Two years ago, Geneva Heaps had never heard of Cambodia.
But today, after spending parts of the past two summers doing volunteer work at the Battambang Orphanage on the outskirts of the country’s second-largest city, the personable junior midfielder on Mead High School’s soccer team can speak with some authority on a variety of related topics – including the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge and the ethnic cleansing campaign in conducted in the mid- to late-1970s.
“It nearly wiped out an entire generation,” Heaps said of the horrific genocide that resulted in an estimated 1.7 million deaths. “So going over there and getting involved with younger kids who don’t have parents has been a great experience.”
Heaps made her first trip to Cambodia in the summer of 2008, along with her close friend and former soccer teammate McKenzi Hoover, who is now a Panthers cheerleader. Their mothers, who are both District 81 school teachers, also went.
The four of them spent three weeks there, working with the young girls and boys residing in the ramshackle orphanage located in a small village just outside of Battambang, a city of 250,000 in the northwest part of the tiny country. They went back for four weeks again this summer, and became involved in teaching the children English and helping with the start of construction work on a new building for the orphans.
“I’ve always been interested in volunteer work and was looking for some way to help people and experience a different culture,” Heaps said. “So my mom went online and found these travel programs where you can volunteer to go and help in other countries.
The four made their first trip to Cambodia as part of a Rustic Pathways program, but they traveled back this summer as part of a contingent with Global Student Outreach.
The volunteers are housed in hotels in downtown Battambang and are driven to the orphanage in vans supplied by the outreach companies. It was on her first van trip to the orphanage two years ago that Heaps came face to face with the horrendous living conditions of the country’s poorest residents.
“It was really hard for me that first year – an emotionally trying time, because I was so taken aback by how poor everyone was, and how little they had,” Heaps said. “I saw all these homeless people sleeping in the streets and these families of 10 or 12 – because there’s no form of birth control over there – who have their grandparents living with them.
“It took some time for me to get used to.”
Once at the orphanage, volunteers interact with up to 50 children, most of them between the ages of 5 and 18 – although a few are older.
“Once you’re 18, you have to leave the orphanage, but kids lie about their ages so they stay longer, because they have nowhere else to go,” Heaps said.
On her first trip to Cambodia, Heaps befriended a young man with polio. She later found out he was 22, but had kept his true age a secret to remain in the orphanage, where he could get the medical care and attention he needed.
When Heaps returned this summer, the young man was gone.
“We were happy to find out he had been adopted by the Catholic Church over there, so we made a special trip to go visit him,” Heaps said. “He was doing great.”
Heaps, who plays on a club soccer team during the summer, said that her two nearly month-long adventures in Cambodia have not been the greatest thing for her soccer development.
“I’ve managed to make it to all the major tournaments, but I’ve missed a lot of practices,” Heaps said. “Fortunately, my coach is really cool about that.”
Heaps’ club team donated soccer shoes to the Battambang Orphanage this summer. After they were distributed, the volunteers set up a match between the orphans and some children from a nearby village.
“We had jerseys for them, and everything,” Heaps said. “Some of us volunteers ended up having to go out and play, because a lot of the kids didn’t know what to do, so we went out and helped them. It was really a good time.”
Heaps, who will start as a midfielder this fall for Mead – a team that is again expected to be among the Greater Spokane League’s elite, plans on returning to Cambodia again next year, perhaps for the entire summer. She realizes that would cut deeply into her club team participation, but insists the rewards that come from volunteering at the orphanage trump all things soccer.
“It has changed my life in so many ways,” Heaps said of her volunteer work. “I kind of always felt there was a part of me missing, because I hadn’t really been able to make someone else’s life better and more meaningful to them.
“But by doing this, I feel like I’ve helped all those kids at the orphanage want to live and do something with their lives. And that’s a great feeling.”