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Fundraiser giving back to a woman who has given a lot

By Anna Isaacs

Publication: The Day

Published December 27. 2013 4:00AM   Updated December 27. 2013 11:53AM

New London - Somaly Hay has endured her share of hardship.

A native Cambodian born in the country's capital, Phnom Penh, Hay was a dancer in the royal palace until the Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975. The genocide claimed more than half of her family - including her parents, from whom she was separated when she was 16 years old.

She, her husband, brother and first of two daughters were granted asylum in the United States in 1981.

Now, she is known as the beloved owner of Somaly Hay & Co. on Golden Street, where she sells jewelry, clothing, handbags, accessories and handmade crafts from Cambodia. Hay brings back one-third of the store's profits to a village in her native country during an annual two-month trip, also doling out secondhand clothing and over-the-counter medications.

The store, along with her home in Waterford, is also where she teaches her language and culture to Cambodian children in the area, serving homemade traditional food and maintaining a far-flung and vibrant community.

Two months ago, the 54-year-old was diagnosed with stage IIIC colon cancer.

Though Hay has never touched alcohol, tobacco, coffee, or even tea - though she's never even taken Tylenol for a headache, and has no recollection of ever being truly sick - she still blames herself.

"This is the fault of me," she said - that is, of the mentality she brought with her as a refugee, determined to work hard, show gratitude, give back and survive. "I always am determined to conquer everything."

Despite the stresses of owning a small business, despite the exhaustion, and despite even the pain she began to feel last year, she powered through. By the time Hay wound up in the emergency room in October for pain she could no longer ignore, the cancer had reached an advanced stage.

Even now, having completed her second four-hour chemo session, she remains resilient, changing course quickly when she catches herself indulging just momentarily in perfectly reasonable fear or sadness: "But I'm OK," she'll say. "It's OK."

Her store will remain open for the next few days, as her husband, Khandarith, cleans out and shuttles inventory back to their garage. But facing three months of chemotherapy and mounting expenses for the treatment that may or may not be successful, they will shut their business down completely by the end of the year.

Rich Martin, owner of The Telegraph next door to Hay's store, began noticing that they were closed more often than not. While running errands a few weeks ago, Martin ran into Khandarith, who gave him the news.

Hay and her husband began moving into the Golden Street space around the same time that Martin and his wife, Daphne, were starting up their record store. They were thrilled to be neighbors with another fledgling small business. It was as though they had "a little team" going, Martin said.

His first impression of the Hays' being "just bright, happy, charming people" endured. Somaly Hay in particular is always a "beacon of positive energy," he said, who has since touched many in the community with her story and her spirit.

"Running a small business is hard enough as it is," he said. "And now they're faced with this ugliness."

So Martin decided to do something about it.

Within 24 hours of setting up a fundraiser on YouCaring.com, nearly $1,000 had poured in from community members who left messages of strength, courage, love, healing and peace. The website has the same format as the popular crowd-sourced fundraising site Kickstarter.com, but without the caveats. Even if the $10,000 goal isn't met, Hay will receive all of the donations, with no cut for YouCaring.

Martin had originally invited about 60 friends to a Facebook event for the fundraiser, but when he checked back the following day, more than 500 people had been invited.

The grammar worked out perfectly, he said: When he gets a notification that someone has joined, it reads, "So-and-so is going to Help Somaly Hay with mounting medical expenses."

Hay said she is uncomfortable of the role reversal, of being the recipient of others' generosity. She knows well that many are still struggling in the aftermath of the recession. Upon seeing the fundraising page for the first time, she cried, at first in shame - but also gratitude.

"It hit my heart," she said.

Though Martin doesn't expect to reach the fundraiser's goal, he said its use as a forum for Hay's many well-wishers is just as important. It's easy to become isolated when dealing with illness, he said. And Hay deserves to know she is loved.

"If anybody was deserving of all this, of gratitude from the community," he said, "it's her."

a.isaacs@theday.com

Follow Anna on Twitter at @AnnaIsaacs

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