Today was Day 2 of our Cambodia volunteer trip with Globe Aware. The day began with a visit to the Cambodia Landmine Museum and Relief Center. The center was started by Aki Ra, a former child soldier of the Khmer Rouge who wanted to educate tourists about the history of landmines in Cambodia. In 1997, Aki Ra began clearing landmines wherever he could find them – eventually working with the Cambodia government and starting the museum. In 2010, he was named one of CNN’s Heroes and, in addition to the museum, the Relief Center cares for dozens of wounded, handicapped, orphaned and destitute children.
The visit put into perspective the incredible challenges that Cambodia has faced in its recent history. From American bombing during the Vietnam War to the terrifying reign and genocide which took place under Pol Pot, to the estimated 3-6 million land mines and ordinates that still litter the countryside today – Cambodia has much to overcome. Fortunately, tourism is a tremendous boon, offering many Cambodians better job opportunities. Slowly things are improving, but the museum reminded us of the incredible resiliency of the Cambodia people.
When we returned to the hotel, we scrambled to put the finishing touches on our 28 wheelchairs. We pumped up the tires and made sure that each chair had its own repair kit attached to the back frame.
Several large vans and a pickup truck pulled up. One by one, the disabled were unloaded from the vehicles and placed into the new chairs. Each volunteer rolled a chair up and assisted in the process. There was a wide range of recipients, from small children to middle age men and women. Some had been victims of landmines, with limbs completely missing. Others had been stricken with polio and had lost the use of their legs. Dine explained that, during transport out to the rural villages, the vaccines had become tainted and, as a result, many people contracted the disease instead of being immunized. Some of the smallest children looked to have developmental disabilities and had little control over their tiny bodies. Seeing so many disabled at one time was a humbling reminder of the gift of our mobility.
Ruth, a warm and caring Australian woman who is traveling with her 11 year-old son Alexander remarked, “How beautiful it is to see our able-bodied children helping in this way.” It was true. The young boys were all so excited to deliver the wheelchairs and proud that they could help in such a profound way. As a parent, there is another layer to these trips, seeing your child blossom with the opportunity to do something important.
We all sat together and, one by one, we introduced ourselves to the group. Dine explained how these chairs would enable the recipients to dramatically improve their everyday lives. Without the chairs, many of them were confined to their beds most of the time, “staring at the ceiling” as he described it. Now, they would be able to visit relatives and get out to the market. Just as important, the mobility would enable some of the adults to find work.
Towards the end, Dine handed out black markers and asked each of us to put our names on the back of chairs. The idea was for the locals to see that we had come from around the world to help. I wasn’t sure how I felt about taking “ownership”, but I did understand that the idea was for our connection to live on after we had returned home. Admittedly, it felt good to be able to offer something so tangible, to assist in a way that produces such an direct impact in the lives of these 28 people. In this case, the sweat equity from the previous day had a clear and immediate payoff and the group felt a deep sense of satisfaction at our achievement.
Up next…..the volunteers teach English at a local orphanage.