Volunteering for hope

In Batak, Cambodia, the oral health of children is “absolutely appalling”, according to Hope’s in-country director, Peter Butler

The Hope For Cambodian Children Foundation brings vital dental care to children outside the city of Battambang; they need volunteers to help them do it, reports Brannon Gerling

The first time was a bit of a shock,” says Sydney-based dentist Dr Beata Rumianek, remembering her trip. “There was a general issue with patients trusting us.” Perhaps rightfully so—after all, it was only in December 2014 when whole families, one member at a time, had begun testing HIV positive in Roka, a nearby village. Some had fainted upon hearing the news; others had crawled over the ground in shock and dread. An unlicensed doctor had poisoned more than 200 villagers with an infected needle.

The Roka HIV epidemic was still fearfully fresh in local minds when Dr Rumianek travelled to north-western Cambodia to volunteer for the Hope for Cambodian Children Foundation, a community-based organisation based in Balat Village, just outside Battambang, the country’s second-largest city.

“You test yourself,” says Dr Rumianek. “You switch on a little button that helps you think laterally and think of lateral solutions,” adding that the experience forced her to be more creative, more resourceful, more charitable.

“The second time I was prepared,” Dr Rumianek says. This time, she brought two assistants with her from Sydney, funding their journeys herself.

Because all Hope had on the ground in Cambodia was an old reclinable doctor’s chair, a dental light, a few high-speed handpieces, some tips, an ultrasonic scaler and an autoclave,  Dr Rumianek brought with her fresh syringes, anaesthetics and infection-control materials.

Challenges

Dr Rumianek would, of course, face another challenge: the ubiquitously poor oral health of Cambodian children, which, in the words of Hope’s in-country director, Peter Butler, is “absolutely appalling … all or most of their teeth are rotting in their gums”.

After children lose their first set of teeth, they often get infections that can lead to sepsis. The children are thus “almost immune to [dental] pain,” says Butler.

From beginning to end, Dr Rumianek saw volunteering at Hope as an adventure. She experienced early Khmer architecture at Angkor Wat; she gave lectures in Phnom Penh; at night, she walked down the food stalls that glow like fireflies along the Sangker River. She tried beef with basil and red tree ants, and rat meat “organic” from the fields.

New frontiers

The professional experience was unlike anything Dr Rumianek or her colleagues had experienced in Australia: they often had to clear patients’ mouths with syringes; they burned their hands on the scaler which, for lack of a consistent water supply, ran dry; and because of a lack of forceps, Dr Rumianek had to find creative ways to perform extractions. Yet by the end of her seven-day trip, she and her colleagues had treated 90 patients.

“Our strategy is not to go broader but to go deeper. We just want to work with families to give them something better … to give people a step up and show them the tools to independence.”—Peter Butler, in-country director, Hope for Cambodian Children Foundation

Of these, it was Tola’s story that moved Dr Rumianek the most—a young person with learning difficulties and HIV who as a baby was abandoned on the side of the road by her mother. She was saved by Buddhist monks.

Hopeful Battambang

In a country where Generation X lived through the genocidal bloodletting of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, Cambodia is unsurprisingly still recovering. Battambang Province was one of the bloodiest regions. “There was a lot of people affected by the Khmer Rouge and you heard their awful stories,” Dr Rumianek recalls.

Today, there’s a new verve, and it’s contagious. “Battambang has an aura—it’s not tangible—but for most people it engulfs them and makes them feel safe,” says Butler. At Hope, he leads a team of foreign volunteers plus 28 trained Cambodian workers, including Nurse Khem, Hope’s selfless translator for volunteers who also manages dental records. With devoted staff and financial support from generous corporate and individual donors, the Foundation’s welfare operation is comparatively strong and robust for Cambodia.

Dr Rumianek with nurse Khem, the foundation’s translator, who also manages patients’ dental records

“Our strategy is not to go broader but to go deeper,” says Butler. “We just want to work with families to give them something better … to give people a step up and show them the tools to independence.”

Indeed, it’s not all open-handedness. Butler organises contractual agreements for those receiving Hope’s aid to inspire them to meet concrete goals. The proverb, ‘Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach him to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime,’ is a central piece of Hope’s philosophy.

And the philosophy touches many. The Foundation is working with 270 children and hopes to reach 600, working with the children’s families as well.

Expect AMAZING

Hope needs dental volunteers looking for a culturally and spiritually revitalising break; dentists seeking the kind of reward that only volunteering provides.

Volunteers can tailor their own experience, says Butler. Dr Rumianek suggests 10 days as the perfect length of stay. Butler adds that volunteers should take time after their volunteering period to experience the land and culture. “Some volunteers try to come and change everything in the weeks that they’re here,” he says, “but it’s little steps. And trust me—what you’re doing is far better than what was.”

Since Hope is a registered tax deductive organisation, there are many expenses volunteers can claim; there’s also a modest house where they can stay, and Hope organises cheap local transportation. The NGO also vigilantly follows standards set by the World Health Organization. “Everything is done by the nth degree,” Butler attests. “We’re great on ideas—busting with energy; we just need dentists.” Dr Rumianek says, “It can be a holiday/work experience, but more than anything, it’s an adventure.” Dr Rumianek says she “really can’t imagine anyone not having an amazing time”. So amazing, she’s hoping to return later this year.

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