Kiwanians see their work pay off in Cambodia

May 22, 2019

DSC02969-65Bob Garretson can easily recite facts and figures about The Eliminate Project: how many countries have eliminated maternal and neonatal tetanus; how many vaccines a mother needs to be protected; how many babies die every year from this preventable disease. 

Garretson, a member of the Kiwanis Club of Fort Collins - Eyeopeners in the Rocky Mountain District, knows that children who don’t receive enough iodine in their diets are at far greater risk of intellectual disabilities.  

As a member of the Kiwanis Children’s Fund board of trustees and treasurer-designate, Garretson is also knowledgeable about the work Kiwanis is doing with UNICEF to improve the lives of children around the world. 

But seeing the work firsthand was still illuminating. 

In April, Garretson traveled to Cambodia with Kiwanis International Vice President Art Riley and his wife, Vickie, and Ben Hendricks, chief communications officer for Kiwanis. They were part of a delegation of nine from UNICEF USA. The group spent five days in the Southeast Asia country touring villages, health centers, salt factories and iodine testing sites. They visited with moms and dads, government officials, village tribal leaders and UNICEF health workers.  

The Children’s Fund recently talked with Garretson about his trip. 

Children’s Fund: What was your impression of Cambodia?  

Garretson: It was jarring how quickly the country transitions from modern cities to extremely rural areas led by tribal leaders. There are no suburbs: You go from skyscrapers to huts — most of which are built on stilts. If you can’t afford stilts, your house is washed way when the rainy season comes. You rebuild your home every year. 

The people seemed content. The mothers wanted to learn. Like all moms, they want the best for their children. 

Children’s Fund: You know a lot about The Eliminate Project. What surprised you? 

Garretson: I realized how the tetanus vaccine program is just one aspect of what UNICEF is doing there. They are fighting malnutrition, immunizing against tetanus, teaching people about clean water and sanitation and making sure the salt is iodized. All these issues are being addressed.  DSC05777-198

I’m also more aware of what sustainability means. As Kiwanians, we often say “We’re going to go in, fix it and move on.” It doesn't work that way.  

Say a village has one boat and a health center is 30 to 40 kilometers away. What if a mom goes into labor when the boat isn’t available? One boat isn’t enough. So, you could ask, “How many boats do you need?” But it’s not just about the boat, it’s about having enough people to drive the boats and medical staff to go into the field. You can build health centers, but you need to have the money to pay for the staff.  

Children’s Fund: What does that mean for Kiwanians? 

Garretson: At the beginning of The Eliminate Project, we needed easy and concise ways to explain what the campaign was about. At the beginning, we were told to think of how much three shots cost. But it’s so much bigger than that. It’s about transportation and education and providing health care. The Eliminate Project helped create health networks in these remote communities that didn’t have access to healthcare before. And the health networks only work because of the community workers we helped train.  

We have a commitment to fulfill — and beyond that, a commitment to continue. We need to be able to refocus on how we can finish and sustain what we started. 

The Eliminate Project campaign may have an end, but the work does not.  

I wish everyone could see the outcome of what we have been investing in and see lives being changed. See the moms being educated and the salt being iodized. See the dedication of the health care professionals and volunteers who are doing whatever it takes to save lives and better their communities.  

And to see kids being kids. It’s universal. They were happy, rough-housing, playing. We helped give them that. 

Children’s Fund: What was your experience with UNICEF like? 

Garretson: You can be in remote areas, but when people see that UNICEF Jeep, they immediately come out of their homes. One dad was there with four little kids. The 4-year-old girl remembered getting a shot the last time UNICEF visited, and she wasn’t having any of it! But this time she was just getting measured for malnutrition. 

DSC01935-24We asked the dad if all his children had their vaccinations, and he ran into the hut so he could show us his pamphlet of vaccine records. 

Witnessing the clout that UNICEF has with everyone from villagers to government officials is just amazing.  

Children’s Fund: Did the trip change how you view Kiwanis’ role in the world? 

Garretson: It enhanced my view. We are making a difference. UNICEF understands what we are doing. The role I am blessed to have with the Children’s Fund gives me an opportunity to raise awareness of what we are doing and how relevant it is. We are indeed saving lives. 

It was eye-opening. How do we explain that the kids in Cambodia are just as important as kids across the street? That’s the challenge. We need to create a stronger structure so that we can continue to be a player in the world. 

If you took away the work Kiwanians are doing, lives would be lost. It’s as simple as that.