Back to Volunteering here in Cambodia

After our few days of vacation on Phu Quoc Island (Vietnam), we are back to volunteering! Fortunately our travel from Vietnam to Cambodia went quite smooth–we took a ferry to Vietnam’s mainland and then a minibus across the border. We were a little hesitant about the border crossing as there were both good and bad stories online so we weren’t sure what to expect. Luckily our driver took our passports and we walked right through the Vietnam side and surprisingly enough, we didn’t even have to walk through the Cambodian entry terminal… so I guess we could have used anyone’s passports to get into this country as they never even saw us in person. We got dropped off in Kampot, a small riverside town in southern Cambodia. The town has a population of 40,000 with few tourists so the atmosphere is extremely different than that of Ho Chi Minh city. It will be nice to not have motobikes everywhere honking at all times of the day! Anyways, Kampot is home to an organization called Solaid. Solaid was founded by Dr. Steven Budd in 2007 with the mindset that “a world that provides adequate health and education is a better place for everyone.” Dr. Budd actually graduated from Creighton undergrad before taking a few years off to travel the world then attending medical school in Ireland. He also completed two residencies (family medicine and preventative medicine) and also earned an MPH (masters in public health). Dr. Budd wanted to do service around the world but looked at service in a very different manner than most people. Instead of going into a community with the mindset of “I’m a doctor, I’m going to build a medical practice here,” he approached the community and asked their needs. The main need was for education, help for the extremely needy (as many have remained extremely poor since the war ended in 1975), and healthcare. Taking the feedback into consideration, Dr. Budd made those wishes a reality with his organization Solaid. Solaid has grown over the years with most of the work focusing on education and helping those who are extremely poor. Solaid provides remedial courses for those falling behind in school or for those who just need a bit of extra help. Solaid also keeps good tabs on the students as they progress year to year, ensuring that the students have proper nutrition and are feeling as they should! This is where most of our work over the next two weeks will focus on. Solaid also helps “most vulnerable families,” as they call them… or families who have very little. Solaid offers grants (thus the families don’t have to repay them) to families who come up with a project that needs funding. Typically these projects focus on a way for the family to earn income while a few of the projects focus on fixing homes, etc. For example, families can apply to get funding for starting a chicken farm (at their house). By starting a chicken farm (and by properly taking care of the chickens), a family can earn income in which they can put towards their needs (food, shelter, school, clothes, etc). The program is structured in such a way that the families have to meet a bunch of criteria–simply so that the project can be sustainable. For example, if the family wants to build a chicken farm, they must have a place to keep their chickens. This must be checked by a staff member of Solaid before a grant can be given. The chief of the village must also grant permission for Solaid to give money to these families–essentially the chief ensures that this is a family in need and not a family that can simply tell a good story. Sometimes the grants are extremely small–$20. Other times, the grants are more depending on the situation. Solaid checks back with these families to see how their projects are coming and to check to ensure that the basic needs of the families are met. Although Dr. Budd and his wife lived in Kampot for many years, he now lives in Iowa and travels to Cambodia about four times a year to ensure that everything is running smoothly. The organization has grown and there are many staff members for the organization who run the day-to-day things to ensure that Solaid runs smoothly. We will get to know a few of these workers during our time here in Cambodia! Dr. Budd has been working with Project CURA for the last five consecutive years and we are very grateful that he has welcomed our group once again this year! Although there is still a lot I don’t know about Solaid, the organization sounds like it has been extremely helpful to citizens here in Kampot throughout the last eight years and I am excited to be apart of the organization for the next two weeks!

When we arrived to Kampot, we arrived just across the street to where we were supposed to meet Dr. Budd… this was perfect as none of us had any idea where anything was in the city. We had a quick snack (as we were all starving) and got to know Dr. Budd as he told us about himself and his organization. We took a walk down to the river, which was beautiful, then packed up a tuk tuk with all of our luggage. Here in Cambodia, tuk tuks are motobikes that pull an attached carriage that can hold four people (or more if you squeeze!). Laura, Eddie, and Peter all piled in with the luggage (I don’t even know how they managed to fit) and I jumped on the moto with Dr. Budd and we headed to the guesthouse where we’ll be spending the next two weeks. The guesthouse has private bungalows and two houses–we were in two rooms on the top floor of the house. The place is very nature-friendly and rustic but beautiful. We were a little worried as people kept telling us how much hotter Cambodia is than Vietnam… we were dying of the heat in Vietnam so we had no idea how we were going to survive Cambodia! Surprisingly though, we agree that it is much cooler here–probably because we are so close to the river and to the ocean… we are all extremely grateful for the milder (yet still extremely hot) temperatures. The nights cool down quite a bit which makes the non-aircon room comfortable at night! We settled in then headed back into town with Dr. Budd and talked about the schedule for the next two weeks–it sounds like we will be extremely busy doing all types of work from taking blood pressures to checking the nutritional status of children to even teaching English and computer classes.

