"A workshop for souls" is what Gail Gutradt calls Wat Opot Children's Community. One of the souls is Gutradt herself: Ever since she first arrived at the remote Cambodian sanctuary in 2005, she has been transformed by the heartening progress (and hugs) of the girls and boys residing there after being orphaned by HIV/AIDS. Her first-person story of this uphill project spotlights both the humanity of the children and the abiding good spirits of their teachers and caregivers. A Discover Great New Writers selection; editor's recommendation.
In a Rocket Made of Ice: Among the Children of Wat Opotby Gail Gutradt
Gail Gutradt was at a crossroads in her life when she learned of the Wat Opot Children’s Community.
A beautifully told, inspiring true story of one woman’s volunteer experiences at an orphanage in rural Cambodia—a book that embodies the belief that love, compassion, and generosity of spirit can overcome even the most fearsome of obstacles.
Gail Gutradt was at a crossroads in her life when she learned of the Wat Opot Children’s Community. Begun with just fifty dollars in the pocket of Wayne Dale Matthysse, a former Marine Corps medic in Vietnam, Wat Opot, a temple complex nestled among Cambodia’s verdant rice paddies, was once a haunted scrubland that became a place of healing and respite where children with or orphaned by HIV/AIDS could live outside of fear or judgment, and find a new family—a place that Gutradt calls “a workshop for souls.”
Disarming, funny, deeply moving, In a Rocket Made of Ice gathers the stories of children saved and changed by this very special place, and of one woman’s transformation in trying to help them. With wry perceptiveness and stunning humanity and humor, this courageous, surprising, and evocative memoir etches the people of Wat Opot forever on your heart.
From the Hardcover edition.
“A testament to the thriving life in Wat Opot can be found in Gutradt’s powerful book. With patience, compassion, and an eye for the poetic, Gutradt’s memoir of her time as a volunteer at Wat Opot beautifully captures the heart behind the heavy circumstances that bring the community’s residents together.” —Joe Muscolino, Everyday eBook
“This might have been one of the saddest stories ever told. Instead, it is an interesting and often uplifting one [that] also offers universal lessons in compassion. The book is based on the personal journal of Gutradt, an American who has worked over the years as a volunteer at a tiny orphanage in rural Cambodia . . . Much of In a Rocket Made of Ice is devoted to sketches of the many children the author has met and grown to love, the stories enhanced by photos taken by the author . . . Gutradt writes sensitively, sometimes lyrically . . . As director of the community, Wayne Matthysse is a constant presence that binds together both Wat Opot and Gutradt’s narrative. He is a complicated man [who] considers his work atonement for the deaths of two children he witnessed [while he was] in the Vietnam War. He has a highly individualistic moral sense . . . In a Rocket Made of Ice concludes on an up-note, with stories of children who are now in their teens or early 20s. Wayne is helping them obtain educations, find jobs and learn to live ‘on the outside,’ separate from their Wat Opot family. Compared with the early days of the orphanage, these are welcome challenges. Some people need to travel far from home to find their calling—Gutradt appears to be one of them.” —Melanie Kirkpatrick, The Wall Street Journal
“Affecting and deeply felt . . . Part journalism, part memoir, In a Rocket Made of Ice is Gutradt’s story of her four stays at Wat Opot from 2005 to 2012, and the empathy, selflessness, humor and willpower she was met with at every turn. Where once Wat Opot’s purpose was to see HIV+ children and adults through to their inevitable deaths, the compound has since hummed to life . . . Despite the tragic circumstances that bring people to Wat Opot, the community roars with positivity and laughter.” —Joe Muscolino, Biographile
“An extraordinary book about an extraordinary place . . . Gutradt, a Maine native who has spent several stints volunteering at Wat Opot, paints an achingly beautiful portrait of [Wat Opot], which may not have many material resources, but is imbued with a much-needed sense of family for children who have been orphaned by AIDS . . . The ultimate goal of Wat Opot is not just to get kids healthy, but to instill in them a belief that they can live and thrive among other Cambodians, where the stigma of HIV and AIDS lingers. Many of the children go on to university, a testament to the powerful work being done on a shoestring and a prayer. Gutradt has given us an inspiring, unforgettable book.” —Amy Scribner, BookPage
“Neither sentimental nor solicitous, Gutradt’s memoir of her work in a small Cambodian community is a compassionate window into both their lives and hers.” —Bruce Jacobs, Shelf Awareness
“Gutradt takes readers into the Cambodian community of Wat Opot, where children who suffer from HIV or have lost their parents to the virus are cared for by a dedicated group of volunteers. Led by charismatic Vietnam veteran Wayne Matthysse, Wat Opot is recognized by UNICEF and other international agencies for the work it does on this most human of scales: by making sure otherwise overlooked children are fed, clothed, educated, and loved. Gutradt is clearly enamored with the work done here, and her deep affection and admiration for Matthysse are obvious . . . The good work being done at Wat Opot is admirable and to be emulated, and Gutradt writes effectively about how she’s been transformed by her association with this important place and the many delightful children who live there.” —Colleen Mondor, Booklist
