Thursday, December 20, 2007

Brook's visit to new wells in the countryside

When I decided to donate a well during my stay at the Journeys Within B&B earlier this month, I asked John if I could visit the site of my future well. He said he could do one better: I could spend a morning visiting new wells with the scholarship students who oversaw the project.

Seven university students showed up at the B&B early on Sunday morning. All have received a full scholarship from JWOC, and in return donate five hours per week to the well project. Kimpouv Nou, a slight 21-year-old, sat down next to me and told me about herself. She lives inPuok district, 16 kilometers from Siem Reap. Her father died 10 years ago, so of course it was even harder than usual for Kimpouv's mother to support her nine children. Kimpouv was the only child to enroll in university, where her friend Se told her about the Dollars for Scholars program. Not wanting to burden her mother further, but also not earning enough from her teaching position at the local high school to pay for college tuition, Kimpouv applied for the scholarship a few months ago. Now she devotes her only free day(Sunday) to the well program.

Once the students had all arrived at the B&B, I jumped on theback of Kimpouv's motorbike and we headed out into the countryside. You see donated wells along many of the tourist routes, but JWOC's locations are far from any idle visitor's path. We drove for 45 minutes over bumpy dirt roads, passing a man with one son on the back of his bicycle and another in the basket, a game of pickup volleyball, and shrubs stained ochre with dust.

At the first well, which had just been dug earlier that week, John showed the students how to test the water for e. coli and coliform. This, I believe, is one of the most important aspects of JWOC's programs, letting the Cambodians take charge. Progress was slow at first, but by the fifth or sixth well, the students had naturally taken on an efficient rhythm: Some would squat down to squeeze a few milliliters of water into a sample vial, others could record the GPS coordinates of the site, and the rest would gather the local families for a photo that would be sent to the individuals who had donated the well.

Toward the end of the morning, we took a detour to the site where the well I'd donated would soon be installed. I played with a five-month-old girl who lived there. They say that in Cambodia, one in five children doesn't make it to his or her fifth birthday. With the help of my well, this little cherub would have much better odds. The cost of the well:$100. The smile on her face: priceless.

Brook with JWOC's loan recipients

While visiting Cambodia earlier this month, I had the opportunity to meet some of JWOC’s loan recipients.

Here are their stories:

Kheng Lerb lives in a small, thatch-walled house with her husband and eight—that’s right, eight—children. She operates a makeshift general store on her porch, selling skewered chicken wings, oranges, bananas, cigarettes, and other small goods. Before she received her first loan from JWOC seven months ago, she also had to collect recyclable cans and bottles in order to make ends meet. Lerb heard about the program from one of the Dollars for Scholars students, and eagerly applied so that she could expand her business. She’s now on her way to paying back her second loan, of $125. I asked her what she’s done with the extra money she now earns. Her father was sick several months ago, she told me, and she had to pay $300 in medical bills—sadly, however, the treatment could not prevent his death. But she also proudly showed me a silver bracelet that she’d bought for herself. A rare reward for a life’s worth of hard work, I thought to myself. When I asked her what she pictured in her future, she told me that she wanted a university education for her kids, and a better house for herself.
Meas Sreipech, the scholarship student who was collecting loan repayments for JWOC and translating for me, then brought me to the house of Tarb Chour. As we talked, Chour related a heartbreaking story. One of her sons had lost his wife during childbirth several years ago. The son gave up his single son for adoption, then left his four daughters with Chour’s sister back in their home village. With the children all off his hands, Chour’s son remarried and ran away. He doesn’t send a penny back to help raise the girls, so Chour and her sister must support her granddaughters themselves. Because of the loans she’s taken out from JWOC to expand her own small food and dried goods stall, Chour hopes that one day the girls may be able to attend university, something she was never given the chance to do.
Sitting next to Chour was Soeurn Srey, a meat and vegetable retailer in the same village. Hers was a happier story. She bought her own house one month ago—one bigger than her previous rental—with some of the extra money she’s earned since getting a JWOC loan five months ago. She’s also saved $500 for the motorbike and cart that she’d like to buy to sell fish snacks around town (the total cost will be $800).
It’s amazing what $100—the amount that you or I might send on a moderately extravagant dinner—can do in a place like Cambodia. There are numerous other stories just like these three among the recipients of JWOC’s microloans.

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