Our first full day was spent in a rural village close to Kampot called Tuk Kiev. Here we did basic health screening–the adults had their blood pressures taken while the children had their height and weight checked. The chief of the village spread the word that we would be coming so we had most of the village file through. If an adult had extreme hypertension, we would give them medication to treat the issue. We ran the heights and weights of the children to see their percentile ranking (focused on the low end, not the high end as we would in America) and if the child was less than the 30th percentile, a worker from Solaid will follow up with the family to discuss nutrition and how to stay healthy. We spent most of the day at the village and saw lots of people! We also had the chance to visit a very elderly lady to see the hut that Solaid had built for her a few years ago!

Today we spent the day at schools performing hygiene awareness (the importance of washing hands, etc) and nutritional checks (heights and weights). We set up under a tree and we were able to check about 200 grade-school children just in the morning. The middle school also had a request–that we teach how to play board games. The school received board games more than a year ago but because all of the games are in English, they have been sitting in a box as no one knows how to play them. Peter and I sat down at our stations with a few teachers and students and began explaining games–ones that I knew and ones that I didn’t know (fortunately there were directions). We played memory, mancala, sets, banana grams, gnu, uno, and many others (about 10 in total). The children and staff took notes vigorously in hopes to teach the other children at the school. It was tough with the language barrier but we worked through (with a few rule modifications) and I think they understand, which certainly was the goal. It is such a shame that the games have simply been sitting in a box because they didn’t know how to play them… but hopefully the games can provide lots of hours of fun for the children from hear on out! We headed to an area with temples and got to explore them before having lunch. There were so many of them–big ones, small ones, bright-colored ones, boat-shaped ones, etc. After lunch, we visited a secondary school where we taught computer classes to the seventh and eighth graders. The computer only has three small computers (for a class of about 25) so we had to split up into small groups of 8-9. It was challenging as we weren’t really given any specifics and although the children supposedly knew some English, most were too shy to speak. It was hard gauging what the students did and did not know. I asked them if they knew what program to open to type–they kind of all just gave me blank stares… so I started with the basics. I showed them Microsoft Word and how you were able to type things then I handed the computer around to each of them to try to open it themselves. It was pretty evident that although the students might have had a computer class in the past, they probably weren’t given the chance to practice themselves as some of the students didn’t know how to use the touchpad. We worked our way through it though and by the end, each of the students had the chance to learn how to highlight words, how to change the size and font, how to add bold, italics, or underlining to the text and how to change the text color. That was about all we were able to get through in an hour for each of the classes but the students really seemed to learn a lot… for some, I really think it was the first time they ever got to control the computer! We finished our day meeting a most vulnerable family. This lady applied for a grant to start a chicken business. Although I didn’t see a chicken coup, she was feeding the chickens when we arrived. Using a translator and broken English, we were able to gather a big of her story. She applied for funding to get more money to support her six children and her husband two years ago. She was successibly able to sell the chickens last year and raise about $125 (a significant amount over here) to buy food for her children, to send a few of them to school, and to buy supplies to make an addition onto her house. The lady was extremely friendly, as were her children. She even invited us to try durian–I took just a small bite but the fruit is not my favorite what-so-ever. We expressed our gratitude for letting us visit and it was great seeing the work of Solaid right before our own eyes!

Well, I’m off to bed as we have a busy day planned for tomorrow! Check back soon for many more updates here in Cambodia!


With all of the luggage in the tuk tuk

Elderly woman with hut that Solaid built


Inside the temple

Another Solaid family (the ones with the chickens)

Learning how to use the computer!


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