Back to Cambodia for Summit County local
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In 1997, Summit County local Doug Mendel was traveling through Asia when he made as short stop in Cambodia.
The three days he spent there would change the course of his life.
“I went there as a traveler and those three days captivated my heart,” Mendel said. “I fell in love with the people, the culture, the weather.”
That love would draw him back to the small, southeast Asian nation 16 times over the next 14 years and inspire him to found the Douglas Mendel Cambodian Relief Fund, a nonprofit organization providing Cambodian firefighters with much-needed equipment, training and even fire trucks.
Now, as he prepares for his 17th trip, Mendel is winding down his charity work, though he says, the friendships he has built through his work in Cambodia will keep him a frequent visitor to the country he loves so much.
“I tell people now, when all’s said and done, it’s the friendships with the Cambodian people I treasure the most,” Mendel said. “I’m trying to step back from what I’ve done in the past, just because I got burned out and … I’ve realized I still have a passion and a love for the people and that’s something I don’t want to give up ever.”
On this next trip, a brief 11 days, Mendel plans to visit three towns, checking on the two fire trucks he has had donated and the many friends he has made over the years.
Mendel’s philanthropic work really began in 2001, he says, when, on a third vacation in Cambodia he spotted a fire station.
“I was a volunteer firefighter for Lake Dillon (Fire Rescue) and I thought I could help,” Mendel said.
He returned home and asked the Lake Dillon fire chief if there were any supplies that could be donated. In 2003, he returned to Cambodia with a box of gear and a question.
“With the help of a Cambodian friend, I explained that this was a gift from a fire station in Colorado, and (asked) them to tell me what they wanted and I would do my best to bring other supplies on the next trip. Long story short, it turns into a nonprofit.”
Cambodia is a country of almost 15 million people, about 30 percent of whom live below poverty levels. While fires are not a particularly big problem, the country’s fire stations are grossly undersupplied.
“Firefighters in Cambodia just don’t have the proper equipment and training to protect the community in which they live,” Mendel said.
Over the years he’s done his best to remedy that, collecting thousands of dollars in donations to support firefighters, and in 2006 he helped a fire truck donated by Red, White and Blue Fire Rescue find its way to the fire station in the village of Preynop.
That engine has responded to approximately 15 calls over the last five years, most recently a structure fire where the truck helped protect the surrounding area from the flames.
Mendel has also traveled with American firefighters, who helped train Cambodian emergency responders. All of that was in addition to what he says amounted to about two tons of gear, including helmets, boots and gloves.
But ultimately, he said, he got more out of his work than he gave.
“It’s given me a purpose,” Mendel said. “It’s been an incredible journey.”
Summit County businesses and individuals have always been very supportive of his efforts. Mendel said, though he is winding down his work, he encourages anyone interested in his work or looking for an update to get in touch with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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