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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Finding a place in southeast Asia

By: Ray Weikal

If not for the students at St. Pius X High School, Douglas Little might still be commuting through 1,000-year-old temples.

Little teaches history and government at the high school. He's also a world traveler who most recently spent two months this summer in southeast Asia. In Cambodia, Little's experience teaching English to orphans in a monastery was profound.

“If it weren't for the students at St. Pius, I might not have come back,” he said.

An interest in world cultures and a desire to improve his teaching skills and help others have prompted many of Little's quests around the globe. Since he graduated from Park University in 1999, Little has visited 59 countries. As Cambodian officials opened up their country to tourism, Little saw an opportunity to learn more about that nation.

“The reason I chose it was that it's really just opening up now,” he said.

Little ended up spending most of his time at the orphanage, which is in the midst of the Angkor Wat ruins about 30 kilometers from Siem Reap. The Buddhist Wat Damnak monastery cares for 31 orphans who range in age from 2 to 17. The monks provide room, board and education for children who might otherwise be forced in to menial labor or child prostitution, Little said. In order to protect the children from kidnappers, the orphanage is located far away from any large towns.

From noon to 4 p.m. on most days, Little filled in for the orphans' regular English teacher.

“I was teaching conversational English. With the younger kids, a lot of it was just us talking together,” Little said. “The monks want them to be employable in the tourist industry.”

Little also became an ad hoc soccer coach for the kids, who were passionate about that sport. Little coaches soccer at St. Pius X.

“After class, we'd play soccer for several hours,” he said. “They need people to be like a big brother.”

When Little felt the need, he would hitch a 45-minute ride to through the ancient ruins to Siem Reap, commonly on the back of a ubiquitous scooter. Siem Reap is becoming a tourist hub for the region, with Western-style hotels, restaurants and shops. On one of these trips, Little bought three soccer balls for about $20 to replace the one at the monastery that had been used so much that it no longer had a cover. The students were delighted.

“The orphans have hardly anything,” he said. “It's an unimaginable luxury to even have a picture of yourself.”

On his time off, Little traveled throughout Cambodia and Vietnam, getting a tangible sense of the region's history. He explored the old Buddhist temples, saw the infamous Cambodian Killing Fields, swam in the warm waters off the beaches of central Vietnam and crawled through claustrophobic tunnels used by communist guerillas against the Americans.

“I really wanted to improve my knowledge of Vietnam and also pay my respects to those who served in the war,” Little said. “Vietnam is absolutely stunning.”

When the time came to make his way back to Kansas City, Little said he had second thoughts. This feeling was amplified when he returned to work and overheard some girls trying to decide which mall they should go to so they could buy shoes.

“The orphans were just great kids,” he said. “When you're there, you definitely get the sense that they need you. I didn't want to leave, to tell you the truth.”

In the end, though, Little knew that he couldn't abandon his American students.

“I love Pius,” he said. “I have the greatest kids in the world.”

Staff writer Ray Weikal can be reached at 389-6637 or .
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