When Matt first traveled to Cambodia, he had no idea it would change his life forever. He was there to work with an organization called People for Care and Learning (PCL), and he was only supposed to be there for a short period.
But as he spent more and more time with the children in the organization’s orphanage, he realized that this was where he was meant to be.
One of the most powerful moments in Matt’s journey came when the children asked him if he would leave them. “I said, I’m going to stay as long as God wants me to stay. And they said, Well, we want to call you Papa Matt. Before that, I was just. Mr. Matt or Director Matt,” he recounts.
It was a nickname that he was hesitant to embrace at first, but it quickly became a term of endearment that he treasured. “I was horrified at first when they first suggested that term,” Matt recalls. “It made me feel old at the time I was 33. I’m 45 now. I objected, ‘No, please do not call me that. ‘But they insisted, and I thought it would just wear out over time, but it didn’t. It stuck, and it found a warm place in my heart.”
At that moment, it became clear how much these children needed Matt and how much they wanted to call him “Papa.” The last thing I wanted to do was add another wound to these precious hearts and end up abandoning them and moving on and saying this was just a career stepping stone or something like that. And I’m off to do the next thing. It would have been heartbreaking for them. And then I realized it would be heartbreaking for me.”
The children in the orphanage had come from difficult backgrounds, many of whom had lost or been abandoned by their parents. They were in desperate need of a parental figure, and that’s exactly what Matt became.
He spent 13 years in Cambodia, overseeing the children’s home for ten years. He watched the children grow from six, seven, and eight years old into young adults. It was a period of immense growth for Matt as well.
“It’s been the most challenging, was the most challenging time of my life, but the most rewarding,” he says. “And I’m very grateful, and it’s still ongoing today.”
Matt found a sense of purpose and meaning in his work with the children and developed a deep bond with them that he compares to the bond a parent would feel with their children.
“I began to identify with these kids in such a way as a parent would,” he says.
“And so it was one of the most challenging yet rewarding seasons of my life. I’m very grateful.“
Matt continued, “Even though I stepped down from overseeing the children’s home and moved to Thailand, those relationships are still ongoing. I handled a crisis by phone with three of my kids just today. I now help my grown-up kids navigate the rough rapids of their young adult years. “
And since he is, in many respects, the principal sort of parent in their life, he is convinced that his relationship with his children will continue until I’m in the grave.
Sometimes the most fulfilling things in life come from sacrificing our own interests for the sake of others.
Matt learned much about the meaning of family. The children in the orphanage needed a parental figure in their lives, and Matt was able to fill that role for them. He became their father figure, and they became like his own children. He provided them with love, care, and support; in return, they gave him a sense of purpose and fulfillment.
Matt experienced a life-changing adventure in Cambodia. He made a real difference in the lives of the children in his care and formed deep and lasting connections with them.
Matt’s story is a powerful reminder of the impact one person can have on the lives of others and how something that was supposed to be temporary can turn into a lifelong commitment that brings immense satisfaction.