We arrived in Siem Reap to begin our volunteer adventure with Globe Aware. We met our in-country coordinator, Dine Tuy, along with 14 fellow volunteers. It’s a wonderfully diverse group — a mix of young professionals and families – 14 of us in all. We’ve traveled from across the US, Australia and Japan. Our 9 year-old Ryan is in good company with 3 other young boys on the trip ages 11, 12 and 15.
This morning Dine led us through a rundown of the week’s activities and it’s going to be packed. The nice thing about Globe Aware is that, in addition to the volunteer projects, they plan activities to help richen our appreciation and understanding of the Cambodian culture.
Today, we visited Senteurs d’Angkor, a cooperative which trains locals to make, package and sell Khmer arts and crafts. The program is a social enterprise partnership between the Cambodian and French governments. Its aim is to teach skills, provide jobs and enable participants to support their families in rural villages. They weave baskets and make soaps, candles, lotions and spices. The sales from the gift shop help to put money back into the program. We were all impressed with the quality of the goods for sale and each of us picked up a few items to take home.
After a traditional Khmer lunch of fish and chicken dishes with rice (quite similar to Thai food), we headed over to pick up the assembly kits for our first volunteer project. We were to make 28 wheelchairs for the disabled. The kits themselves are donated by Freewheelchairmission.org but the cost of shipping for each wheelchair is $250 US dollars.
Despite the blazing heat, the group kicked into high gear to unload all of the materials – plastic chairs with pre-drilled holes, metal frames, and large boxes loaded with the wheels, hardware and assembly instructions. The four boys were particularly high energy, each one moving quickly back and forth from the storage area to the van to load them in. I have to say, I was incredibly proud of my son Ryan’s work ethic. Though only 9, he worked steadily and with incredible focus, even in the incredible heat.
When we arrived back at the hotel, we unloaded everything, cleaned off all of the chairs (which were dirty from storage) and got to work in the cement courtyard. I don’t consider myself to be mechanically inclined, but even the handy folks didn’t find the assembly intuitive or easy. Luckily, we had our guide Dine and two other gentlemen as resident experts and assistants.
I struggled through the first one, getting the wheel hardware on backwards before Dine came over to rescue me. For the second one, I found it easier to let one of the experts get it going as I played assistant – preparing the hardware, handing him parts, tightening up the nuts and putting on the finishing touches. The man I worked with didn’t speak English, but we worked seamlessly side by side. He would direct me or say, “No, no” and point me towards the right spot. There was something so satisfying about getting into a groove with a complete stranger and we quickly assembled 2 additional chairs.
It was incredibly ambitious to try to make 28 wheelchairs. Dine had figured 2 for each of the 14 volunteers, but there were many mitigating factors. First of all, many of us couldn’t really accomplish it on our own or we struggled through it extremely slowly. The younger kids worked alongside adults as they could, but much of what was required was too difficult. Steve and Frank were shooting for the documentary, so they were “out”. Lastly, 2 of our volunteers had not yet arrived. So the goal of 2 per person really boiled down to 3 or 4 per person. Starting at 3pm, it was going to be a “beat the clock” before the sun set.
I looked around and the rest of the group was working steadily, struggling as I had with various aspects of the assembly. We bent over and sweated over the instructions, quite literally, as the afternoon temperature had climbed above 90 degrees. Everyone started out working solo but before long little clusters had formed of people working together. Not surprisingly, Greg, a 30 year old Boeing engineer, was particularly adept. I was also impressed with 15 year-old Quentin, working intently, only stopping occasionally to check the playlist on his iPod. Quentin’s dad, Ben, also had the knack. At one point, Ryan stepped over to ask Ben if he could help and Ben kindly welcomed his assistance. Later, though, he quietly admitted that it was infinitely easier to get the job done without the “extra help”.
It started to get dark and there were still a handful of wheelchairs to be made. This is a defining moment, I thought. Will we have the right stuff? We all dug in for the final push. At that point, Steve and Frank had finished shooting and came in to help for the final drive. Literally, the last bolts were being tightened in semi-darkness. It was incredibly satisfying to look over and see those 28 chairs, all lined up along the side of the courtyard.
But beyond the 28 chairs, our group had accomplished something else. We’d bonded over the struggle and had proven ourselves to one another. The newness had worn off and we were becoming a cohesive unit. All this, and it was only the first day of our adventure.
Coming up next……Day 2, Delivering the wheelchairs. Sorry for the delayed initial posting. The internet connection is slow and the days are incredibly packed, but I will post again as soon as possible.