A testament from a former volunteer [Scottie Thompson] about her experience with Trailblazer. "I had such a wonderful experience volunteering at Trailblazer. Everyone who works there is so committed to helping the community, and it is clear in the work ethic at the center and out in the field. I had the opportunity to go out into the villages, and it was such a rewarding experience to be able to see the work building the filters come to life. I sincerely appreciate the model at Trailblazer that encourages community empowerment, so that the work they do is sustainable. I also enjoyed meeting the other volunteers, and having the chance to explore Siem Reap and the surrounding areas while there participating in such a meaningful cause."
Update from Board Member Justine Auton Volunteering – Round Three! I would never have guessed seven years ago that the food poisoning from eating lettuce washed in local Siem Reap water would have changed my life. But here I am, back again in this lovely Cambodian town doing my third volunteering stint at Trailblazer. Cleaning up the water, one sand bio-filter at a time! I’ve brought a good friend from home this time for a two-week tour of duty. It’s great fun to do this work with a mate. It’s all new to Anna but she’s embraced the experience with gusto. I’ve really enjoyed being the experienced mentor in the workshop and watching Anna getting to grips with the range of tasks on offer. I was surprised her favorite job ended up being sifting sand. Mine is painting the water filters, or anything else instead of sifting sand! The rhythm of it is relaxing she said. Each to their own. This is one of the reasons I love volunteering at the work site. The manual work that is sometimes grubby, always sweaty and often repetitive is a relaxing antidote to my day job at home in New Zealand. I think of it as an exercise in applied mindfulness. Carefully washing a bucket of sand five times requires a singular focus on the color of the water along with counting to five. Somehow this edges out all the other noise and thoughts which usually fill my head. One of the reasons I keep coming back is to learn more about Cambodia and deepen my understanding of the challenges this country faces. With volunteering only taking up the morning, we’ve had lots of time for more local learning. There are about 300 NGO’s working in and around Siem Reap on a wide variety of projects. It’s insightful to look at the work of other NGOs. We’re not in competition; there seems to be a lot of complementarity and collaboration happening to improve outcomes for local people. This time I took a close look at the amazing work done by hero rats – specially trained rats who sniff out landmines. This is an innovative approach to saving lives and loss of limbs from the mines that still cover a lot of the rural area, including land near some of the villages we work with. (https://www.apopo.org/en). So, how many volunteering stints is enough? I don’t know that yet, but I know there is more to do and more to learn. I’ll be back next year and, because this place gets under your skin, it looks like Anna might be there again too.
Recently we had the pleasure of having a family that has been longtime supporters visit the Trailblazer work site to see firsthand our work in the field. Before exploring the countryside, the family helped sift sand for water filters and learned about our local field operations. And here is what the donor said about their experience. “We had a wonderful visit to the local office in Siem Reap. The kids had a blast sifting sand for two hours, and the information about the importance of clean water left a lasting impression. We were picked up in the late morning and drove up to Banteay Srei with a tour guide that runs a foundation which supports about 2,000 local students. She mentioned that she’s seen your filters all over villages. We ended up making a quick stop along the way when we found a filter along the route”
John Moore is from the city of Durham, North Carolina in the USA. In October 2018 he spent a week volunteering at Trailblazer in Siem Reap, helping make sand biofilters. John chatted with our new Board member Justine Auton on his final day on the project.
Justine: John, thanks for the great contribution you’ve made this week! Tell me, how did you come to volunteer for Trailblazer?
John: I found out about the project a couple of years ago from someone who used to work for Trailblazer. She told me about it in the best way – at a poolside bar!
I was in Siem Reap at that time working on a Habitat for Humanity project, so I was interested to talk to other people involved in community development. It was kismet really – I got to talk to someone in the know at a time my interest in Siem Reap was growing.
I was horrified to hear about how people in the villages were getting water, the poor quality of the water and the health impacts of that water on them.
Justine: Why did you turn that interest into action?
John: I guess it stuck in my mind and I decided that at some point I wanted to come and do something to help. I was interested to find out how they (Trailblazer) do what they do in creating sand biofilters. What even were sand biofilters?!
Justine: It sounds like you’re not new to this volunteering business – what have you done and why?
