Sarah Dixon took in the warm, damp air as she walked down the dirt road. The women of the village offered her fried tarantulas in a basket, and local children happily snacked on the delicacies. Dixon, however, recoiled with fear and awe.
It was her first day in Cambodia.
The 17-year-old Coronado junior went to Cambodia last summer after joining Youthlinc, an organization dedicated to fostering humanitarianism through local and international service.
“I heard about this program from my brother’s girlfriend, who did it the year before and loved it,” she said. “I thought it would be really cool to help people in another country, so I wanted to go, too.”
Though Dixon was eager to participate, her parents were initially hesitant.
“When I first told them, they gave me this surprised, worried look,” she said. “They asked, ‘Are you absolutely sure?’ And I definitely was.”
After several advance meetings with program representatives, she was set to go to the village of Au Chung Ruk in the beginning of June, along with her brother, Jimi, his girlfriend and 33 other high school students.
For two weeks, the Youthlinc team fixed up the village elementary school. They refurbished the building, painted walls and scrubbed the classrooms for eight hours every day. However, Sarah Dixon often got distracted.
“The little students of the school would watch us and try to play,” she said. “We played duck-duck-goose with them and gave out stickers. They really loved those stickers. This one little girl loved them so much, she took all 600 of the stickers I had.”
In addition to fixing up the school, Dixon and the other volunteers installed water filters and gave out hygiene kits.
“The people there were so kind and happy to see us,” she said. “I remember when we were giving out the kits, a small, old woman with no teeth came to get one. She walked so slowly toward us, but when she received the kit, she gave the biggest smile.”
Through the experience, Dixon learned more about the people and their history.
“I remember we visited the Killing Fields, where millions of people were killed and buried because of genocide,” she said. “I also remember this little girl who was there. She tripped on a cement block and ripped her toenail off, but she didn’t even shed a tear. These experiences really made me think about how resilient these people were.
“I thought about how they made the most of what they had, instead of crying over not getting the new iPhone, like a lot of First World kids do.”
Instead of playing with iPhones, Dixon said, the Cambodians played with handmade toys.
“They showed us how to make a little pellet gun with a broken Coke bottle and some bamboo,” she said. “It was the neatest thing.”
She took the toy gun with her as she left to come home to America, a bittersweet moment.
“Two weeks was way too short,” she said. “The village was so green and beautiful. The people were incredibly nice. It was so hard to leave all of that.”
Dixon plans to attend another Youthlinc trip this year.