Tom Kenny, right, and his daughter, Emily, pose for a photo on a boat in Cambodia. The La Grande family helped build three homes in a small village in Cambodia, while working as volunteers for Habitat for Humanity.
La Grande father, daughter part of 23-person team that built homes for families in need in Cambodian village
Electricity and running water are nowhere to be found in these two small cottage-like homes in south-central Cambodia.
What visitors will find are two of the most grateful families in Southeast Asia.
The homes are those which Tom Kenny and his daughter, Emily, recently helped build in a small Cambodian village, while working as volunteers for Habitat for Humanity.
The Kennys were part of a 23-person team that constructed a total of three homes for families in desperate need of shelter. The families had reportedly been living at a garbage dump before their homes were constructed. They understandably had an uncommon sense of elation.
“They were very emotional and very thankful,’’ said Tom Kenny, a math teacher at La Grande High School.
He noted that at ceremonies where the completed homes were presented to their owners — some who would be living in them — could not speak.
The new homes the families are now living in are solid brick, cinder block and wood structures built to withstand the intense rain Cambodia experiences. The homes, though, lack plumbing and electricity because even low-quality running water and power are so difficult to obtain in this tiny community.
The Kennys and their Habitat for Humanity team were based an hour-drive away from the village in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The Habitat for Humanity team worked from 8:30 to a.m. to 5:30 p.m. in sweltering heat and humidity for two weeks completing their homes.
“It was 80 to 90 degrees and there was crazy humidity,’’ said Emily Kenny, a La Grande beautician. “It became hard to do the simple things. It was murder to fill a bucket of sand and lift it.’’
Kenny poses for a photo with the father of the Cambodian family that moved into the Habitat for Humanity home she helped build.
Emily Kenny knew what to expect in Cambodia because in February she had served as a volunteer for a Habitat for Humanity home-building project in Bali, Indonesia.
She returned from that trip eager to convince her father to join her on another international Habitat for Humanity excursion. She said her dad was perfectly suited for this because he is “a skilled craftsman.”
“I said, ‘Oh my God dad, you have got to do this,’’ Emily Kenny recalls telling her father.
Tom Kenny was easily persuaded by his daughter to join her on the project.
“I knew that this opportunity might not come around again, so I couldn’t miss it,’’ said Tom Kenny, who has earlier worked on Habitat for Humanity building projects in La Grande.
The Kennys were the only representatives from the Northwest on the 23-member team. The other team members were from the eastern United States and the nations of Lebanon, Canada, Australia and Singapore. Each of the three teams had professional builders leading them and language interpreters.
The conditions the Habitat for Humanity teams worked in were far from ideal because of the heat, humidity and poor sanitation.
“There was a smell of sewage on-site all the time,’’ said Tom Kenny, noting that the community had no sewage system and much standing water.
The LHS math teacher said he washed his hands constantly to keep from getting sick. He noted that despite the unsanitary conditions the people living in the Cambodian village always appeared to be clean and in good health.
Still, a number had underlying medical issues. Tom Kenny noted that only families who have a least one member who is HIV positive, meaning they have the AIDS virus, were eligible for the Habitat for Humanity Homes.
This meant that some who received the homes were most happy for their families and not themselves.
“They know they will have something to pass on. They have a sense of hope for the next generation,” Tom Kenny said.
Building homes in the isolated Cambodian village is difficult not only because of the weather and unsanitary conditions, but also because of a lack of electricity.
“We did not use any power tools, our work was very labor intensive,” he said. “Mixing concrete with a hoe is hard.”