One man's life-changing encounter with Dr. Nancy Hendrie.01 Oct, 2010
By Betsy Levinson
The man everyone calls Elephant couldn't help but choke back his emotions as he remembered his life in Cambodia under the Khymer Rouge.
The soft-spoken neatly dressed man spoke to the Concord Rotary about the day he and his then five-year-old brother were scrounging for food in the fields of Cambodia in 1976, when soldiers from the ruling Khymer Rouge found them stealing some corn. They shot and killed his brother as he stood by, cowering.
But now, Chan Kim Leng, or Elephant as he is known to friends and family, is dressed in a khaki suit and telling his story of salvation, from working the streets of Phnom Penh as a cycle-cab driver to becoming a bi-lingual director of a foundation started by Concord pediatrician, Dr. Nancy Hendrie.
The Rotary Club supports the Sharing Foundation and its farm, clinic and school that Hendrie founded 13 years ago after 26 years as a well loved doctor to children from area towns.
Hendrie said the foundation has 1,500 children now at the various facilities. The foundation started small, with an orphanage for the "discarded" children, she said, in Cambodia who had birth defects or HIV.
She said 130 now pour into the foundation's farm school where learning English is mandatory for learning farming skills.
"The Rotary ran the farm school last year," said Hendrie.
Elephant, or Chan Kim Leng, said his youth was spent starving in poverty.
"I had nothing to eat," he said. "I ate twigs, spiders, flies, crickets." His parents were illiterate, eking out a living on a farm until the Communist soldiers of the Khymer Rouge turned the lush countryside into the now-infamous killing fields.
By 1988, Elephant said he had no health care, and no school to go to. But he heard that there were jobs in Phnom Penh, so he set out for the city to make a living. He noticed other young men in boats or on pedicabs ferrying people around the city for a few dollars.
"I saw there was more profit with foreigners, and I started to dream about buying a taxi, but I had no money," he said.
Eventually, he saved enough to buy a taxi, and started attending high school at night. His family "was still in the jungle."
In 1997, Elephant was a taxi driver who earned a living by driving adoptive parents to agencies to meet the children they would soon adopt. His luck changed one October day in 1999 when Hendrie asked him to drive her "for one trip" to where she needed to go in the city.
Hendrie was setting up her orphanage offering free medical care for HIV and disabled children "and needed my help," Elephant said. He said he followed her around, taking notes as her assistant.
"She gave me a job as a driver," he said. In 2001 he started attending college studying project management.
"I thought education can change my life," said Elephant.
Now he directs the orphanage which used to house 40 HIV infected and disabled children, and which now has 75.
"The foundation is my life," he said. He is fluent now in English and French.
"I thought, I have succeeded," he said.
He said nine students have finished college this year, and all have found jobs. Eight finished last year.
"This is my dream," said Elephant."
He has four children now, and his wife is learning English. She designs crafts that are sold through the Sharing Foundation.
He named his first child "Lucky," another one "Dollar," and the youngest one "Water Buffalo" because he feels the boy eats so much.
Elephant is accustomed to privation, and has trouble adjusting to modern Cambodian life.
"He eats a lot," he said. "I'm used to no food."
Oh, and the reason for his name?
"When I started as a cyclo-man at a hotel in Phnom Penh, I was not a big man," he said. "I was skinny. The other drivers took away all my customers."
"It was hard to earn money, so I went to a gym and studied kickboxing for two years. I learned English and French. No one could take my customers away anymore," he said.
Now they all call him Elephant.