John: In my younger days I saw some terrible, just terrible poverty at home in Appalachia and it motivated me to get involved with volunteering programmes while I was in college. I suppose that experience stuck with me as in recent years I’ve been involved with Habitat for Humanity and worked on nine projects overseas.
Justine: What have you got out of volunteering with Trailblazer and your wider volunteering experiences?
John: The Trailblazer work was interesting. Learning about the simple and effective “technology” of sand biofilters was great. I also got to spend time in a village helping to install the filters and saw first hand the living conditions of people. It reminded me of the Appalachian area at home and it felt good to do something to help.
More generally, volunteering has taught me a lot about myself – things I wish I’d known in my professional life. My big take away is to “go with the flow”. Don’t get hung up on the details. Be flexible. I’ve learned to be patient. I was NEVER Mr Patient!
Four Girls for Friends [a substantial donor] visiting the Beng school in February. "We had a fantastic visit. My children were so happy to be able to meet the children. They actually all stayed for an hour after school was over and my children played with all the children on the playground. They played volleyball, soccer, hopscotch, ring-around-the-rosie, and many other games. I think it was the highlight of the trip. I am attaching a photo of my daughter Emmy and one of the school boys. It was a great day! I know my children would love to visit the school again on our next trip to Cambodia. It really was their favorite event of the trip. It made everyone so happy." Joanne with Four Girls for Friends
“I wanted to let you know about my incredible experience volunteering with the crew. I just returned from my sabbatical after 10 weeks in Vietnam and Cambodia. Trailblazer was one of the highlights of my travels!
The best part about my experience was really meeting the people, and specifically the crew at Trailblazer. Heng, Sambo, Mr. T were so wonderful and caring. While in Siem Reap, I stayed at a hostel and rented a bike for 2 weeks to get back and forth from the site. That was the best decision as I had the freedom to come and go, and while at the hostel I met so many interesting people. I found a lovely balance between putting in time at Trailblazer as well as meeting others and exploring Siem Reap on my own. The weeks at Trailblazer included physical labor, a deeper cultural understanding of Cambodia, and a window into the needs of people, especially in the rural areas of Siem Reap. My time included a steep learning curve, where I tried to find ways to be more helpful during my days. While I was at Trailblazer, Heng was the crew member I had the most contact with. He was leading the day to day operations of making the water filters. His brother Sambo was a huge help as well. Mr. T was also a steady and hardworking presence. His English was the most limited, but he was such a positive and calm soul, that he showed me how to do many of the tasks on the site. I thoroughly enjoyed working with these guys, and together, we were able to get a significant amount of work done each day.
It was also a pleasure to meet Ratanak, the director. I approached him at the end of the first week to hopefully make an appointment when he and I could talk about the organization, and more specifically, the clean water needs of Cambodians. During this conversation, I mentioned that I was a teacher, upon which he quickly responded, "Then you need to teach the crew English." I am not an English teacher, and I said that I would feel more comfortable if that interest came from the crew themselves, rather than from him. He mentioned that the guys at Trailblazer would benefit from English instruction, and asked if I could give them an English lesson on Saturday (the next day) for 2.5 hours. He had a quick meeting with the team, and told me they agreed and would arrive in the morning to learn. Me and six of the guys practiced conversational English all morning. It was actually a very productive morning and a wonderful way to get to know them even more. We talked about family life, foods we like, work and commuting to work, and our personal interests. I was so endeared to this group of young men... they are awesome.
Getting out into the villages was a highlight, and I loved going to the rural areas to deliver the water filters! Heng was amazing. With each family, he was kind and professional as he took the time to train them about the biofiltration system. I enjoyed meeting the families and helping with setting up the water filter. Oftentimes, the family would want to just chat with us, and the children were always so curious about the western folks at their homes. On a few occasions, the families offered us food or a beverage which was so kind. Watching Heng do the training and Mr. T or Sambo assisted with setting up the biofiltration systems was awesome. The local chief accompanied us to each of the homes as well. The system of transporting and setting up the water filters is very smooth.”
