KAMPONG THOM, CAMBODIA – Just two days before Christmas, the warm December sun beats down on a red cafeteria building in Cambodia’s Kampong Thom province. Inside, the melodious tune of Joy to the World greets the 30-member audience as children confidently perform a production of the Christmas story.
Welcome to the Shelter of Love Center, a central Cambodian refuge for dozens of children. What started as a simple idea in 2002 has now grown into a place that offers not only love, but also hope, joy and the chance at a better future.
A dark past
To strangers, the warm smiles and infectious laughter of the Shelter of Love Center residents seem like those of any other children. For these children, however, a happy demeanor usually masks a painful past.
Fifty-seven children now call this place home, including both orphans and those abandoned by families too poor to care for them.
“Statistics show that 80 percent of the children living in children’s homes in third world countries are there not because they are orphans but because of poverty. We find that to be true,” said Sue Singleton, founder of the children’s home. “Actually, 30 percent of our children are orphans, meaning no living mother or father. But many others we don’t know where the mother or the father [are]. Many of the children came from homes in which they were living with a grandmother or an aunt who loved them but could not afford to take care of them. Every child’s story is different.”
One of those stories includes a girl who lived under a piece of plastic on the street. Too poor for food, she sniffed glue to satisfy her hunger. Singleton said she clearly remembers the events that led to the child’s rescue.
“She was 10 years old, she had never been to school, she had never held a pencil in her hand, so her small motor skills weren’t developed,” Singleton said. “She had walked around town with a rice bag thrown over her shoulder, looking for recyclables to sell. The police actually asked us if we would take her. I will always be amazed at that, because usually the police don’t care about street children. In fact, if anything, they might abuse them. So I just could know that God had a plan for her to be rescued.”
Although the rescued girl continues to have learning disabilities, she is now in the eighth grade and will participate in vocational training in the future, Singleton said.
A brighter future
Once children arrive at the center, they are immersed in education, including classes in English, music and art. Elementary students attend class at a Christian English school in the mornings; in the afternoons, two tutors at the center teach them Khmer studies.
When the students graduate from high school, each one will proceed to study at a university or a vocational training center. In fact, nine students from the Shelter of Love Center are currently pursuing bachelor’s degrees in fields ranging from law to medicine, achievements that Singleton said give her hope for the future.
“I just see so much potential in them being Christian leaders,” she said. “And we need that. I look forward to what God is going to do through them in the years ahead.”
Singleton said the students’ progress makes her work worthwhile. “When I see the children develop, it does my heart so much good,” she said. “Because if they had not come here, they would probably have never gotten to really develop their God-given gifts.”
Despite the fulfillment of witnessing her students grow intellectually, Singleton said the real joy comes from watching them mature spiritually.
Yom, a 20-year-old, has lived at the center for seven years and attributes much of his success to Singleton’s care. “I think this place is very good and very nice,” he said. “It made me know a lot about everything, especially the best thing for me is I know Jesus Christ. Sue told me about Jesus Christ. I also listen and try to understand more about the…Bible and also try to listen to the pastor when he preaches on Sundays.”
Because of the impact Singleton has on his life, Yom said he hopes to one day show his appreciation. “Sue is really good for me. I think maybe one day I can help Sue with something. I can grow up and have a good job and maybe I can do something that is good for her.”
For Singleton, the children’s faith in Christ is payment enough. In fact, she said every older child at the center has made a profession of faith.
“Many of them came from non-Christian families, so many came not knowing anything about Jesus,” Singleton said. She recounted the story of one of those children – a little boy named Luke.
“Little Luke was an infant. His father came riding up on a bicycle, having ridden three hours looking for a place because [Luke] was very sick,” she said. His mother died in childbirth, all-too-common tragedy in the healthcare-deprived country.
“When I took a look at him, I thought, ‘We don’t have any provisions for infants.’ We had been open about four months, and no infants had come our way. So here was this baby. But my second thought was, ‘If we don’t take him, he’s going to die.’ He was hardly moving.”