“Moving, insightful . . . The story of a tiny community in Cambodia where children whose lives have been shattered by AIDS are cared for, educated and raised to live full lives in the outside world . . . Gutradt first volunteered in Wat Opot in 2005 and returned there multiple times . . . Her many photographs of the youngsters are appealing; her warm stories generally avoid sentimentality: the needy children are not angels, and as they grow, they sometimes present truly tough problems for those concerned about their welfares and futures. Gutradt also discusses the problems created by unreliable government agencies and well-intentioned but uninformed do-gooders. A refreshing account of generous people devoting their time and energy to doing something right.” —Kirkus
“Wat Opot is a community that not only saves the lives of its residents but enriches our lives through its lessons in generosity, empathy, and resilience. Before I read Gail Gutradt’s moving account, I had never heard of it. Now I will never forget it.” —Anne Fadiman, author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
“It’s hard not to fall in love with the author, the subjects, and the message of this beautiful book of stories and photographs. The warmth, the thoughtfulness, the writerly craft Gail Gutradt brings to an orphanage in Cambodia—and the stories and people she finds there—teach us not only about wisdom and compassion, but also about how to give our lives meaning, right now. Read it, and act on the heart-lifting vision of a universal humanity it brings so movingly home to us.” —Pico Iyer
“This is an inspiring, first-hand account of personal sacrifice to help dying children, an insight into courage, and a vivid portrait of life in rural Cambodia.” —Alan Lightman, author of Einstein’s Dreams
“Much more than a story of hope in the face of grim news and chronic disappointment, Gutradt makes a compelling case for the efficacy of ingenuity, imagination, and a commitment to human dignity in accompanying each other through adversity.” —Dr. Paul Farmer
The moving story of a tiny community in Cambodia where children whose lives have been shattered by AIDS are cared for, educated and raised to live full lives in the outside world.The book, introduced by Dr. Paul Farmer, the noted authority on health and human rights, has its origins in articles that appeared in the Japan-based Kyoto Journal. Gutradt, a middle-aged woman living in Maine, first volunteered in Wat Opot in 2005 and returned there multiple times from 2007 to 2012. Her account is primarily about the children, some orphaned by AIDS but themselves HIV-negative, others HIV-positive who were once facing an early death but now, thanks to anti-viral medications, can survive. All live together as one large family in a nondenominational, nongovernmental center founded by an American medic, Wayne Dale Matthysse, and a Cambodian Buddhist, Vandin San. Midway through her insightful vignettes about individual children, Gutradt tells the back story: how and why Matthysse and the author came to be there, what the center means to them and how it has changed their lives. As the formerly depressed, soul-searching author puts it, “I needed to save my life.” It is worth noting that the church that once supported Wat Opot withdrew its backing when it felt that Matthysse was not being sufficiently evangelical, and now Gutradt is an active fundraiser for the center through the Wat Opot Children’s Fund. Her many photographs of the youngsters are appealing, but her warm stories generally avoid sentimentality; the needy children are not angels, and as they grow, they sometimes present truly tough problems for those concerned about their welfares and futures. Gutradt also discusses the problems created by unreliable government agencies and well-intentioned but uninformed do-gooders.A refreshing account of generous people devoting their time and energy to doing something right.
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Read an Excerpt
Shhhhhh. Listen. Sita is waking the day.
Sita turns on her portable radio the moment she wakes up. She raises the volume as high as it will go, way past the point of distortion, then twists the dial back and forth searching for something that pleases her: the trailing melodies of Buddhist mantras, a marching band playing the national anthem of the Kingdom of Cambodia, karaoke tunes, monks chanting, more mantras, marching, karaoke, monks and on and on and back again.
I open my eyes. It is still dark outside, and only the dim differentiation of wall from ceiling, sky from wall, barely perceptible through the pink mosquito net, shows where my single window looks out onto the world. In the distance a rooster crows weakly, sounding cross. Is it too early for him as well?
A wandering many-voiced chant arises from the Buddhist temple next door, the morning prayers of young and aged monks. One dog barks. From across the way another answers.
Sita is playing a Western song now with lyrics in Khmer. Her cheap speakers crackle under the strain.
A gecko begins chirping on the stucco wall.
On the porch outside my room Wayne is still a snoring mountain. His mosquito net is tucked into the black fleece blanket on his bed. Wayne says he sleeps outdoors so he can hear the children when they cry, and manages to sleep, often uneasily, through noises less urgent.
