Teaching Christmas carols to Cambodian orphans initially earned Pat Witcombe the nickname of “Jingle Bells”, but after he showed his prowess with a donated Dutch conjuring set, his name (in Khmer) became “Mr Magic”.
Pat, who is a Senior Tutor at University Hall, Flinders’ on-campus student residence, spent his summer break in Cambodia as a volunteer at the New Hope Village, an orphanage for children with HIV/AIDS. He took with him a $1000 donation from Flinders Housing and its caterers, Scolarest Australia. The money will buy musical instruments to support the music programs at both New Hope and Geraldine Cox’s Sunrise Children’s Orphanage near Phnom Penh, which Pat also visited.
It was a talk given to students at University Hall by Geraldine Cox several years ago that inspired Pat’s interest in Cambodia.
Pat helped to kick-start New Hope’s music program by playing and teaching songs to the 180 children; he also worked on setting up a computer database that will be vital in monitoring the children’s health and determining appropriate doses of retroviral HIV drugs.
In addition to providing a home and schooling for the orphaned children, New Hope supports some 800 children with HIV/AIDs still living in the community with their families. The non-government organization (NGO) gives the families medicine and food, and also supplies a medical carer who visits twice a week to monitor medication.
Pat visited some of the families on the back of a scooter, and found the poverty and living conditions a sobering experience: “Ironically, the HIV-positive kids were often the healthiest, because of the food and support from the NGO.”
Christmas in the village is celebrated as a surrogate, common birthday for the children. Festivities featured individual presents for each child, a bonfire with toasted marshmallows and a program of carols that climaxed with a rousing version of Jingle Bells.
“It was a marvellous experience, and it was really hard to leave the kids,” Pat said.