After taking Luke to the hospital, he began to live at the children’s home. But unlike most parents, Luke’s father continued to return for visits, which eventually led to the man’s spiritual rescue.
“He came one Sunday, heard a clear presentation of the Gospel [and] became a believer. The next week I sent two young adults to do regular Sunday Bible studies at his home. About a year after that, seven people were baptized in that village.”
A call to ‘something different’
Sitting in the sewing room of the Cambodian children’s home, tears well up in Singleton’s eyes as she recounts the events that led her from a comfortable life in North Carolina to this unknown calling in Southeast Asia.
“In 1989, on a cold, rainy day in eastern North Carolina, my husband was tragically killed by a drunken driver,” she said. “And so in that ensuing year, I knew that God was calling me into something different. At that time, my final work in the U.S. had been owning a fabric store. I suddenly felt very unhappy with that, where previously it had been a work that I enjoyed. I knew then that God was calling me to foreign missions.”
When that calling came, she was in her early fifties.
After visiting Latin America several times over the years, Singleton said she became eager to serve God in that area.
“I said, ‘Oh yes, Lord, anywhere in Spanish-speaking Central or South America’ – because I could speak Spanish fairly well [and] thought that seemed easy. When you’re past 50, to start learning a new language is not necessarily easy. “
Unfortunately for her Spanish-speaking skills, God had other plans.
“It was a good lesson in that we don’t tell God what we’ll do but we ask Him what He would have us do,” she said. “And He will direct us. In fact, Proverbs 3:5-6 have always been verses that were very important to my life.”
Those verses would prove more important than ever as the International Mission Board (IMB) asked her to serve in Cambodia. “Cambodia was a new country for Southern Baptists. The first couple had come in 1990 and had discovered one of the ways we could come into the country was to teach English. I got a master’s degree in teaching English as a second or foreign language. Four days after I took my oral comps, I boarded the plane to Cambodia in 1993.”
In 2000, after serving in Phnom Penh, the country’s capital, Singleton moved to Kampong Thom province and began to fill an obvious void. “I saw so many students going back and forth to school and no missionaries working with them,” she said. “I took on the challenge of living in Kampong Thom.”
Two years later, that challenge morphed into yet another venture as an American couple approached Singleton about building a children’s home in the province. “I got permission to use some of my time to build the Shelter of Love Center for children,” Singleton said. “I call it my moonlighting job, because it was not part of the plan of the IMB.”
With 28 children, the center opened February 21, 2005. The campus now includes three houses, a dining hall, computer lab, sewing room and woodworking shop. Nearly eight years later, Singleton said she remains amazed at God’s work.
“It’s just been a real blessing to me to see children rescued from really dire situations and for them to come to know the love of Jesus. Most of them have never known their earthly fathers, so when they learn there’s a Heavenly Father that loves them, it’s just a blessing in their lives.”
Available, not able
Nineteen years after she first boarded a plane to Cambodia, Singleton, now 74, retired from the IMB October 31, 2012. Instead of staying in the United States, Singleton said she plans to live out her retirement among those she is called to serve – the people of Cambodia. And with that, she remains confident God will continue to provide.
“God has been faithful,” she said. “That is the thing that I would say the most: God is always faithful. And if we are available to Him, then He gives us the ability to do whatever He calls us to do. I once heard a missionary say, ‘God doesn’t want our ability; He wants our availability.’ I now understand that very clearly, because I didn’t really feel so qualified. But I knew how to tell people about Jesus and that they needed to be saved.”
And as the Christmas songs crescendo in that red cafeteria building in central Cambodia, Singleton smiles and applauds.
“They did that. They did that themselves,” she later says proudly. For her, however, there remains unfinished work. “I just see that there’s so much more to be done. There’s still so many people who have not heard of Jesus.”
And for Singleton, the smiles of the children at the Shelter of Love Center are just the motivation she needs.
Donations to Shelter of Love Center can be sent to:
18 Souder Court
Richmond, VA 23227
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