New Year’s Day, 2013. Today brought the first of our small-scale construction projects. Dine Tuy, our in-country coordinator, has identified several projects for our group to accomplish during our short visit. Since Dine has an insider’s knowledge of the locals and their needs, Globe Aware works with him to choose the most beneficial projects.
We drove to an outlying area, rural and impoverished. We were there to help the family of Mean Nok, a 22 year old disabled man who had received a wheelchair from another Globe Aware group last year. We learned that he had become disabled at 8 months old due to tainted polio vaccine. It is surprising and heartbreaking to learn how many Cambodians were affected in this way. The wheelchair had enabled him to receive training to become an artist so that now he was able to bring income to his family.
Mean lived with his mother and, like many houses in Siem Reap, the home was built on stilts, with the living area up a steep ladder-like staircase. During the wet season, this type of construction is essential to avoid flooding. But for Mean, the arrangement is very difficult. In order to go to the bathroom, he must crawl on his hands out into the weedy area behind the house. In the wet season, he becomes covered in mud and the situation is treacherous and unhealthy. It was hard to imagine this gentle man withstanding such a hardship as a regular part of his life.
We had 2 projects to accomplish during our 1 day visit. First, we were adding a toilet to the ground level for Mean. A previous group has built a small enclosed toilet on a concrete slab and we were there to add concrete to the exterior so that the next group can paint. This “tag team” approach is what enables Globe Aware volunteers to have an impact over time, each group stepping in where the previous group leaves off.
The other part of our project was to add a thatched roof to a previously installed pump well. Accessing clean water is a huge challenge and this water pump serves the entire village. Adding the thatch will add shelter and privacy.
Our group of 14 quickly separated into groups. Some of the tallest immediately took on the thatching project since their height was a distinct advantage in fastening the palm fronds to the bamboo structure. Ryan D’Arcy, a strapping Australian contractor, led the cement team, guiding us with his expertise. We also had a local contractor who had been employed to oversee the project, another benefit of our voluntourism dollars.
We combined large buckets of red sand, water and cement mix, stirring it by hand to the right consistency to apply to the exterior. We only had 2 shovels and 2 plastic buckets, so we all took turns using them. Our son Ryan, age 9, and Stephen, a 12 year-old from Austin, Texas, got busy filling the buckets with sand. Then, the same buckets were used to bring water from the pump over to the mixing area. Let’s just say that there was absolutely nothing automated about this process. No machinery aided our efforts in the 90 degree heat. But by taking turns, we moved forward, each person in the group finding a task and filling in where it was needed.
This is one of my favorite things about voluntourism groups. Usually, the folks who take these types of trips are drawn from a similar cloth. Though we all come from different areas of the world and have completely different stories back home, we have all traveled here to help, and to work, and to try to make life a bit better for a few Cambodians. It’s a bond of purpose that enables us, as strangers, to find a rhythm as we work together.
The other cool aspect of volunteer work is that you’re not expected to have particular skills. So, Alexander, an 11 year-old from Australia, is given equal opportunity for troweling the cement onto the exterior as Robert, a 24 year-old Google employee from Chicago. Everyone is needed and every effort is appreciated. This is rarely the case in the States, where so many safeguards and legalities get in the way of such open participation. It’s especially terrific for the kids who get to feel the importance of doing “big” work.
We worked steadily for 5 or 6 hours and accomplished both tasks. We were dusty, sweaty, hot and blistered, but as we said goodbye to Mean and his family, it felt great to know that we left things a bit better off. As Ben, a father of two boys, said so eloquently, “This is a step towards giving Mean a bit more dignity in his life, despite his disability.” It was a nice way to kick off the new year.