography is any indication. You can see the results of her work below.

Chenda shows her mother and father the results of her work.

If a child like Chenda can reach her potential — she wants to be a teacher — her village and her country will be one step closer to breaking the cycle of poverty, the generations upon generations that grow up profoundly poor, materially, intellectually and culturally. That’s why sponsors play such an important role.

“You could see the family was proud and grateful for Plan’s help because it was given in a way that respected them,” Daphne says. “They weren’t made to feel they were unable to care for their children. It was so obvious how much they loved their children and how they, like every parent, wanted their kids to have a better life than they do.

“But donors have to realize that development is a process. It’s slow and generational. I’d like to think Chenda could achieve her goal of being a teacher, but I’d be content if she is able to read and write and have a better life than her parents. Her own children would start their lives with more advantages.”

Plan’s work in Chenda’s village has already produced a new elementary school and a nearby health centre where a nurse and medicine are available to treat such common ailments as colds and diarrhea, which can be life-threatening in this climate. There are midwives to deliver babies — five dollars per birth, but free if the parents can’t afford to pay.

Chenda's brother, Throng, 14, in the family home. The annual flood season makes raised housing mandatory.

Siem Reap province has two such health centres, but it needs three more, and they are in various stages of development.

“Before,” says Tino, “if people had a cold or diarrhea, they would just wait and expect it to get better. That can take a long time. Now they will be able to go to the health centre for medicine. The health of the villagers is better now. And the children are getting a better education.”

Indeed, 97 per cent of the village’s primary-age kids are now in school, compared to virtually none a generation ago. A Plan-financed secondary school, within walking distance, is expected to open in May 2012.

But although Plan sponsors support 572 children in Siem Reap province, more than 100 others are waiting.

Chenda's daily duties include drawing water from the well recnetly installed near the centre of the village. Before, fetching water involved a long walk.

Like most adults in the village, Chenda’s parents can’t read or write, but her mother has higher hopes for the children: “I would like them to study and when they grow up, get good jobs. But it will be difficult, because it’s hard to get an education.”

Many children drop out after primary school because after a certain age they’re needed to work in the fields. Marriage and having children traditionally begin around age 16 or 17. And learning is doubly difficult because illiterate parents aren’t able to help their children with homework.

Chenda’s day begins at 6 a.m. when she gets up and walks about 20 metres to the well to bathe and collect water for cooking. At 6:30 she and her best friend Sokhim walk to Thlouk primary school, about 30 minutes away. There, they eat breakfast of rice and canned fish, and work on their lessons. Chenda’s favourite subjects are math and social studies. At 11 a.m. Chenda and Sokhim walk home. They play in the afternoon – skipping rope and kicking a soccer ball — until it’s time for Chenda to help cook dinner which invariably includes rice, often supplemented with fish.

Her mother and father spend their days tending to their rice paddy, although their far-away potato field needs attention, too. When mom and dad are away, the kids stay with an aunt in the village.

Chenda goes to bed around 7 p.m., perhaps to dream of becoming a teacher — or a photographer.

  • Something to consider

In the over-50-guy world, we have it pretty good. More disposable income as we get older. We have the time and money to travel. Many of us are mortgage free and presiding over empty nests. A lot of us are looking for ways to contribute.

Interested in giving a child a future? Click here.

  • Here are some photos by Chenda

From her family (below, with Plan Canada’s Tino Touch in the background) to village children, a first-time photographer displays an extraordinary ability.