Finding Great Love

Stumbling over her Calling

By Kelly Louiseize

Editor Jennifer J. Lacelle

Date: May 18, 2021

She knew it. It was like finding her greatest love and her deepest heartache at the same time. It was soul-wretchedly beautiful, from the inside out, and people around her knew it.

There were two times in Tammy Durand’s life when she threw caution to the wind. The first was when she decided not to get back on the tour bus in Cambodia. The second was when she and her husband, Charlie Pomroy, adopted three Cambodian children.

Eleven years ago, after saving (CAD)$2,000 for a dream adventure voluntourism vacation to East Asia, Tammy came back a forever changed woman. The tour began in Vietnam and was to end in Lao. After volunteering for two days at a Siem Reap Cambodian orphanage, Tammy began making excuses to stay a little longer. She postponed sites to the temples, called Air Canada to re-schedule her flight back. Then it hit her. As the rest of the group was climbing on the tour wagon, Tammy stood outside of it sobbing uncontrollably in the sand. She didn’t want to go. Tammy felt that she belonged right where she was.

“Calm down Tammy,” said one of the tourists, who did not understand. “There’ll be poor kids in the next country. You have paid a lot to be here. You don’t seem to have as much money as the rest of us.”


She was right about that. Tammy scrimped and saved to go on this trip. Thailand was a place she had always wanted to go. She didn’t have the same affluence or easy access to cash as the rest of them. But now, she was willing to throw it all away? What was happening?

Maybe it was the song “This is Me” by Demi Lovato that she kept on replay, crying herself into the awareness. The music was not her choice but her younger cousin’s campy Disney rock. Still, the message was clear. Stay. Empower these villagers.

Was she up to the challenge? Was she going to make a difference?

Coming Home to Questions

Tammy spent a month in Siem Reap before returning home to questions and concerns from family and friends. They were worried. Why would she spend the money she worked so hard to save on Cambodian children? Why would she step off the bus and end her vacation prematurely? Why on earth would she extend her time in Cambodia?

When Tammy landed at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, it was Ranjit’s husband who greeted her. Ranjit is Tammy’s best friend.

“What’s going on with you,” Matt Berzese asked.

She tried to give him answers that made sense, that showed a clear line of thought and direction.

It probably would have eased his mind and hers, but she couldn’t.

The truth was Tammy was overwhelmed by her experience. All she could say was that she was a changed woman.


Her mission now was to go back as soon as possible. Ranjit expressed concern as did Tammy’s mother, Diane Renaud.

Tammy didn’t know how she was going to get back there. If it meant working on the ice roads up North, she was ready.

As it was, Tammy did have a good job with ProNorth Transport out of North Bay, Ontario, handling logistics for four years and she loved the job. Her nickname around the office was Tammy Grin.

“I lived a good life,” Tammy says. “I was the happiest person in the world and couldn’t imagine anything better. I would not have known anything was missing. But what I have now is such a blessing. I feel like I won the lottery!”


Scrounging Money to go Back

After speaking with her mother, Tammy decided to quit her job and work at fundraising for her trip back. She literally pedaled to every Tim Horton’s on route to Toronto with a can.

She showed pictures of Cambodian children to potential donors.

She sold T-shirts and after four months, she raised (US) $3,000 enough to board a plane back to Cambodia and put the money to good use.

She bought a cow, 30 chickens and began a breakfast program for 70 children who looked to her for sustenance.


“When you give rice to a five-year-old child and they begin to cry because they’re afraid they cannot take it home without dropping it, it just pulls at you. On one hand, you are so full of love that you are able to provide food, but you’re also heartbroken because you know no five-year-old child should have to care that much about rice.”


Children’s clothing was next. Their clothes were so filthy it was literally baked on their skin. Mud, bugs, beatles, lice and stains were so imbedded, it took at least seven body washings to find the child beneath the neglect. In Canada, most dogs are treated better.

On market day, one of the volunteers found third-hand dirty clothes piled high beside a rotting fish wagon. Tammy made her way through the pile, picking clothes for 70 children. Each received a new garment. It didn’t matter if it fit. If the child couldn’t use it, likely his sister or brother could.

“They were so unbelievably grateful, bowing deeply and respectfully. They were more grateful than any Canadian child would have been if you gave them the latest iPhone.”

Tammy was due to come home in March 2009. Again, her ticket was booked. She was happy with her progress but felt the need to return to Canada to address the financial debt that was piling up from establishing this community. Life, however, had other plans.

Opportunity Knocks

In the following week, Tammy had an unusual visitor knocking at her door — a landlady from a nearby village. The woman had heard people talking about how Tammy was instrumental in giving hope and education to the children. She suggested Tammy rent land ($75/month) from her to develop a real school for all the children within a three-kilometer radius.

“She really was the catalyst to the whole project.” Tammy confirmed.

With her thumbprint Tammy signed the contract right about the time mom called to see when she was returning to Canada. Again, Tammy began making excuses. “When my nieces graduate, when Halloween is over, when Christmas is done.”

Finally, they both knew: Tammy wasn’t going back.


