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Hearts And Hands Reach Out To Cambodia



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Hearts And Hands Reach Out To Cambodia

By Nancy K. Crevier                                              

In Southeast Asia, the country of Cambodia, surrounded by Thailand and Vietnam, continues to struggle more than 30 years after the brutal Khmer Rouge government plundered the land and its people. Through means of torture, execution, disease, and starvation, the violent regime nearly succeeded in purging the country of the educated population, destroyed family relationships, and sent the country spiraling downward through its insistence of a return to an agricultural, communist economy for which the citizens were unprepared and in which they were not skilled. Between 1.5 and 3 million of the 1975 population of 7 million Cambodians perished.

By the time of the Vietnamese overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in late 1978 and the establishment of a new Cambodian government known as the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), Cambodian refugee survivors who returned to their cities found relatively nothing left of their former lives. The infrastructure, the homes, and the people of the cities were gone and little existed to help the people who remained rebuild a prosperous economy.

Chris Wagner, a former resident of Newtown and graduate of Newtown High School, now living in Atlanta, is a volunteer executive director with Hearts and Hands for Cambodia, a humanitarian organization whose mission is two-fold. The medical mission, first undertaken in 2001 to provide medical aide to Cambodia, remains the number one priority of the group. The second part of the mission involves providing assistance to the Day Care Center in Battambang, Cambodia.

“If you know the history of the Khmer Rouge, over a million people were murdered and that included all educated people. Families were split up and all were sent to work in the fields. They lost a generation of people,” explained Ms Wagner in a recent interview. “[The people of Cambodia] have not had a stable government and there is much corruption. The education system is low on the priority list, especially for people who are trying to survive. The girls, especially, are needed at home.”

As a registered nurse, Ms Wagner became aware of the plight of Cambodia when she was involved in a service project at an orphanage while living in Singapore. “I was shocked at the conditions the kids were in, so I decided to try to get a medical team there to help. I started Hearts and Hands when my husband, Jeff, and I lived in Singapore between 1999 and 2003.” She put together a team of doctors from Singapore, and the physicians have continued to go in independently each year since.

A Humanitarian

Experience For Students

This year, Ms Wagner is traveling with a group from Healing the Children NE out of New Milford. The group will provide dental care to Cambodians. It was through this group that Ms Wagner connected with Jean Hatcherson, adjunct professor of cultural anthropology at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield and Western Connecticut State University in Danbury. Prof Hatcherson and ten university students will join Ms Wagner in Cambodia for 18 days this winter.

 The intersession travel study will provide students with the opportunity to gain an understanding of the politics, history, and economy of Cambodia, said Prof Hatcherson, as well as better understand the everyday lives of the Cambodian people and the repercussions of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Prof Hatcherson, who visited the capitol of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, as part of a Healing the Children mission in 2003, would like her students to come away with a better perspective on life in a third world country. “Flying from Hong Kong to Phnom Penh,” said Prof Hatcherson, “it is as though you are flying across decades, backwards. So much expertise and education was lost under the Khmer Rouge. You can read it all you want, but until you see it firsthand, you have no idea what their lives are like [in Cambodia]. There are actually lotteries for health care.”

The changes come slowly to Cambodia, said Ms Wagner. “Most people live at below subsistence level. Average income is $200 a year. Medical care is very poor and dental is almost nonexistent for the general population.”

A lack of understanding of even the basic rules of hygiene affects the quality of life for many Cambodians, and exacerbates the struggle to survive. Along with the medical missions, therefore, Hearts and Hands has undertaken an attempt to help a day care center in the town of Battambang, similar to Head Start in the United States, that services 110 children between the ages of 2 and 6.

“Since the children live with their families, they are bringing home a lot of what is taught to them, as simple as proper hygiene. The day care can also be used by the village as a community center and education programs can be taught, as well,” Ms Wagner said.

 Under the direction of Ms Wagner, the students who travel to Cambodia with Prof Hatcherson will teach and conduct ethnographic research in Battambang at the day care.

Life Skills And


Meals and a stable environment in which the children can master life skills are provided at the day care, organized by a Khmer women’s organization. Hearts and Hands for Cambodia has supplied playground equipment, educational material, technical equipment, towels, and fans to the day care over the years. They have also undertaken structural projects, such as digging a ditch to prevent flooding of the day care. This year, if time, skill, and money allow, the students may find themselves assisting in the erection of a dining hall to the day care center.

The day care project is low on funding, however. Without further donations, the construction of a dining hall, and perhaps the future of the day care itself, is in jeopardy.

Katerina Kruzykowski is majoring in multicultural social science at WestConn. She holds an associate’s degree in early childhood education and has traveled the world with her family, as well as to Bangladesh last year with Prof Hatcherson. “[The trip to Bangladesh] last year was the best thing I ever did in my life,” said Katerina. “It really opens up your eyes. In America, we don’t even hear about Bangladesh. The people there were amazing.”

So moved were they by their experiences in Bangladesh, that Katerina and four other students from the trip established the Humanitarian Travel Club at WestConn upon their return. “It was set up so that students could volunteer and fundraise domestically and internationally,” she said. “Our mission is to make the world a better place.” The Humanitarian Club allows students to get involved in providing aid to the less fortunate before they go abroad on trips, as well, said Katerina.

The weekend of October 7, Katerina raised $250 at the North Salem, N.Y., Harvest Festival, with the proceeds from her bake sale being used to purchase school supplies and small gifts for the Battambang day care. As an early childhood educator, Katerina is looking forward to working with the children in Cambodia. “It is more rewarding to be with kids over there [in Cambodia and Bangladesh]. It’s a new experience,” she said.

“There are a lot of programs in place to help the Khmers of Cambodia learn how to take care of themselves, and eventually these programs will be turned over to them to run,” said Ms Wagner. In the meantime, Hearts and Hands for Cambodia continues to offer what aid it can, including a program for the sponsorship of children. $100 per year will provide meals, a school uniform, and school supplies for a child in the day care center. Sponsorship can help a child break the cycle of poverty in Cambodia through education, said Ms Wagner.

Those who wish to volunteer or donate to Hearts and Hands for Cambodia, may contact Ms Wagner at Chris@heartsandhandsforcambodia.org. “Education, jobs, health care, dental care, and support for single household families are desperate needs in Cambodia,” said Ms Wagner.

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