In 2012 we decided to visit Cambodia as a family. Myself, husband, daughter and one of her mates tagged along. It was a wonderful experience visiting the Angkor Wat temples and other sightseeing areas in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, but mostly we enjoyed meeting the people. So calm, friendly and genuinely nice people. After a little while we came to understand that a large portion of the population were living without the basic necessities of life. The main one, of course, is clean drinking water.
On our return to Australia we discussed the fact that the Cambodian people needed assistance and that we would like to do something to help. We returned to Siem Reap the following year to check out various NGOs and we had the good fortune to meet with Scott, who along with Chris were the original founders of Trailblazer. We loved what he had to say about the work they were doing based around providing clean water, ie: wells and bio-sand filters. We then committed to not only donating to the cause but volunteering at the work site on a yearly basis.
Since that time, we have had the pleasure of seeing Trailblazer's great work, and being part of it has brought so much joy and satisfaction to us both. To help make the bio-sand filters, deliver them to the villages and see the smiles it brings is wonderful.
We are always welcomed with open arms and we not only enjoy the company of the young Cambodian people that Trailblazer employs, but we have made life long friends from all parts of the world.
We just love being part of it and would highly recommend the experience to others. In fact when we return next, we will be bringing some friends with us so they can enjoy the same experience.
The photo to the right is of one of our volunteers, Justine Auton, who hails from Wellington, New Zealand. Justine volunteered at our worksite helping construct bio-sand water filters and then donated enough money for fifteen water filters and now is one of Trailblazer Foundation's newest Board Member.
She refers to her time with Trailblazer as her Revenge Tour. Here is part of her story:
It all started with a mouthful of lettuce four years ago, and ended with two weeks of hard work making bio-sand water filters. The lettuce my friend ate while we were in Siem Reap had likely been washed with local, unpurified water, and hours later she got sick. For four days. Upon my return home, I resolved to get even with that water, and my payback was a two-week stint volunteering with Trailblazer.
In the months before leaving on what I referred to as my Revenge Tour, I ask my friends for donations to fund my idea of taking toothbrushes to the kids. With 1,500 toothbrushes in my luggage, this past October I headed back to Siem Reap.
I’m doing another revenge tour next year, having discovered it’s an antidote to the stress of life here at home. I hope to see you there!
Photo to the left: Tom Skeele, Trailblazer's Board Member; Chris Coats, Trailblazer's Co-Founder and Board Executive; and Nick Monroe, Trailblazer Volunteer and one of our newest Board Members.
Trailblazer’s Executive Director, Chris Coats, talked with Nick Munro, a volunteer who worked with our staff in Cambodia, about his experience. Here is that conversation:
What inspired you to volunteer with Trailblazer?
When I was in my early twenties and working at my first job, I got a bit restless and realized it might be a good time to see the world. Serendipity struck, and a college buddy asked if I would help him raise money to start a non-profit in South America. Three months later I quit my job, and was digging latrines in the remote mountains of Peru.
After this initial volunteer experience, I was hooked. There is no better way to visit a country, meet the locals, and make a positive impact. Fast forward another few years and my girlfriend, Cortney, and I were in South East Asia looking for the same experience. Luckily, we found Trailblazer.
What did you like the most about the experience?
We loved meeting local people and understanding their culture. Getting to know the families, and being a part of their daily lives, really put everything we do into perspective. I know that is cliché, but it truly changes the way you experience your world.
Trailblazer in particular, proved the importance of the interaction between an organization and the people they are serving. The communities were so involved that it made the work that much easier and fulfilling. Seeing the direct impact to each family, in only a few days, was beyond our expectations.
Additionally, we experienced some amazing things that would not be accessible to most casual tourists. Catching fish in a rice canal and eating ant salsa with cucumber chips are not your average happy hour events.
Where do you live?
We’re originally from the Lone Star State (Texas), but we currently live in beautiful San Francisco, California.
Did your volunteer experience impact the work you do now? How?
We both work in advertising and design, which seems worlds away from installing water filters in Cambodia, but there are some very key parallels. Volunteering for organizations like Trailblazer, teaches you how to fully utilize your creativity and ingenuity. Things often don’t go as planned, and improvising on the fly is a valuable skill.
Also, I don’t take modern conveniences for granted; running water, the internet, and of course, delicious burritos.