Travel bug leads to humanitarian project for OSU man

From left, Carla Cogburn, Issam Rifai, Les Haverland, Steve Smith, and Amy Peters all raised money to help bring clean water to a Cambodian village. (photo: Theresa Hogue)

Steve Smith has had the travel bug for a very long time, but it was the inspirational words of travel writer and television personality Rick Steves that really got him on the path to world travel.

That path has taken him across continents and most recently landed him in Cambodia, where an unexpected connection led him to rally his Oregon State co-workers to make a difference in the lives of villagers who lack access to clean water.

Smith and his wife Christine Johnson heard Steves speak at the LaSells Stewart Center in the early 1990s, and were inspired by his discussions of traveling on the cheap.   They found themselves loading backpacks with enough supplies for a month of travel and headed across Europe, finding unique places like monasteries to spend the night.

Smith is an employee of Enterprise Computing Services at Oregon State, and has worked at the university for nearly 20 years. In the last decade and a half, he’s also gone everywhere from La Paz, Bolivia to Egypt. His early adventures were mainly of the backpacking variety, but after establishing himself as a travel blogger for “In the Know Traveler” he started going on press trips to places like Jordan.

After exploring several other continents, it was his love of ancient ruins that finally drew them to Asia, and to the fabled beauty of Angkor Wat.  They traveled to Cambodia in January 2010, and quickly fell in love with the ruins.

“The complex is so richly adorned with Hindu and Buddhist statues and artwork, plus the spiritual geometry of the temple constructions is just amazing,” he said of the famous UNESCO Heritage site.

But the trip took an unexpected turn when they began talking with the tour guide, Nu Tarth, who was both a survivor and a humanitarian. Tarth was a young boy, around 7 or 8, when the men in his family, including brothers and his father, were killed by the Khmer Rouge in what has become known as “The Killing Fields.” Tarth and his female family members survived the slaughter, and as a young man he was able to complete college and start his own tour company.

While the days of genocide have passed, Tarth recognized that many of his fellow Cambodians still suffer from lack of basic necessities, like clean water. For many living in Siem Reap Province, where Tarth lives, the nearest source of water is a polluted river miles away from most homes. Families must travel with buckets to and from the river, and bring home water tainted by garbage and diesel fuel. During the rainy winter season, some draw their water from stagnant pools, increasing the risk of cholera and other serious illnesses.

Tarth decided to do something, so he began saving some of his earnings from his job as a tour guide to fund the drilling of wells in the province. He also helped establish an orphanage and school in Changkavsu Village, near the capital of Siem Reap. The school offers education to 150 students, including English courses and computer training.

Smith and his wife were inspired by Tarth’s dedication to giving back to his community.

“He showed us his commitment to the project,” Smith said, and also showed them some of the poor conditions many villagers experience.

Smith is no stranger to humanitarian projects. He and his wife are on the board of the ALO Cultural Foundation, which focuses on educating and empowering disadvantaged communities, especially in the U.S. and the Middle East.  They had long conversations with Tarth  about what it means to help people in need, and  made up their minds to do what they could to further Tarth’s work.

“Clean water is something that we take for granted, and after seeing what difficulties the lack of it presents first hand, we felt that we’d like to be involved,” he said.

In addition to bringing the project to the attention of the ALO Cultural Foundation, they wanted to do something more immediate. So when he returned to Oregon State, he mentioned Tarth’s work to some of his co-workers, who were equally inspired by the project.

With the help of John and Amy Peters, Issam Rifai, Carla Cogburn and Les Haverland, all in Enterprise Computing Services, they raised $250, which they were able to transfer to Tarth who used it to install a well in Siem Reap that bears a sign honoring Oregon State University for the donation.

“You definitely feel like you’re part of it,” Smith said upon receiving photos of the well and the plaquard.  He hopes that by sharing Tarth’s work with others, he will raise awareness both about issues facing Cambodia, and perhaps inspire others to donate as well.

He and his wife also hope that the ALO Foundation eventually supports some of Tarth’s educational and water projects, but no matter what happens next, a little piece of OSU generosity means that children in Siem Reap now have clean water to drink.

To learn more about the Siem Reap project, see http://www.angkorcharityguideservices.com/index.php?page=clean_water

Smith suggests that anyone interested in making a contribution first contact him at steve.smith@oregonstate.edu, for suggestions on how to make a money transfer.

For more information on the ALO Foundation, see http://www.alofoundation.org/

~ Theresa Hogue

One Response to “Travel bug leads to humanitarian project for OSU man”

  1. Jessica Waddell says:

    Thank you so much for publishing this article. My daughter is at American University in Cairo studying Middle Eastern culture, language and politics. I forwarded the ALO website to her and hope that she finds an opportunity over there to help.