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Feeble Children of Cambodia Evoke Heartbreak, Inspiration

When Farmer left for Cambodia, she had no training in art therapy, says Breitenbach. "At first, she wondered if the experience was right for her. But she stuck with it. She overcame her initial trepidation. It was a transformative experience."

She used her camera to connect with the children, he says. And later, she taught the children to use cameras to document their world and express themselves. In essence, she used photography to become an art therapist.

Passion leads to purpose

Farmer's own childhood was spent in New Smyrna Beach. A "super-good" student, she admits using her good grades to hide her "troublemaker tendencies."

The summer she turned 14, she spent with her grandparents in Iowa. "At the end of the vacation, I just stayed," she says.

"It was a good decision. School was much more challenging, and I fell in with kids who were openly religious. I became interested in the ideas of humility and sacrifice. I wanted to become a nun."

That dream took her to Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. There, to her surprise, she was appointed campus photographer. "I took awful pictures," she says, "but I fell in love with the camera."

About the same time, she realized the life of a nun was not for her. She returned to Florida, completed the photography course at DBCC, and last year graduated with a degree in the field from the San Francisco Art Institute.

Although she had abandoned formal religion, she still had strong spiritual leanings. "I started to realize I must try to meld the worlds of art and spirituality," she says.

That quest took her on a photographic expedition to India last summer -- an experience that whetted her appetite for further travel in Southeast Asia. When a professor mentioned an art-therapy program at a hospital in Cambodia, "I was nervous," she says. "I'd never done anything like that. But I thought, why not?"

She arrived in mid-September, in the middle of the night, in the middle of a monsoon deluge. Drenched and jet-lagged, she collapsed onto her bed in the compound shared by about 35 other volunteers, most from Europe and Australia.

The next morning, she reported to the hospital.

"I knew it would be different from an American hospital. I knew there would be sick children," she says. She had no idea how different, nor how sick.

Art therapy in action

The hospital is in Siem Reap, a provincial town close to Cambodia's famous temples of Angkor Wat. Founded by nonprofit Friends Without A Border, it has four large wards with beds for about 75 children.

Because the medical staff also treats more than 300 outpatients daily, the routine care and comforting of the children in the wards falls to family members and volunteers.

"On my second day, I was put in charge of a 6-year-old boy with AIDS," says Farmer. "His father had abandoned the family. His mother was working and also taking care of his little sister. He was all alone."