A Farewell to Ilse, our Champion Caretaker

After an eventful and highly rewarding six months, Ilse, our temporary caretaker and teacher, is leaving to return to her home in Belgium.

Ilse came to Little Hearts in February, primarily to help out in Tony’s absence. As some of you know, Tony had been struggling with a long-term knee injury, and after undergoing an unsuccessful operation in Malaysia last year, he was determined to get better once and for all, so he consulted a specialist in Belgium and decided to have another surgery, and to remain there to give himself ample time for follow-ups and proper recovery. Anticipating that he’d be gone for several months, he hired Ilse to help Ruth and Roxanne run Little Hearts. And he couldn’t have made a better choice – not only is Ilse an accomplished educator who teaches secondary school at home, she is also a trained psychotherapist with plenty of experience in child psychology. So Ilse took a break from her regular job, packed her bags, left her family behind, and headed for Phnom Penh.

In a whirlwind six months, Ilse filled in wherever she was needed. She acted as a caretaker to the kids alongside Roxanne, which, in her own words, meant ‘doing everything that you have to do in a household with kids, except that you have so many children to mind that you end up having to be much stricter in order to get everything done’. From early in the morning until the kids went to sleep, her work included supervising the children’s hygiene and morning routine, taking care of sick children, disciplining naughty children, counselling children who had problems of their own or quarrels with others, helping with their school work, organizing activities and excursions, and so forth. In the afternoons after school (or the mornings, depending on the rotation), she also taught general knowledge to all age groups, including history, culture, norms and values, developmental psychology, and even philosophy.

But her job didn’t stop there. She also supported Ruth in the day-to-day management of the facility – managing the existing staff, recruiting and training new staff, dealing with suppliers and sponsors, and much more. As a full-time caretaker, she was formally registered with the Department of Child Welfare and lived at Little Hearts during the week, and often on the weekend as well.

Here is how she summed up her experience at Little Hearts:

All children are individuals and need personal attention, which is quite a challenge when there are more than 30 of them. That’s where I really wanted to make a difference. When Tony is here, he often takes the children out in small groups of four or five on weekends, to eat in a restaurant or go to the movies. I wanted to establish that kind of rapport with them. At the same time, though, I tried not to let them become too attached to me. Children, especially the younger ones, quickly attach themselves to adults who care for them, and it can be a great disappointment when a caretaker leaves again.

I knew I’d be here for just six months and didn’t want to cause the kids any pain when I left, so I tried to keep my distance. I told them right off the bat that I was coming temporarily because their dad needed help, and that I have another life in Belgium that I must go back to. But I have failed in this – I had a very hard time not becoming attached. They are such cuties, and as a parent myself, I couldn’t resist mothering them. Of course, I’ll come to Cambodia again to visit them. They’re not going to get rid of me so easily!

What was the most difficult moment she faced while at Little Hearts?

The most difficult time was when many of the kids caught Covid while Roxanne was on vacation, and I had to deal with the situation mostly by myself. If your child is sick you’re worried, but when more than a dozen children are ill, that’s a scary feeling. Saying goodbye to all the kids, as well as the staff, will probably be a difficult moment too.

And what were the most memorable moments?

One day two of the older kids and I decided to clean out and repair the fish pond that’s in our front garden. It was leaking, so it had to be fixed. That meant first catching all the fish (without a net!), pumping out the water, scrubbing and sanding and painting the bottom, fixing the crack, filling it with water again, and putting the fish back in. Not a job that can be done in a few hours! But it was so much fun to work together, and the result was really rewarding. On the day we had to refill the pond, it was so hot outside that we were afraid the fish would cook in the water, so before putting them back in the pond we fetched several bags of ice and threw it in. We also shoved ice down each other’s shirts and splashed around in the ice-cold water for over an hour. It was a blast!

Another time, I took several children to Phnom Penh to attend a sporting event; we watched a football match and a few boxing bouts. Later that evening we had to return home by bicycle, but by then it was raining heavily – a real monsoon downpour, with thunder and lightning. We were wet to the bone, and two of the kids got flat tires which we had to repair, and one child got left behind at the ferry terminal and we had to go back to rescue him. It was such a miserable end to an otherwise enjoyable day. We couldn’t wait to get home! When we were safely inside the gates of Little Hearts – all of us – I was so relieved. Then I took the best shower ever, and the late-night dinner that Ma Khun had left for us tasted better than anything I’d ever eaten before.

So you see, my time at Little Hearts was fascinating, eventful, very tiring at times, educational, but above all something that I would not have missed for all the money in the world.

Thank you, Ilse, for helping Little Hearts when we really needed it, and for being such a courageous, dedicated and energetic member of our family. We wish you all the best as you return to your everyday life in Belgium, and look forward to seeing you soon.

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