FREDERICK, Md. (AP) — When Ted and Bonnie Nieman of Frederick first visited Cambodia in 2005 as part of a vacation, they were struck by the poverty and asked their tour guide how villagers got fresh water.
“He said they didn’t really have fresh water,” Ted Nieman said. “The oldest son or sons would have to get up really early in the morning and take a couple buckets and walk to wherever there might be a water source.”
Moved by what they saw and heard, the Niemans founded a nonprofit organization, Cambodia We Care, in an effort to provide some relief. After erecting about 1,000 wells throughout the country, the organization completed a school for more than 100 children in the rural village of Sambour in 2009.
The couple recently returned from a weeklong visit to Cambodia, which they said was an opportunity to see the results of their efforts so far, as well as to work on new projects.
They said just a few years ago, the children of Sambour were illiterate and displayed the white hair and distended stomachs common in those with malnutrition. Now, the children receive regular meals and an education.
That was more than sufficient payment for their work, the Niemans said.
“It’s fun for us,” Bonnie Nieman said. “Every year we see so much change.”
They saw evidence of that change immediately upon their arrival this year. Students ran up to present the couple with hand-drawn pictures as they pulled up to the school.
“In 2009, we passed out paper and asked the kids to draw a little picture and send it back to the States,” Ted Nieman said.
“They didn’t know how to draw. They didn’t know what to do.”
The Niemans said many of the issues facing Cambodia represent the residual effects of the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge regime, which from 1975 to 1979 led to the deaths of as many as 2 million of the nation’s inhabitants and virtually shut down infrastructure. They said the people of Sambour lived in tunnels until the 1990s.
“All they’ve thought about is how to get enough food in their stomachs,” Bonnie Nieman said.
They said their goal for the village is self-sufficiency within the next three years, and education is a big part of the process.
The children taught at the school are in many cases the only literate members of their families.
“It’s the education that will ultimately change the structure of their whole lives,” Ted Nieman said.
The Niemans’ current project involves a plot of land near the village that will be used for an agricultural system utilizing a combination of crops and fish ponds to maximize productivity of the land.
The Niemans said they will continue to make the trip once a year to visit what they call their Cambodian family. They hope to keep adding to that family by serving even more people through their work.
“We didn’t choose Cambodia,” Bonnie Nieman said. “It chose us.”
The Frederick News-Post
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