In a Rocket Made of Ice is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary place. Wat Opot Children’s Community is a Cambodian orphanage started with $50 by Wayne Matthysse, a former Vietnam medic driven to make life better for children in war-torn countries. The orphanage is home to children and women affected by HIV and AIDS, where they can get the powerful antiretroviral drugs they need to stay healthy, as well as education and a community in which they belong.

Gail Gutradt, a Maine native who has spent several stints volunteering at Wat Opot, paints an achingly beautiful portrait of the place, which may not have many material resources, but is imbued with a much-needed sense of family for children who have been orphaned by AIDS.

“In truth, daily experience at Wat Opot is complex and chaotic,” she writes. “I wake up early in the morning and someone comes running up to me for a hug. Often there are several kids hanging off my arms on the way to breakfast. Most of the day it is kids playing, running in packs, sulking, hugging, laughing, dancing, studying, doing what children do. You play with them, pick them up when they cry, let them nap on your shoulder. It is easy to forget that some are HIV positive. . . . It’s totally normal in some ways, while at the same time it is exceptional.”

The ultimate goal of Wat Opot is not just to get kids healthy, but to instill in them a belief that they can live and thrive among other Cambodians, where the stigma of HIV and AIDS lingers. Many of the children go on to university, a testament to the powerful work being done on a shoestring and a prayer. Gutradt has given us an inspiring, unforgettable book.

 

This article was originally published in the August 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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