Fifteen months ago, I came to Clayton from The News & Observer to report on a town I knew nothing about and where I didnt know anyone.
Now Im leaving with a special place in my heart for this community.
Next month I will be heading to the other side of the world, to a city more than 88 times the size of Clayton.
Im headed to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, where I will be working with a nonprofit for four months.
Though I wont be a journalist, Im sure Ill write stories about the women Ill be living with. And Im excited about the chance to tell the story of a place that few people, including myself, learned much about in school.
Just 35 years ago, the Khmer Rouge, a Communist group, took over Cambodia, killing more than 2 million people in a purge of the educated class: pastors, teachers, anyone who had graduated from school, anyone who could potentially threaten their power.
People who were leaders in their communities found themselves kicked out of their homes, forced to walk miles and miles to rural villages, not knowing why or if theyd ever return. Many of them arrived to killing stations marked by deep ditches dug by other villagers who didnt know what they were digging for. The ditches were mass graves that became known as the killing fields. I plan to visit some of them while Im there.
My job will be to live in a dorm with 40 women from rural villages. Their parents somehow survived the genocide, and now their daughters represent the best hope for the nation to rebuild the educated class that was lost. I will teach them classes in writing, public speaking, nutrition and leadership training.
It has long been my dream to work with women in Asia, ever since I traveled to Thailand when I was 15 to teach English.
But before I left, I wanted to share a few of the highlights of working in Clayton.
1. Attending Womans Club meetings on Wednesdays. Those ladies amazed me when they came together to support a family that lost its home to fire right before Christmas 2012. Within a matter of days, the Womans Club had them set up with clothes, food and even found them a home to move into.
2. Hearing Mayor Jody McLeod sing Jingle Bells at the Christmas tree lighting. He has a great voice.
3. Getting stuck at the police department when I went to interview Chief Robert Bridges. A terrible storm came up, so I couldnt walk back to my office. For 30 minutes, I spent time with the kind officers, and I even saw the chief mopping the wet floor near the entrance.
4. Spending time with Pam Baumgartner in the towns history room inside Hocutt-Ellington Memorial Library. I didnt know anything about Clayton when I came here, and Pam quickly caught me up on the towns Civil War history and showed me old photos of Main Street. For any newcomer, do yourself a favor and check out the history room. My favorite thing to learn about was Claytons moonshine history.
5. Biking on Sams Branch Greenway.
6. Meeting the owners of all of the downtown businesses, the entrepreneurs taking a risk to follow their dreams. That includes frequently buying cupcakes from Patty Cake Bakery, eating a chicken sandwich from the Clayton Steakhouse, stopping by to see Sherry Mitchell at Sherrys Cheesecakes and, of course, trying out new beers at Deep River Brewing Co. Also, it took me too long to discover Juiced Up on U.S. 70 Business, which helped me balance all that cheesecake.
7. Seeing the community come together to shave their heads and raise more than $70,000 for childhood cancer research. It was cool to see Councilman Michael Grannis and his wife Betsy shave their heads together. How many couples do that? I was inspired by their commitment to this town through their bed and breakfast, The Morning Glory Inn; their restaurant, The Clayton Steakhouse; and Michael Grannis role as a town councilman. I dont know how they do it all.
8. Working with town leaders, including Town Manager Steve Biggs, town planner David DeYoung and the towns public information officer, Stacy Beard, made my job easy. They want the best for Clayton.
9. Meeting Tom Lipscomb and walking around the Mosaic Community Garden. That may be my favorite place here.
10. And, not to forget, my favorite lunch spot, Don Betos tacos. Located next to the Long Island Deli at the intersection of Main Street and U.S. 70 Business, I spent most lunch breaks at that spot, and I will truly miss those authentic tacos.
With so many changes on the horizon new apartments, restaurants and a full-service hospital Clayton wont be the same, even six months from now. Im curious to come back and visit. Thank you to everyone who welcomed me to your home. From Clayton to Cambodia, Im thankful I got to spend part of my journey with you all.
If youd like to see a video I made about my trip, visit: youcaring.com/sendamandatocambodia.