While visiting Siem Reap in January of 2009, Heather Connell met 4 year old Sumnang – an orphan living with cerebral palsy – and became involved in his care.

After discovering that, despite the fact his parents were dead, he would have to leave the orphanage and be returned to his village at age six, she began searching for alternatives.

The concept for Safe Haven was born out of that fruitless search and the subsequent revelation of the difficulties that children with severe disabilities and their families face every day in Cambodia.

Discrimination along with a lack of understanding, and lack of access to information, support and resources create many barriers to accessing health and medical care in Cambodia. Too often, these barriers prevent Cambodia children living with disabilities from reaching their fullest potential.

Sumnang tragically passed away on 1 September 2010, however his memory lives on and continues to inspire Safe Haven’s valuable work today.

In Memory Of Sumnang

By Heather Connell, Founder of Safe Haven
September 1st 2010

At 2am Friday morning, after a day filled with kisses, playing and being grouchy about eating his lunch, and hours after I kissed him goodbye after tucking him into his crib, my beloved Sumnang spiked a fever, suffered a grand mal seizure and died en route to the hospital.

The inspiration for Safe Haven, the boy who stole my heart when I first saw him– it does not seem possible that I have just placed jasmine and incense over his white draped shroud and watched them cremate him.

We sat together first, in the tiny chapel of the Sisters of Charity Orphanage, where they had lovingly wrapped him in white linen, covered him with yellow flowers and surrounded him with candles. His sweet little face was peaceful as we waited for a local monk to agree to escort him to the place of cremation.

For three hours I sat in silence, in stunned disbelief. Only yesterday, I had talked about the possibilities for Sumnang to really make progress once Safe Haven had opened and he could have therapy and care full time. Yesterday, I held him in my arms while we played a Khmer version of “ring around the rosy”. Yesterday, I coaxed him to finish his bananas even though he was giving me his grumpy face about eating. Yesterday, I kissed him good night and told him “See you tomorrow.”

At the pagoda where the cremation took place, we laid out Sumnang on a mat and uncovered his face, placing jasmine, incense and candles around his body. The sisters led everyone in prayer and we each planted incense in the sand-filled vessel at his head while offering up our own prayer. Then they carefully recovered his face, picked him up and carried him to the cremation chamber.

Later, we stood in solemn silence the nuns carefully pick out the fragments of his bones and place them in a bowl. I step forward with coconut milk and poured the sweet liquid into the bowl and carefully washed the bones. My shirt was a mess of sweat, tears and coconut milk.

Sumnang’s bones are gently laid out to dry in the sun. We stand in silence in the heat of the sun on the steps of the pagoda for two hours, watching them dry. We fan the bones and the grief pours through me because all I can think about are how knobby his little knees were.

The fragments of the bone are carefully placed in the urn while we sit together in reverent silence. The urn is then tied shut with a braided rope and wrapped in a thin white linen cloth. We silently leave the pagoda.

Sumnang suffered from Cerebral Palsy and his low muscle tone kept him from being able to move on his own. He was unable to talk but loved to communicate. He loved to be outside and after lunch; I would often walk around the orphanage yard with him and sing to him while he grew sleepy in the sun. He laughed with his whole body and hated orange juice and mangoes. Although he was trapped in his body, the intelligence in his eyes could not be hidden. The first time I set eyes on him and he locked his big brown gaze with mine, I fell in love. Each time I would have to leave Cambodia, I would whisper in his ear and promise him I would see him soon. In two days I will leave Cambodia and be unable to whisper in my beloved Sumnang’s ear that I will see him soon.

From now on, I will see him everywhere.