Friday, March 26, 2010

Gravenhurst Rotary Bikes and YWCA Women In Business Sewing Machines

The sixth, and last month of my volunteer work here in Cambodia has been the busiest yet, with yet a couple of small projects to implement before I head back to Canada in 3 days!

On March 20th, 37 Rotary Club of Gravenhurst, Ontario, Canada (District 7010) bicycles, and 5 ‘A Mine Free World Foundation’ (AMFW) donor-sponsored bicycles were picked up from the wholesaler in Phnom Penh. That same afternoon, the 5 AMFW bicycles were distributed to 5 needy students living on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. These students lived considerable distances away from their homes, and these bikes will make their daily trip to school more quicker. It will also ensure their regular attendance.

That afternoon Khmer volunteer Un Vanthon and his family loaded and secured the 37 bikes that would head down to rural Takeo province the next morning. Also loaded on the truck were 2 sewing machines, tables and sewing supplies that were donated by the Muskoka YWCA Women in Business Group and Leslie Chamberlain. Their donation of $200 empowered two rural impoverished women! They now have their own self-sustainable home-based sewing and clothes repair businesses. Both these recipients had past sewing experience, but lacked a machine and supplies. Both recipients are also receiving free ‘brush-up’ sewing lessons from another qualified local seamstress. Thanks to local teacher, Ban Ven who will be monitoring this project for me while I am in Canada.

Also, loaded on the truck was a water pump and lengths of hose that were donated to the monks by my good volunteer friend Pauline Johns of Australia. Pauline has volunteered for almost all the bike distributions this past winter and has been an invaluable help.

Water is scarce in the dry season in the rural areas. Many people’s ponds are dried up for months, which means water for home and cattle are a one or two kilometer walk away. A water pump was a good solution for these elderly monks. They now can pump the water from the pond close to their pagoda. I found out that the reason that many of these ponds are dried up is because they have not been dug to the 3 meter required depth. Poor people in these villages just don’t have the money to have the equipment come in to dig them deeper.

5 am Sunday morning, the truck loaded with bikes, sewing machines, pumps and hose headed down to the village of Trapeang Ta Soam, about 25km west of Takeo city. Our minivan of volunteers left at 7am, arriving in Trapeang Ta Soam about 9am. When we arrived at the bicycle distribution site - Trapeang Thum primary school - all the bike recipients, parents, monks, area teachers, officials and monks were waiting for us! A loudspeaker and mike had been set-up and Pauline and I were ushered to a make-shift head table where we enjoyed a fresh coconut drink.

In Cambodia, most projects are received with such a ceremony. Permission from village and commune officials must be acquired before conducting or implementing a project. Doing this, also facilitates further projects that would be conducted in that same area. By having followed this protocol, that names of ’Rotary’ and ’A Mine Free World Foundation’ are welcomed help in this rural area.

The ceremony began with us kneeling in front of the local monks and receiving their blessings for us and our gifts. Cambodia is 95% Theravada Buddhist and Buddhism is an important part of their daily life.

Next came the speeches, by the local officials (pictured on right), by Un Vanthon, our ‘Rotary’ volunteer, translator and facilitator, and then by me.

This was followed by the bike distribution. Each student and bike were numbered, and one by one, the children were called to the head table, where their personal info was recorded onto the ‘Bike Application Form’ . then they signed the form, and proceeded to the bike distribution area, where they were photographed receiving their bike. Pauline, Vanthon and I have streamlined this mass bike distribution process down to a fine art. It couldn’t have gone smoother.

We were done about noon, and then had a quick lunch in the village before heading off to our next project for the day - delivering the two sewing machines.

Both area sewing machine recipients lived in poor bamboo huts. The one woman was a widow with two children. The other was a mother with 4 children. Her husband was a poor farmer (as most are in the rural areas), and only receives an income of maybe $1/day when a neighboring rice farm is looking for some help for the harvest. These small rural self-sustainable businesses are a godsend for these women. They could not thank us enough. The one recipient offered us 5 mangoes and one cucumber as a thank you gift.

There are many small rural business ventures that can improve the lives of rural people. They include chicken and duck raising, fish farming, Bike and Motto repair, barbering, weaving and crafts, carpentry, vegetable and mushroom growing, noodle and home-based food businesses…just to name a few. Businesses along this line provide a quick income, as opposed to pig and cow raising, where income takes time to generate. Anyone interested in sponsoring a small business for a rural person can contact me at: .

In October, our team of volunteers will be heading into Battambang province, the most heavily mined province in Cambodia, and through ‘A Mine Free World Foundation’ we want to implement some rural-based businesses for landmine survivors. More businesses are needed for the poor in rural Takeo as well.

Later that afternoon, we stopped at our next wonderful project: ‘Big Love’ Free Education school.
This school has been the dream of qualified rural teacher, Ban Ven for quite some years. The local government school is quite some distance away from ‘Big Love’ school at the foothills of the western area hills. Some of the children, who now have bikes, can attend both the government and ‘Big Love’ school’. But for many children and illiterate adults (women in particular), this is their only available school.

A few months ago, a neighboring widow donated some of her land for this school building. The village adults and children had all worked together to build his simple bamboo-structured school. Ban Ven already has 56 children that he and his niece are teaching. More are arriving daily. Area women have asked for a literacy class. There are many women in the area whose husbands have left them, and who live by very poor means. Many other women are abused by husbands suffering from alcoholism. Ben Van would like to start a support group for them there. Many of the people lack basic knowledge of sanitation and first aid. So much basic education is needed in that area.

Teacher Ban Ven is qualified to handle the rural educational needs here. He recently returned from a rural improvement training course in Japan that was partially sponsored by Rotary International! Ven grew up in this area and has 15 brothers and sisters. His only income is that what he makes as a farmer.

Pauline Johns’ family has donated money for desks and school supplies for this school and it’s students. Jim Goodwin has donated a bicycle for this teacher. The Rotary Club of Gravenhurst has donated US$87 towards the cost of the 51 student books the children are now learning from. This tiny school, built on the dream of one man with the help of the villagers themselves, is well on its way to providing basic education for these rural people.

July will see a Giant Garage Sale in Muskoka that will go towards the continuing needs of this rural school which is supported by ‘ A Mine Free World Foundation’. Money raised will go towards a concrete floor for this school to ease conditions in the rainy season. More bikes, sandals, clothes and school bags are needed for these children. I am looking for a Gravenhurst location to hold this sale…please contact me if you can help.

It was an immense joy to see the eagerness of the children to learn at this tiny school.

In Cambodian culture, it is not polite to visit an area, give out gifts, and then leave. The rest of he afternoon was spent visiting and eating with rural families.

It was a long but happy day, and by late afternoon our team of volunteers headed to Takeo city where we spent the night in a small guesthouse to rest up for the next days events…going back to Phnom Penh with 5 local blind and diseased children. They, and their parents were coming back to Phnom Penh with us to seek medical attention for their various conditions. Vanthon and I had identified them when we were doing the home-interviews for the bike applicants during our last visit there. Pauline Johns is now sponsoring their medical treatment. More on this in my next blog entry.