Congratulations to our five artisans for graduating from the Freedom Stones and CHO joint project! We had artisan graduation on November 7, 2011. The graduation was held in the worship room at the top floor of the CHO office, during the time of normal morning devotions at CHO. The day before, Leng and I decorated the room with wide, silk strips of red fabric. We fashioned bows on the pillars, the podium, and the door, and around the projector screen. The artisans were a bit awestruck and shy when they entered the room and as we explained to them the schedule of the ceremony.
Pastor Jeff Heneforth began with a 15 minute devotion, and then introduced the graduation ceremony. We had short, heartfelt speeches from Syvorn (CHO social worker), Leng, Reatrey (CHO Assistant Director), and myself. Both Syvorn and Leng had a hard time finishing their speeches, and we were all hard-pressed not to cry during the 16 minute video that Leng and I made for the artisans. The video talked about our program and work with the artisans, and included a music video of our time together. It ended with enthusiastic applause, and then certificates were presented to the artisans by Assistant Director Reatry and myself. Reatrey closed the ceremony and expressed his thanks to Freedom Stones and all the staff involved with the project.
Afterwards, many Khmer staff approached Leng, congratulated him on the project and expressed how touched they were. One staff member in particular said that he was deeply moved, as he knew the backgrounds of some of our artisans and could see the change in them. A visiting team from the States expressed to me how impressed they were and inquired about our jewelry at Safe Haven. The team also gave each artisan a small graduation present after the ceremony (which the teens were overjoyed to receive).
The artisans were thrilled to see the video, and they laughed through some of the pictures (though afterwards they told us that at some points they really wanted to cry). This was the first time for them to see themselves in a video and see their pictures presented to them as recognition of their hard work and development. It will be a memorable day for them in the years to come, and I’m so happy we could be a part of that.
Afterwards, Leng and I took the artisans out for lunch along with Wayne, a member of Freedom Stones’ Board of Directors. The restaurant we went to was quite classy, and they went to the washroom many times to delight in the automatic taps and hand dryers, which was their first time to see. We also watched the video again on their request. Finally, we sent them off via taxi back to Safe Haven (after much objection – they wanted to spend more time together but Leng was needed by a visiting team).
When I think back to these past months and all of our time together, I think of the level of trust and rapport we were able to establish with the artisans. I think of the connection deeper and more meaningful than language that we made, and how they grew to respect Leng and I more than just because we were their teachers. As I write this now I realize the change – they started looking at us with real love.
We always tried to do what we said we would, and we never made promises that we didn’t keep. We tried to encourage them to look at the world and themselves in a different way – we wanted them to see the opportunities. We made ourselves available to them consistently and dedicated our time to them. We made an honest and sincere effort to get to know them and help them feel loved. In return, we asked them to get back up again, and again, and again.
I noticed that receiving a wage made a big impact on their self esteem. Each month they were able to immediately receive a portion of their wage in-hand that they could spend as they saw fit. This gave them a sense of financial autonomy – and it provided them a way to give back to their families. It gave them an opportunity to feel good about themselves, and it treated them like people of productivity. I felt that the wage was an excellent empowerment tool – it motivated them to work, put a time value to money, provided them a practical opportunity to learn about finances, and enabled them to dream.
In my spare time, I always watch the graduation video. It blesses me to see their smiling faces.