Last summer we announced with great enthusiasm the winner of the 2017 Contractor Volunteer Experience program – Sam Cheng. Sam recently returned from his adventure in Cambodia where he spent two weeks installing clean drinking water facilities.
It was truly an experience of a lifetime – read on for Sam’s reflections on his adventure.
There is plenty of time to think on a 17-hour flight from Los Angeles to Singapore. I mulled over respectful approaches to enter and serve a Cambodian village community. I reflected on my reasons for serving, or as my colleagues put it, “Why I would take a vacation from work to do more work.” I fretted over the details—things like what our team dynamic would be like. Most of these wonderings had some form of conclusion but there was one question that kept me thinking: How do I most effectively use this experience to bless the people of Cambodia? It is a country set back by slave labour, malnourishment, and disease—a country where the potential impact of meaningful work can be so clearly realized.
Upon touching down in the city of Siem Reap we immediately found ourselves in the midst of unfamiliarity, from the heat and humidity to the thickly crowded traffic. Our team promptly made our way west into the Banteay Meanchey province. Our arrival in the province was met with crowds of children as we visited a local school to participate in hygiene education and to distribute hand soap. In terms of our project, it is crucial that education be provided alongside safe drinking water, including education on why water filtration is necessary. While it may seem obvious to us, much of this information is new to those living in rural Cambodia.
After this visit, we made our way to Banteay Chhmar Primary School, our home base of the next few days. There are quite a few adjustments that a Canadian has to make when serving in Cambodia; however, in the hectic busyness of each day, the body and mind adapt quickly. Chaotic traffic, unfamiliar scents, constant sweating in 35-degree heat, sleeping in mosquito tents, and bucket showers became quite normal after the first two nights.
Over the next few days, we spent the daytime hours mixing and pouring concrete, constructing and deconstructing molds, painting water filters, and installing them within individual homes. The installation of these filters was quite simple: we cleaned the concrete housing with bleach, washed the three different sizes of sand and gravel aggregate, poured the aggregate in even lifts (largest on the bottom), ran bleached water through the filter, and measured the flow rate for quality control. Once this process was complete, contaminated water can be poured into the filter to facilitate the development of the biolayer, which sits atop the aggregate and contains microorganisms that consume harmful pathogens. The aggregate also serves to remove contaminants by trapping larger pathogens and unwanted debris.
Our Biosand water filters were installed in rural villages near the Thai border, where many homes were occupied by soldiers and their families. I tend to wander off and explore when travelling but had to restrain myself this time around due to the potential of unexploded landmines in the vicinity, yet another remnant of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the late 70s that claimed the lives of over 2 million people in acts of genocide.
At each home we visited, we caught a glimpse of daily living in rural Cambodia; and as we listened to the villagers, we heard stories of suffering and great perseverance. One story stuck with me. This story was about a father who was on the brink of suicide after losing his source of income and being unable to support his family. In the thick of his despair, he received several chickens through a Samaritan’s Purse donation program—a donation that changed his mind about taking his own life. In a few months’ time, the chickens had multiplied enough to provide sustainable income for the family. This story resonates with me because I have made similar donations in the past, but with the sinking feeling that a few meager chickens could not possibly provide much. By the testimony of this family that persevered, I am reminded that my vision is limited; these donations, whatever they may be, can have much greater significance by providing hope and saving a family on the brink of collapse.
“By the testimony of this family that persevered, I am reminded that my vision is limited; these donations, whatever they may be, can have much greater significance by providing hope and saving a family on the brink of collapse.” – Sam Cheng
While there we would also stop by villages to promote hygiene education and distribute soap and snacks. These gatherings were always a treat as we had the opportunity to interact and care for all generations of the community, from elderly grandmothers to babies just learning to stumble about. The joy, laughter, and companionship I witnessed among these poor communities were a gentle reminder that many of our material possessions and desires are not necessary for contentment. And, as a Christian, these experiences remind me that I can use my engineering talents and experience for the betterment of others.
“The joy, laughter, and companionship I witnessed among these poor communities were a gentle reminder that many of our material possessions and desires are not necessary for contentment.” – Sam Cheng
Throughout this experience, I was continually inspired by my team members, who at this point had become as close as family. Most of them were either nearing retirement or recently retired—a life stage that is usually associated with rest and relaxation, yet they all had a shared focus: to use their newfound time to love and care for those in need. I can only hope that when I arrive at that life stage, I may have a heart as unselfish as theirs.
The most difficult aspect of the experience was when it was time to leave. Two weeks is such a limited amount of time—so much still needs to be done. But my work does not end when I leave Cambodia; rather, the next phase of volunteering begins by sharing my story. I hope my story sheds light on the needs in Cambodia and encourages those around me to serve in whatever aspect they can, whether it be monetary donations, short term experiences like mine, or even long-term commitments. Although the necessity for clean water is so painfully dire in Cambodia, it is only one issue on an extensive list. My heart will not let me share my experience without pleading with you, dear reader, to consider getting involved. You and your work are so desperately needed. You can make a difference!
Some people question the need for in-person volunteering because the funds can instead be funneled directly into the area of need. With this experience fresh in my mind, I can confidently say that an in-person volunteering experience is 100% worth it. Witnessing the struggles and desperation first hand is a good reminder of our privilege, and chips away at the apathy within our hearts, while the joyous celebrations remind us that continual striving for material things may be more frivolous than we know. These reminders are sorely needed and always have potential to spread to those around us. For now, I will continue my volunteering at home and eagerly anticipate my next journey to Cambodia.
We recently sat down with Sam to discuss his experience in person. You can watch the video here.