A new bamboo hut was built on the land from helpful volunteers. It was the first school building, made of old bamboo ravaged from a recent hurricane. A sign posted in the village of Tak Sen Tebong indicated classes were to begin March 1, 2009. But what was Tammy thinking? She wasn’t a teacher.

The children didn’t wait for March 1st. They began showing up that afternoon and they kept coming! Overjoyed with the response, Tammy hunted for a part time job to keep the momentum going. Volunteers began joining through Facebook blogs and voluntourism sites. It reminded her of a YouTube video she saw illustrating leadership and the courage of followers.

Weeks went by and more children showed, meaning four more bamboo huts were built. At around the eight-week mark, Tammy realized the absence of the children. The numbers were plummeting. She and a translator went to the villages and identified children who just last week shared space in her classroom.


“I was gutted, thinking I didn’t do it right,” she explained. “Another part of me thought I had been hoodwinked into doing this when clearly the villagers didn’t want this at all. I was angry, sad, disappointed in myself.”

The translator asked the parents why the children were not at school. Children in Cambodia villages work as hard as their parents. Time away meant that someone else had to assume their job. Parents were not able to afford that loss, and they needed the children at home. This was a problem.

But Tammy’s brain thinks differently. When a problem arises, she finds a way around or through it. There is always a solution. Always.

ABCs and Rice

She began selling T- shirts on Siam Reep streets. After being out in the hot sun for the whole day, tired, spiritually spent, she begged a gentleman she knew to buy one.

Instead, he bought her a bottle of water and a slice of pizza. He berated her for believing she could make a difference — coming into Cambodia with western ideals.

As he was admonishing her, two couples within earshot were listening.

It wasn’t hard. This gentleman was far from discreet. They asked what she would use the money for.


“I just need enough money to buy some rice for the families so the children can go back to school.”

They were moved by her intentions and offered to buy rice for the school.

“I realized I couldn’t get anyone to give me $5 but donors would buy $20 of rice. This was an even better solution. If I sent money home to villagers, there was a good chance the parents would use it for wine or gambling when what they really needed was food.

From Riel to Rice

Her currency changed from riel to rice. Each child left the school every second week with enough rice for his or her family and so began the not-for-profit organization ABCs and Rice.

What was once a breakfast club for 70 children, consisting only of five eggs, gallons of water with rice, and soy sauce, (if they had a budget) had now become a well-balanced nutritional meal for 280 children.

Not only did they eat breakfasts, but lunches too because it is hard for the children to learn when they have nothing in their stomach.

Lunchtime meals consisted of rice to six children who didn’t have food at home.

Then the lunch table grew as did the meal, including vegetables and meat as part of their staple.


The demand spawned the creation of their own vegetable and livestock farm. However, with so many other projects to tend, Tammy delegated the responsibility to a disability society. Four disabled families managed the farms and tended to livestock in lieu of free rent.

ABCs and Rice didn’t turn away one child. When Tammy realized two young girls with polio and spinal cord injury were left out of school because of limited access, pathways and roads were made wheelchair accessible.

ABCs and Rice has become much more than a school. It has become the moral fibre of the community, teaching not only students but parents how to care.


Domestic violence is normal there. Children and parents are confronted with situations they should never have to face.

Consider the thought of giving up a child to sex trafficking because the family needs money.

Which one of the children would get an education and which one needs to be sold to a sweat shop?

“There is always someone in the community that had to sell their child.”

It is hard for Canadians to look at this and call it community because Western standards clash with Eastern culture.


“We are lucky in Canada. We never have to face such tragedy. Of course, it is against the law to sell children in Cambodia, but it’s not enforced.”

Recently, two of her students were caught in trafficking circles. A nine-year-old, disabled boy was sold to an orphanage. He was a perfect horror story to feed off empathetic donors. Although she did not want to disclose how she had him returned, he was back in school in less than six months.

The other 13-year-old boy was sold and smuggled to Bangkok to work at night in a T-shirt packing plant. Tammy had him smuggled back.



She can already see the fruits of her labour. The village has expanded with more community groups and organizations.

Tak Sen Tebong now has a library, a soccer field, a large kitchen with three full-time cooks, a playground with swings and a solid curriculum hosting 12 classes a day in seven open air, prefabricated classrooms.

Graduates from ABCs and Rice are heading to post-secondary school with the help of the Cambodian Education Fund, S. E Asia Foundation, the Government of Cambodia and private donors.

Three are in chef school, two in medical school practicing to be doctors, one in agricultural science and others are studying design, teaching, information technology, international relations and a handful in hotel management courses.

A recent graduate from hotel management landed a job, and he is now sending money home to his parents and volunteering at ABCs through motivational sessions with the children. Others return regularly during the semester breaks to assist in food distributions and administration duties.

The reality is that these children will never need gifts from a not-for-profit or ask the government to pay for schooling once they are employed. They will have the means to take care of it on their own.

There is a saying. How do you eat an elephant: one bite at a time. Well, the same goes for a village. How do you change a village? One person at a time.

Click here to fund ABCs and Rice directly, or go to the Kingdom of Cambodia (Ministry of Foreign Affairs & International Cooperation). You can also view the ABCs and Rice Covid 19 Response Outreach Program here.

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