Updated: Jul 12, 2018
For many people, winter break means last minute holiday shopping, drinking hot chocolate after a long day of sledding, and re-watching classic Christmas movies. However, I spent my two-week vacation teaching children in rural Cambodia about the importance of oral health.
I stayed in a century-old wooden house inhabited by a hospitable Cambodian family, of which only one member, Thom, spoke English. Thom, 35 years old and a modern Renaissance man, was born in Siem Reap and is now an English teacher, hotel manager, and tour guide; he also holds a masters degree in education and English. Thom brought me to the village’s school, which consists of a mere nine teachers for nearly 350 students. These students lack basic learning materials and many arrive at school with dirty clothing and no shoes. Many of the children aspire to be a doctor one day due to the scarcity in their village; in fact, the district has only one doctor and no dentists despite its population of 60,000 people.
The undersupply of dentists drew me, the founder of BEST, to a village in Siem Reap, Cambodia, where many villagers lack fundamental knowledge surrounding proper oral health care. In fact, the grandmother of the home she was staying in had never even brushed her teeth in her life. With 333 students, I conducted two workshops where she gave a lecture on the importance of oral health, translated by Thom, and demonstrated appropriate oral hygiene habits. Understanding the financial limitations of households in certain areas, BEST also provided them with oral health supplies, such as toothbrushes and toothpaste.
After the class, I toured the school as the students attended class. In Cambodia, since there is not enough infrastructure to teach all Cambodian students at once, students are divided into two as they are assigned to attend class in the morning or the afternoon. Because of this, Cambodian children attend school 6 days a week. Pita, Thom's niece, has a mother who is a teacher. Thom told me how thankful their family is that Pita has the opportunity to go to school twice a day.
Beyond oral health education, I experienced the life of a Cambodian. I woke up to the sounds of roosters that wondered around the house and ate breakfast at the street market, a place where many professionals, such as teachers, sell to supplement their income. Under the lead of Thom's family, I caught fish in the lakes and planted potatoes at the farm. I ate traditional Cambodian curry and danced at a local party. However, the most memorable moment was when I took a shower at Thom's parent's house. It was built a mere year ago; the same time the family received electricity. Unlike a traditional bathroom, taking a shower required skillful manipulation as one has to be cautious of the bucket (filled with water) and the squad toilet beneath in 5-feet large space.
I also interviewed Thom's family; a 4 generation family with 9-year-old Pita to 92-year-old great grandmother. While Pita lived a relatively comfortable life, her grandparents and great-grandparents had to suffer the Civil War in Cambodia. Pita's grandmother grew up constantly hungry. She was threatened by death as she secretly ate raw rice while being forced to work in the fields by the government. Pita's grandfather saw the death of many villagers and companions due to excess workload as he was the facilitator of the project of a man-made lake by the government. Thom waited 3 days and night in the jungle without food and water to cross Thailand's border illegally to become a fisherman and earn money for the family. There are many stories to tell, not only of the family but people I met along the way, however, that will take forever to finish.
Through my visit to Cambodia, I have sparked healthy habits that will remain with the children throughout the remainder of their lives and for generations to come. Not only will the kids obtain a better physical appearance, but they will also have to deal with far fewer health problems and will be able to gain lucrative job opportunities. All it takes is a toothbrush and toothpaste.
Here are some others amazing things I experienced and witnessed:
- written by Diana Yue IHHS '20 & Sumaiya Hossain IHHS '20