S’thorne man outfitting Cambodians
SILVERTHORNE – Doug Mendel is single-handedly trying to make Cambodian villages safer.The Silverthorne man has flown to the Asian country four times to provide firefighters there with equipment they need to keep their towns and cities safe. But the needs are great, and the wish lists are long.”The younger Cambodians don’t even know what a fire station is,” he said. “Most are housed in the same complex as police stations, so I’d say to my translator, ‘Take me to a police station,’ knowing it was most likely the fire station was there, too.”They’re difficult to find because there aren’t many of them in a country that is slowly rebuilding all its infrastructure after decades of civil strife. One fire station serves the entire city of Phnon Penh, a city of 1.4 million people, Mendel said.Mendel is a world traveler, having visited about 50 countries.”Cambodia captured my heart in 1997,” he said. “Its people, the culture, its dark history, the food, the weather, the handicrafts.”And as a former volunteer firefighter with Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue, he sought out the fire stations in the villages he visited. He was surprised to find what was, and wasn’t, there.Most fire stations have a truck, he said. But open the compartments in any of them and there was likely to be no tools, ladders, fire extinguishers or other equipment. The government can’t afford it, so most fire departments charge business and homeowners to extinguish their fires – if they respond to the fires at all.”There’s a lot of corruption there,” Mendel said. “If they go, and if the owner doesn’t pay, they might let the fire burn.”Even then, the money goes to pay the firefighters, who make a little more than half the average annual pay of others in Cambodia.On Mendel’s first trip in February 2003 to deliver supplies, he brought clothing: firefighting boots, protective hoods and medical jackets to the firefighters in Sihanoukville. Firefighters then mentioned they needed radios. So in November, he purchased radios and brought them overseas. Now, officials at Keystone Resort collect two-way radios they’ve found on the slopes and give them to Mendel.Since then, he’s spread out his efforts to include the cities of Phnon Penh, Kampot, Siemreap, Angkor, Battanbang and Ban Lung.”In Ban Lung, I didn’t have anything left to give them,” he said of his second trip. “I talked to the chief and found out they basically have nothing – and they want basically everything.”One year, he brought fire science books. And even though they were written in English, the Cambodian firefighters were able to point at the numerous pictures to tell him what other equipment they’d like him to bring on his next trip.One year, he bought fire extinguishers at the local gas store. Another year, he brought safety goggles, more hoods and a camcorder so they could film their trainings.To fund his operation – he’s formed the nonprofit Douglas Mendel Cambodian Relief Fund – he buys handicrafts in Cambodia and sells them locally at Timbuktu in Keystone and the Cooking Cowgirl in Breckenridge. Much of the firefighting equipment is donated from local fire stations.Now, he’s looking for a truck for the firefighters in Sihanoukville.”It (the fire truck) might take two years, but I’m confident I’ll get it,” he said.Once he does, Mendel will work with a nonprofit group in Washington that has shipped ambulances and other large apparatus overseas to get the truck to Sihanoukville. And he’s always looking for more. Mendel has also formed a group that provides toys, clothing and school supplies to children who live on the streets in Cambodia.”It’s one thing to give something to somebody and another to see them use it. I’m contributing my small part to help,” Mendel said.To help the Douglas Mendel Cambodian Relief Fund e-mail wndrlst49@hotmail, call (970) 513-9294 or visit http://www.cambodiaphotogallery.com.Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 228, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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