Engine 633 leaks oil. However, the firefighters who use it aren’t complaining — they’re just grateful they have one. As a small fire station in Prey Nup, Cambodia, and the only fire response team for miles around, they have to make do with every piece of equipment they have.
A donation after retiring from service with the Red, White and Blue Fire District, the engine traveled to Cambodia eight years ago thanks to the Douglas Mendel Cambodian Relief Fund.
Since 2005, Summit resident Douglas Mendel has worked to raise money and gather donations to keep the engine running and to help out several other Cambodian fire stations. This Friday, April 4, he will give a presentation at the Colorado Mountain College campus in Breckenridge, showing photos and videos of his many trips to Cambodia and hosting a question-and-answer session afterward. In addition to providing information, Mendel hopes to raise money to bring more gear with him on his next trip to Cambodia at the end of the month.
“$3,000 would be a dream come true,” he said.
Building connections and trust
Mendel first set foot in the southeastern Asian country in 1997 while on vacation.
He quickly fell in love with the country — its people, its food, its culture — and it didn’t take long for him to find a way to connect. Mendel, who at the time had just begun working as a volunteer firefighter with the Lake Dillon Fire Department, started gathering gear and clothing donations from local stations. One thing led to another and in 2005 his relief fund gained nonprofit status.
Since then, Mendel has made 15 trips to Cambodia for the fire stations. His fund currently supports the station in Prey Nup, one in Sihanoukville and one in Battambang. While the fund was at one point supporting six stations, the three he supports now are those that have been the most receptive to his help, he said, and whose fire chiefs he has best connected with over the years.
“The reason I keep visiting those three stations (is) I feel a true connection,” he said. “I feel a bond, that I’d still go anyway to main the friendships if and when the material donations wither away. Because it’s truly about connecting and making a difference.”
That bond has allowed trust to form among Mendel and the fire chiefs — which means they are more forthcoming about their needs.
“The firefighters … appreciate my coming to check on them and they know that they can be completely honest and say, ‘Doug, we need this. We need radios, we need an air conditioner, we need fire extinguishers,’” he said. “They know they can trust me with them telling me what they want and I’ll say, ‘That sounds reasonable, and let’s go into town and I’ll buy you (what you need).’”
Mendel said that Friday’s presentation will give him a chance to further inform Summit County about what he does through his relief fund and what sort of donations the Cambodians need.
With the help of CMC professor Mark Pauls, Mendel also has written a book about his experience with the fund. “It’s his words, my voice,” Mendel said. The book is due to come out this year.
Mendel next travels to Cambodia at the end of April.