88: Whether Web or Wand

88: Whether Web or Wand

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Whether Web or Wand

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.

~John Muir

The e-mail attachment was a large photo of Vothy, a small, emaciated girl in Cambodia. She was eleven years old and weighed only thirteen pounds. Head slumped into a pillow, Vothy’s big dark eyes stared up weakly into mine. Ribs and elbows thinly covered by tattered skin ended in scrawny fingers clutching emptiness over her heart. The pillow had a red-check pattern with cartoon flowers, a bright rainbow and balloon letters spelling out: “California Dreaming…”

The photo had been captured and e-mailed by Denisa and Martin, a couple who had founded Magna, Cambodia’s first rescue home for HIV-positive orphans. Vothy had been brought to the rescue home by a nurse from a local hospital that had refused to admit her. HIV-positive orphans in Cambodia were routinely denied hospital admission, medical treatment, and even food and water because the official position of the government was that there were no HIV-positive children in Cambodia. Outraged by the sight of treatable babies cast away to die horrendous deaths, Denisa and Martin had established Magna to administer antiretroviral treatment to children like Vothy.

Vothy had been born into a well-to-do Cambodian family. Before she was conceived, her father had contracted HIV and unknowingly infected her mother. In the medical exam when Vothy’s mother learned she was pregnant with her first baby she learned also that she was HIV-positive. For years after her arrival, Vothy’s family cared for her and took her to the best doctors, but one day her father passed and eventually her mother did too. Vothy’s medical care exhausted the savings of her remaining family. Without resources even for food, they finally abandoned her at the hospital.

At the rescue home, Denisa and Martin initiated intensive care and feeding through an IV, but Vothy’s only response was to open her big eyes for a brief moment just in time for Martin to capture the photograph before she slipped into a coma. Frantically looking for a pediatrician to advise them on how to treat Vothy, Denisa and Martin e-mailed the photo in a note to a friend in New York, Helena, who had co-founded Sunflower Children, a small volunteer-run charity. Helena shared the e-mail with others who shared it with others who shared with others… Within the hour more than two hundred Sunflower volunteers (“Sunflowers”) around the world were connected in a virtual Sunflower chain making calls, praying and taking whatever steps they could to help save Vothy.

Back in Cambodia, despite her coma, Denisa and Martin kept talking to Vothy, telling her about the rescue home, about the other children and about the new life that awaited her. They begged her not to give up because there were two hundred members of her new family that wanted her to stay. At that moment, Vothy’s eyes opened… and stayed open. She began to drink weakly, yet steadily and then stably.

Denisa and Martin shared the news and Helena e-mailed the Sunflowers: “WE DID IT! WE SAVED A LIFE!!!” For that moment, two hundred of us were connected through a feeling of awe that we had changed the course of a forgotten child’s life.

A year later, while visiting Cambodia, at the gates of the rescue home, Helena was greeted by an energetic young lady bouncing into her arms: “You’re here! Ma Helena, you’re finally here!”

Denisa translated Vothy’s Khmer words. Over the next few days, the Sunflowers received photos and videos sharing Vothy’s boundless energy in dance class, playing games with her new sisters and brothers and being scolded for her incessant chatter during math class (where she was the number one student). Vothy told Denisa and Martin that she clearly remembered the moment she heard them tell her about her new family and how that story made her choose to stay because she wanted to meet them.

The experience of those people inspired to action through the Web motivated me to become volunteer CEO of Sunflower Children and co-found Sunflower Children’s U.S. organization. Sunflower Children grew to sponsor 11,000 at-risk children in eight countries around the world with more than 1,000 volunteers and only one paid employee. I am blessed to have experienced firsthand the Web grow from a work tool and a play toy into a lever for personal, social and geopolitical transformation.

Since then I have spent years studying the forces behind the phenomena of Web-linked crowds, which have toppled tyrants, elected the first African American president, and destroyed and created entire industries. Yet, when I think back on Vothy, and I think about the arc from the moment when Vothy first opened her eyes from her red-checked pillow, I often wonder about the deeper force which altered her path: Statistically, was it just coincidence that the effect of the IV kicked in just as she was hearing Denisa and Martin’s story? Spiritually, did the prayers of a circle of two hundred people alter the judgment of a higher power? Scientifically, did we channel quantum physical energies through a virtual cyclotron that tipped some quarkian cue ball into a side pocket alternate universe where Vothy was fated to live?

Or might it be simpler still?

I’ve come to realize that the true magic behind Vothy’s healing was hope, and that the wand that waved the magic was Story. Through Story, Denisa and Martin sparked Vothy’s hope for life. I can’t help but marvel at whether through cave paintings or YouTube views, Story does not merely narrate but actually creates our reality.

~James Colmenares

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