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Orphaned No More

Shanon's story by Maritess Villanueva Mayer

With every brushstroke, Shanon Hladek could feel his curious little eyes looking at her. Shanon had gone to Cambodia in 2008 on her first short-term mission to help invest in orphans, painting their homes, building a cafeteria, and spending quality time with the kids. Nine-year-old Nano was among the many young and forgotten children that had found a family while living at a Foursquare Church orphan home, and he hadn’t stopped watching Shanon since she’d arrived. Nano was so elated with Shanon’s presence, love, and care that one day, he wrapped his arms around her neck and asked if she would be his mom. “It was in hearing Nano’s request that I felt God asking me, ‘will you answer my call to love those deemed unlovable, touch the untouchables, and accept those that are cursed by their own people?’”

At this point, Shanon felt a strong calling to help the orphaned and abandoned children in Cambodia and she used the next ten years to prepare herself for mission work. She found herself gripped with compassion for the orphaned and abandoned children of Cambodia. The land and the people in it were still aching following the Cambodian Genocide, a violent reconstruction of the small country in 1975 through the mass killing of an estimated 3 million people. Widows and orphans remained helpless, unwanted, and cursed by their own people.

Buddhist culture believes in karma, and that if you are an orphan, it is because you have done something wrong in your past life and you are now cursed.

With this perspective, no family would take an orphan or widow into their home and care for them because they would not want that curse to be spread to their family. The Buddhist religion is respected and strictly followed by the locals and the government does not recognize children’s rights because children are considered the property of their parents. Shanon realized that this is a systemic problem in Cambodia that required them to find creative solutions for protecting the children. “In the legal system, child abuse is acceptable because they are considered their parents’ property, and what you do with your child as far as selling them into human trafficking, slave labor, or sending them to the city to work in a factory job is completely acceptable. In their culture, orphans are to be shunned and rejected,” says Shanon.

In sharp contrast to the orphans she served, Shanon was raised by loving parents who pastored churches in California and Utah. Her humble beginning as a child with complicated medical issues was something that the family had prayed about over the years. After graduating from college, Shanon was diagnosed with severe epilepsy, having up to twenty episodes a day. “I would have extreme fear, which is the initial start of it, like a fight or flight response to something that is going to happen to me. It would progress to where I would lose consciousness for a time,“ shared Shanon.

Doctors told her that the only way to control the seizures was to have brain surgery. Bathed in prayer and heeding their advice, Shanon underwent brain surgery in 2015 where the doctors successfully removed the area of her brain that was causing the seizures. Through church, prayer, and support of her loved ones, Shanon has been seizure-free since 2017. Following her recovery from brain surgery, however, Shanon experienced deep hurt and rejection from someone she loved dearly. Though her symptoms had been cured, a deeper form of pain struck her. “I was told by someone very close to me that I was no longer worthy of loving or being loved after I had brain surgery—because I was broken. I was no longer perfect and healthy. It was very traumatic for me and I’ve seen the Lord use that to give me a heart and a capacity to love these kids that have experienced rejection, loss, and unspeakable pain.

It was because of my own experience that I can go to these kids and say ‘you are worthy of being loved, you are valuable, you are priceless,” Shanon shared.

In June of 2018, Shanon answered the call God had placed on her life since she was seven years old—the call to love the unlovable. She returned to Cambodia healthy, strong, and well-equipped with new leadership skills. Shanon had committed to maximizing her gifts and educational privileges to best serve these Cambodian communities. She studied English Literature in college, became a certified pharmacy technician to help pay for school, and received her Bachelor’s degree in Children and Cross-Cultural Ministry from LIFE Pacific University. Like a puzzle waiting to be assembled, all of these areas of commitment would prepare her for the specific path that the Lord had waiting.

Shanon will be returning to Cambodia in September, working as the assistant to the national leaders for both the Cambodian Foursquare Church and Foursquare Children of Promise in Phnom Penh where she will help to meet the needs of 2,500 kids. Shanon is the lead English teacher, writing curriculum and training children’s pastors to minister among unreached people groups. She will also use her pharmacy training to help lead the medical teams that enter rural communities in Cambodia that have no access to healthcare.

Foursquare Children of Promise is a non-government organization that was started by Ted and Sou Olbrich in 1988, in a way that only God can do. The Olbrichs originally planned to plant churches. That changed one day when two babies were left with them, orphaned by parents who both had AIDS. Unprepared and ill-equipped to care for abandoned children at the time, they went to every orphanage in town to find a place for the babies—yet no one would take them in. They finally rented a former brothel and 3-story hotel with the limited funds they had and turned it into a Christ-filled sanctuary for orphaned and abandoned children. By word of mouth, hundreds of people who neither had a church nor a home came to find refuge at the former brothel.

The orphanage grew continuously, and the ministry transformed through the years as its leaders grasped the social and economic needs of the Cambodian people. Since the ministry began, they have built 106 church homes for orphans like Nano, established 6,000 local churches that care for widows and separated children, and created sustainable and ethical micro-enterprises like sewing shops, rice and fish farming, English schools, and vehicle rentals. They continue to create apprenticeship programs in respectable areas of business that provide opportunities for the people they are upholding. As they follow Jesus faithfully, the organization continues to pursue land and opportunities within their church community centers to meet the felt needs of people. Since FCOP was founded, they have cared for more than 20,000 children.

Shanon has developed a skill to discern people’s pain, because she, too, has overcome her own story of pain and loss. She can now help empower others and rewrite the narrative for many who have been rejected or forgotten. As Shanon partners with the FCOP International and the Cambodian Foursquare Church, they bring holistic health by caring for the spiritual, physical, social, and economic needs of the Cambodian people, a task for which Shanon has been uniquely prepared.

Her continued and upcoming journey in Cambodia can be followed and supported at her website, calledtotheorphan.com.

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