Gary Becks looks below the port-side of a speedboat careening back-and-forth between the borders of Siem Reap and Kampong Thom province, speeding past villagers inspecting fishing nets along the riverbank.
“It’s the colour of those 3-in-1 packets of coffee,” says Becks, a California native and Rescue Task Force (RTF) founder and president, referring to the water of the Steung Saen river.
“It’s heartbreaking to think that people have to drink this.”
Becks is leading a caravan of RTF volunteers on a two-day expedition through remote areas of Kampong Thom province, distributing reading glasses and performing dental procedures with the aid of 18 graduate dental students from the University of Health Sciences.
They will also visit Boeung Chhmar Ramsar Floating Village to hand out water filters.
RTF, a non-profit relief agency founded by Becks in 1988, has donated over $87 million in relief supplies to the impoverished communities of Afghanistan, Sudan, Myanmar, Central America and Peru.
It runs literacy centres for Afghan girls, builds medical clinics for isolated Miskito tribesmen in the jungles of Honduras, and is a first responder to devastating disasters like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that devastated communities across Southeast Asia.
Rural communities in the Kingdom have long been a beneficiary of RTF’s work too.
“We’ve executed more than 100 projects in Cambodia during the last decade. Each time we go out it’s with a real intention not only to help people, but also empower them,” says Becks.
The 73-year-old American now calls Cambodia home, and he says RTF aims to increase its presence in the Kingdom and the wider Mekong region “to help those outside the scope of conventional relief operators.”
Back in Kampong Thom province, as the University of Health Sciences volunteers begin transforming a classroom into a temporary dental clinic, the school’s principle gathers girls in a separate classroom to read Growth and Changes.
The 39-page children’s book, an educational tool used to educate girls about their periods, is one of Becks’ favourite projects.
RTF sponsored the production of the book, and worked with writers, artists and the Ministry of Health to bring it to over 1,000 Cambodian girls.
“People in smaller villages can be much more superstitious, when they first get their periods they might think that they are being punished for something or that a spirit has taken control of them,” says Na Becks, Gary’s Cambodian wife who leads the lessons.
The book challenges longstanding myths, such as drinking ice water will freeze a woman’s menstrual blood, while also providing advice on hygiene and how to deal with cramps.
“I didn’t have anyone to talk to when my body was changing and the subject is taboo in Khmer culture,” says one volunteer Tath Sreunoch, who is in her sixth year of studying dentistry at the University of Health Sciences.
Tath plans to take dozens of copies of Growth and Changes back to her hometown in Takeo province for Khmer New Year.
“I think that it’s important that I share it with young girls in my village so that they know that everything is normal and there’s nothing to worry about,” she says, before rejoining the dental team.
The makeshift dental clinic soon comes to life, with donated examination chairs swiftly filled and vacated by patients long overdue a check-up; among them Kong Lita and her five-year-old daughter Pean.
They’re among hundreds seeing a dentist for the very first time.
Sitting in the chair, Pean is teary eyed, her rotting teeth barely developed.
The youngster says she rarely brushes her teeth, something “very common in rural communities” according to Dr Menh Khin, the dentist working on her.
She calls out for her mother as Dr Khin removes three rotting baby teeth from her mouth.
It’s a last resort for the doctor, but he must pull them out in order to ensure that the permanent teeth grow in infection free.
“Complications from poor dental health can be as simple as gingivitis, but here in rural communities dental health often isn’t a priority and the problems can compound to become life threatening,” says Dr Khin, volunteer coordinator for the Cambodia Medical Volunteer Association.
“Poor dental hygiene can lead to terrible infections that eventually get into your bloodstream, enter your lungs and result pneumonia and septicaemia.”
Mother and daughter are prescribed a tube of toothpaste, a daily saline rinse and antibiotics, – donations from Kossomak Hospital secured by RTF.
“RTF is our number one supporter, they’ve really done a lot for dental health in rural communities … We have been working with them for almost 10 years now and whenever we call them, they’re able to provide help,” Dr Khin says.
As the dental team tend to a seemingly never ending line of patients, a group of elderly villagers peruse a box filled with eyeglass donations from the US.
Optometry equipment donations are another aspect of RTF’s work, often providing local residents with the first pair of glasses they’ve ever owned.
“Regardless of the country, regardless of the literacy or lack thereof, I always win a wager with myself – inevitably the first thing that people do after putting on a pair of glasses is look at the palm of their hand. The second thing they always do is break into a large beaming smile,” says Becks.
True to form, one-by-one, the villagers put on a pair of glasses and inspect the palm of their hands before handing them to someone else and trying on a different pair.
Em Chem, 73, says he has never seen an optometrist before or owned glasses as he selects his pair.
“My grandkids always want to show me something that they’ve done and I just pretend like I can see,” says Em, wearing his new pair of silver-rimmed eyeglasses.
“Thank you for helping us see,” he tells Becks with a beaming smile.
Ironically, Becks loses his own frames during the chaos of the weekend.
Next stop for Beck’s team of volunteers is a docking point on the Steung Saen river two hours away.
Becks helps load water filters onto a speedboat set to thread between the borders of Siem Reap and Kampong Thom provinces en route to Boeung Chhmar Ramsar Floating Village.
Made in Cambodia, the water filters are a basic design made of clay mixed with rice husk, or saw dust and colloidal silver. Becks calls them an “atomic bomb for microbes.”
“What’s best is that there’s no batteries or electricity required to get clean water, all it needs to function is to be cleaned every now and then,” he says.
RTF has donated thousands of similar filters around the world, notably Honduras, where a 90 per cent decrease in diarrhoea was reported after their introduction.
At a communal meeting, locals laugh as Becks bridges the language divide by acting out how the water filters will help avoid diarrhoea.
“We do good work and will continue to do good work in Cambodia for years to come,” says Becks.
RTF staff do not receive salaries, meaning only six per cent of funds are spent on overheads. Most of the organisation’s financial support comes from private donations averaging less than $50.
“We entirely rely on the generosity of our donors to do our work and we’re just so grateful for people’s heart-warming support, but the need is still great,” says Becks.
In Cambodia, it costs RTF approximately $6 to treat each dental patient, $16.50 to provide one water filter and $1 to provide one copy of Growth and Changes.
On the most recent mission, RTF treated over 450 dental patients, handed out over 300 pairs of reading glasses, taught more than 100 girls and distributed 50 water filters.
“We go where others do not, to do what others will not . . . we have no intention of stopping until we’ve completely run out of means to help people,” says Becks.
With supplies exhausted following another successful mission, RTF’s caravan heads back to Phnom Penh.
Inside the bus, the conversation turns to their next mission, where they’ll deliver hand-cranked wheelchairs and bicycles for students to attend school, before heading to Myanmar to aid the Palaung indigenous community.
Visit www.rescuetaskforce.org for more information on RTF’s global activities and to donate.