Somewhere in the children’s quarters a baby cries out from a dream and is comforted. Wayne rolls over and draws his body upright, dangling his feet over the side of the bed. He wears yesterday’s black trousers, dried mud still on the cuffs from working in the garden. The crying has stopped now so he sits quietly, wrapped in his blanket, collecting his thoughts for the day, breathing himself awake, perhaps praying. A pair of small feet drop over the other side of the bed and stumble off toward the bathrooms behind our house. Mister Phirun, at nine years old the oldest boy with AIDS, sometimes wets the bed. None of the boys wants to sleep with Phirun, so Wayne lets him crawl in with him sometimes when he is worried or lonely. Wayne wakes up often during the night and he will carry Phirun out to the yard, hold him at arm’s length to drain and return him to bed without waking him.
Wayne calls all the kids Mister or Miss, especially the very little ones who run around with no pants. It is a matter of respect for the children but also on occasion affords much-needed comic relief, as in “Mister Vantha! Where are your shorts?”
The children begin to wander in from their various sleeping quarters, gathering near the bathrooms outside my window. They are still half asleep, most of them, and sit in dazed solitary silence on the bamboo slat bed next to the wall in the manner of small children softly awoken, holding their toothbrushes and soap and waiting their turn in the bathroom. Their towels are draped about their shoulders or dangling unconsciously from their hands. Now and then a little one nods off to sleep as he waits, and his towel drops to the ground and he draws his bare shoulders in and up against the morning dampness and hugs himself and looks even smaller than before.
Now Sita squats by the faucet outside her woven mat house and draws a little water to wash herself. She wears a worn flowered sarong hastily tucked in above her breasts, and her hair tumbles uncombed about her neck and shoulders. In spite of the radio, in spite of the insects and the chirping gecko and the whispers of children, in spite of dogs and roosters and monks chanting, the air has until this moment still possessed the integrity of night. But when Sita opens the tap her simple gesture signals the onset of the day’s activities, because somewhere else Mr. Sary has opened the valve that allows water to flow down from the holding tanks on the roof and the water hits Sita’s plastic bucket with a noise like a string of small firecrackers. In the bathroom next door I hear the cistern beginning to fill and the children splashing about, giggling and whispering, washing themselves modestly under their clothes.
Sita has lived here, on and off, for six years, her residency interrupted by a series of transgressions, petty thefts and infractions that have made her at times unpopular with her fellow residents and unwelcome in the community. Each time she has left and failed to make a life for herself in the outside world Sita has returned, tentatively at first, testing the boundaries, subtly insinuating herself, promising that she has mended her ways, until finally Wayne’s resolution fails and he persuades the other women to allow Sita to move her few belongings back into her small house.
As with nearly everyone here, her life has been a series of the setbacks and rejections, catastrophes and abandonments, that beset people infected with HIV/AIDS the world over. Such stories abound, every imaginable permutation of sorrow and many that are unimaginable. Sita’s own story includes elements not uncommon: an abusive father, a lover who impregnated her and infected her with the HIV virus, then the death of her baby and beatings from her family and, when her illness became public knowledge, a village that tormented her and made of her a pariah. Perhaps like many poor women she has sometimes been forced into prostitution, at least informally, to feed herself. Wayne considers these things when he advocates for her in the community, and the others relent because, after all, Sita’s life has not been so different from their own.
The daylight has begun to come up now and Sita emerges from her house, dressed for the day, and begins sweeping the pounded dirt courtyard, bent over her short broom. Her dusty sarong has been properly tied, falling in a modest pleat from her waist. She wears a black blouse with panels of openwork lace, a garment that hints of the dressier ensemble it may have been part of before being sold as surplus from the sweatshops of Phnom Penh. Her high cheekbones, full mouth and high forehead give her a face that might be called sculpted rather than pretty, with a trace of knowing irony in her eyebrows. Yet I have seen her transform, and once, when she was clearly smitten by a young volunteer, she became girlish: radiant and unguarded and wonderfully soft. I could see then the beauty Sita had been and the wife and mother she might have been and the passionate woman she can be.
She moves aside a grass mat barrier to reveal a small space adjoining her house. It is no more than eight feet on a side and forms a tiny walled garden on one side of which Sita has planted pink, orange and red zinnias. Once the garden was open, but the bony cows that are allowed to graze freely in the dry season, topping Wayne’s young mango trees and eating whatever else they can find, made a meal of Sita’s flowers. So she has enclosed it, a hidden jewel, radiant in a dusty world. It is her refuge, her pride and her testament, like her radio that blares forth its witness every morning to the world and declares before Heaven, “Yes. I am still here. Listen! I am alive!”
Meet the Author
Gail Gutradt has volunteered at the Wat Opot Children’s Community in Cambodia since 2005. Her stories, articles, and poems have appeared in the Japan-based Kyoto Journal, as well as in the Utne Reader and Ashé Journal. Her first Kyoto Journal article, “The Things We’ve Gone Through Together,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Bar Harbor, Maine.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Very warm, loving, inspiring and easy to read book. Loved it.