by MIKE LESKO | REPORTER
Aurora -- When Aurora's Devin Barnes journeyed to Cambodia for more than a year as an English teacher for orphan children, her life was dramatically changed.
She became an integral part of their lives, so much so that she would lovingly refer to some as her son or daughter, and they would call her their mom.
"It was the best experience of my life," she said. "It felt like that is what I was meant to do."
Barnes, 25, is the daughter of Janis and Aurora Fire Chief David Barnes. She also has an older brother, Bradley.
Western Reserve Grace Church in Macedonia, which Barnes attends, sponsors orphan homes in Battambang, Cambodia in Southeast Asia, through Asia's Hope, which rescues orphan children and places them in homes.
"Asia's Hope gives them food, clothes, a chance to go to school and a wonderful home with two loving Christian parents who love them as if their own, so they're safe," she said. "For most of the children, their parents have died or left them. The hope is that the parents will raise these children to be the next leaders of their society and try to break the cycle of poverty."
She said the orphans are rescued from a fate like begging on the streets or being trafficked in a prostitution ring. Western Reserve Grace Church sponsors two homes with about 25 orphan children in each.
Barnes said the children live in the homes with their new Asia's Hope parents.
"The parents have their own families and children who live there, and they love and take care of the orphan children as if they are their own," she said. "They're just one big family. There are also some staff people, who in most cases are related to the parents of the homes, that help take care of them and live there, too."
Asia's Hope partners with another organization -- BrightStart Learning -- to get Cambodian children caught up in their education. BrightStart Learning sent her to start the English program in Cambodia and hired Cambodian teachers to work with the children.
BARNES made two 2 1/2-week visits to the orphan homes in June 2010 and July 2011.
After her second trip, she thought about making another trip to Cambodia for a longer stay. So she met with Kevin and Jill Kane, missionaries from Wooster who live in Cambodia.
"They were home on their five-month leave," she said. "They stay in Cambodia for three years, and then come home for five months."
Barnes said she wanted to see what their lives were like and what it would be like to live in Cambodia for six months to a year. "I felt like it was a calling," she said.
Ultimately, she ended up living with the Kanes, and spent a year raising money for the trip.
"I planned on staying for six months, but I was open to the idea of staying longer," she said. "I ended up raising enough money to stay for a year."
Her trip began July 26, 2012, and lasted 13 months, ending Aug. 27, 2013. While there, Barnes helped start an English program for the children.
"I got to be an intimate part of the children's lives," she said. "I ate meals with them, watched movies with them and helped take care of them when they were sick. It was cool to try to implement things from our culture into their culture. We worked on ways to expose these kids to different programs including English and music so their dreams could be bigger."
Barnes stayed in a large house called the Bungalow, a former restaurant that was rented to missionaries.
"People probably pictured me living in a hut," she said, "but they were wonderful living conditions. It was like a small hotel room with air conditioning and my own kitchen."
The air conditioning came in handy because in April and May, temperatures typically rose above 100 degrees.
Barnes said she often ate at the orphan homes, "so I ate whatever the kids ate -- things like noodles, rice and stir fry. I loved noodle soup, and I ate a lot of curry."
There were countless fond memories. Barnes took a young boy, Chan, 10, to Mariyann's Pizza House, which is Battambang's version of Pizza Hut, for his birthday.
"I CALL HIM my son. He calls me Mom," she said. "He ate pizza, and I bought him a remote control race car and a shirt. He had a blast."
Barnes held in her arms a girl, 9, who she called Peanut as they sang songs of worship in the orphan home. "As we sang, she fell asleep in my arms. It was so cute," she said.
Barnes celebrated Christmas and Easter with the children, and the children dyed Easter eggs, which they had never done before. Barnes cooked spaghetti for the children, who had never eaten it before. On Barnes' birthday, they ate birthday cake together.
"I got to be a part of their lives," she said. "It was a sense of comfort for them. They opened up to me."
At one point during her 13-month stay, three new children joined one of the orphan homes.
"When they got there, they were scared," she said. "But within days, they got to have food, clothes and go to school. These kids were transformed. They were just so happy. There is hope in these homes. The way they do things is just so special and unique. Helping to take care of these kids was wonderful."
Barnes' experience was so intense that returning to the United States was something she began to dread two months before it occurred. "It was hard to leave. It was terrible," she said. "I miss them every day."
After her return, Barnes was made the coordinator of trips to Cambodia by Western Reserve Grace Church, and she will make a pair of 2 1/2-week trips there each year.
Barnes said she isn't certain if she would return again for six months or a year, "but I am definitely open to it."
"I never thought I would be going to Cambodia in the first place. I was terrified," she said. "Now, I can't wait to go back. I learned so much about myself -- my strengths and weaknesses -- while I was there."
Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4187
Twitter: Mike Lesko@MikeLesko_RPC