Profile: Clearing Cambodia
Toastmaster speaks up for Cambodians injured by land mines.
By Julie Bawden Davis
Photo Caption: Toastmaster Gary Christ, an inventor, modified
an old family tractor to work as a demining device.
The first time Gary Christ visited Cambodia was on a mission trip in 2001, to install septic systems at orphanages. And, indeed, he could see how badly clean water and sewage disposal was needed there. Yet Christ (whose name rhymes with “mist”) soon discovered an even greater threat to this Southeast Asian country still recovering from a war that ended more than 30 years ago.
“My second day in Cambodia I felt a tapping on my leg as I stood in the market,” he recalls. “I thought it was a child begging, but it was a full-grown man with no legs touching me with his hat. He had nothing to assist his movement; he was simply moving around on the dirt floor on his bare hands and stumps.”
The beggar was one of many victims of land mines – the all- too-common, deadly war remnants scattered throughout the country. Such mines injure or kill at least two Cambodians every day, according to statistics.
Christ would eventually feel compelled to take action, helping to remove land mines in the country and aid the victims of such explosions. That was in addition to installing numerous septic systems in his trips to Cambodia.
In fact, it was his humanitarian work that caused him to seek out Toastmasters. “I wanted to do more for Cambodia, and I knew that meant learning how to effectively reach out to the public,” says Christ, who owned a septic system service for eight years back home in Illinois, USA. He is a member of Fox Valley Toastmasters in Illinois’ Lake in the Hills community.
Becoming a Toastmaster has helped him tremendously with presentation skills, he says, enabling him to speak without fear and to stay focused on his fund-raising goals on behalf of the citizens of Cambodia.
Christ has installed more than a dozen septic systems in Cambodia. It was when installing such a system in 2004 – for an orphanage in Kampong Chanaan – that an incident again called his attention to the hazards of land mines.
“A trip wire that led to a land mine was discovered,” says Christ. “The mine was disarmed, but the experience greatly impacted my mission, and I soon felt compelled to help with the demining efforts.”
“Not only are individuals routinely killed or maimed by land mines,” Christ points out, “such accidents tend to impoverish an entire family, because they will sell everything they own to pay for the medical care of the individual who is injured.”
The threat of land mines also affects the well-being of Cambodians in general, because they’re understandably afraid to farm untread areas, worried they might trigger an explosion. That’s another reason demining efforts are so crucial, says Christ.
“Once an area is demined,” he says, “farmers can use the land for producing badly needed food.”
After that fateful 2004 incident, Christ, who is also an inventor, went home to Illinois and modified an old family tractor to work as a demining device. He shipped it to Cambodia. The 1947 Farmall Series H tractor uses hydraulics and a magnet to lift a steel-plated box weighing more than 10,000 pounds and drop it on mines. Christ successfully tested the modified tractor, a relic of his family’s former farming operation, by detonating several mines in a subsequent trip to Cambodia.
The same year Christ began his demining efforts he also met and was inspired by land mine survivor and double amputee Sem Sovantha, project manager of the Angkor Association for the Disabled (AAD) in Cambodia. A former beggar, Sovantha has dedicated himself to helping other land mine survivors and their families find employment and housing.
“When I met Sovantha, my heart went out to him, and we became instant friends,” says Christ. “At the time, Sovantha managed to get around with the aid of a three-wheeled bicycle. He took me to his house and offered to share everything he had, which by Western standards wasn’t much.”
Since meeting, the duo has set up a housing commune for homeless amputees in Cambodia.
Sovantha, who now moves about in a wheelchair, lauds the actions of his friend. “I met Gary when I was at the old market trying to sell books to make a living,” he writes in an e-mail. “I saw him buy food and water for beggars who were living on the street, and I thought he was a very humanitarian man. He has helped the [AAD] by paying the center’s rent fee and for labor for four years, and he always spends his free time to lobby for funding.”
Christ says his Toastmasters experience has been crucial in helping him take a leadership role.
“The AAD in Cambodia performs regularly to raise funds, and I often introduce them to the audience,” Christ notes. “Toastmasters has helped me effectively engage the audience and explain [the group’s] vision of creating a farm where disabled people can work and live.”
“The skills I’ve mastered – such as effective hand gestures, eye contact and voice projection – have been invaluable,” he says. “Most importantly, I now have the confidence to tell people what the AAD does and what our needs are.
“Toastmasters has really given me direction and the ability to focus on the mission with greater confidence.”
He plans to further his work in Cambodia and eventually hopes to employ 50 people – including land mine survivors – in a demining operation. Christ is raising $50,000 so he can return to the country.
“We plan to use half of the funds for demining, one quarter for installing new wells and another quarter for septic systems and housing,” he says. “We can’t just remove land mines without cleaning up contamination and providing fresh water.”
To learn more about Gary Christ’s efforts in Cambodia, visit www.deminecambodia.org or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Julie Bawden Davis is a freelance writer based in Southern California and a longtime contributor to the Toastmaster. You can reach her at Julie@JulieBawdenDavis.com.