The top holiday gift of 2013? You might be surprised – It’s water.

Think about how many times you’ve used clean water today. Did you wake up and take a sip of water from the glass on your bedside table? Did you take a shower, brush your teeth, use the bathroom and wash your hands? Did you make a cup of coffee, rinse off an apple before sitting down at the computer to read this article?

Many Americans don’t think twice about having access to safe, clean water, but for many more people around the world, access to potable water is difficult or even impossible. In fact, according to UNICEF, 768 million people worldwide do not have access to clean drinking water, and nearly 1,600 children die each day from lack of access to safe water.

Cambodia is one of those countries where people are in desperate need of clean water. So, maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself, but when we started sending tours to Cambodia, we thought the major reason to visit this small, Southeast Asian country, was the incredible site of Angkor Wat. This long-ago abandoned temple complex overgrown with jungle flora is a magnet for tourists, as well it should be. It never occurred to us that our tours to this coveted UNESCO World Heritage Site and important international destination would lead us on a different kind of journey, one that would bring us even more satisfaction than our visit to the fabled site of Angkor Wat.

Surrounding the site, there are many Cambodian villages where people struggle every day to find enough water, clean or not, for drinking, bathing, irrigating crops, and cooking. As you drive through the countryside, the lack of good water is as apparent as the magnificence of the Angkor temples.

Of Cambodia’s 14 million citizens, over 9 million suffer from intermittent diarrheal disease caused by contaminated water. On top of that, women and children often have the responsibilities of retrieving water, walking far distances for what little water they can access, and caring for the sick. These duties take up most of their day, leaving them unable to contribute to the workforce or attend school, which has contributed to Cambodia’s lack of economic growth.

But here’s the surprising truth: There isn’t a shortage of water in Cambodia — there’s plenty of it in the ground. Villagers simply lack the funding, infrastructure, and skills to dig the wells they need to access it. The cost to dig and install a pump well that provides clean, drinkable water? About $230, according to the Trailblazer Foundation, a non-profit that helps Cambodian villagers create self-sustaining economic and educational programs.

Once our Cambodia departures were established, we became keenly interested in projects to help out in this impoverished place. On one of our tours, the guide pointed out a well bearing a plaque hand-painted with someone’s name, a Western name at that. “That’s a Trailblazer well, donated by a tourist,” was his explanation. Some of the travelers on the bus wanted to know how much such a well could cost, how many people it could serve, and other details, and once the guide finished explaining the facts, several of the travelers on the bus offered to pay for wells. Thus began Friendly Planet Travel’s wells project and our association with Trailblazer.

But the Trailblazer Foundation was busy digging wells and helping in other important ways before we ever met them. In fact, the foundation has had a significant impact on Cambodia for over 10 years, with many Cambodians gaining access to clean water thanks to their efforts. And while Trailblazer’s impact is growing, there’s plenty of work to be done, especially by rallying the support of American tourists to Cambodia.

Blazing the trail for clean water

The Trailblazer Foundation was created by Scott and Chris Coats, who were no strangers to lending a helping hand in many of the world’s neediest places. They were volunteering and traveling through the South Pacific on their way to Europe in 2002 when, during a visit to the famed Angkor complex, they were struck by the immense need for fresh water in the Siem Reap region. The people there had little to no infrastructure or education and were living in extreme poverty. Scott and Chris were impressed with the motivation displayed by the villagers to work hard to improve their lives, if only they could get a little help to get started, which in turn motivated Scott and Chris to provide the help that was needed.

The Trailblazer Foundation practices a sustainable, community-focused style of development that asks the Cambodian villagers themselves to set the agenda and determine the priorities for what they need, from digging wells to building a school, to acquiring mosquito nets and shoes, and so on. The Foundation then provides the villagers with the resources and training they need to solve their own problems, and the support over time to make the solutions last. Unlike many other NGO’s who have their own ideas about what’s good for a particular community, Trailblazer works within the system that already exists in the villages they serve, accounting, in large part, for its acceptance into the communities served and its success in its various projects.

To date, the Trailblazer Foundation has built four primary school buildings, 450 wells that have given over 1,500 families access to water, and 4,500 water filters that have provided 100,000 people with potable water. The Foundation has delivered several hundred bicycles to help children commute to schools that are beyond walking distance and continue their education. It has also bought from local businesses thousands of mosquito nets to prevent malaria and flip flops to prevent hookworm.

How you can help

If you join us on one of our tours to Cambodia, you’ll have the opportunity to see the need and reach out in person. If you aren’t headed to Cambodia in the very near future, there’s still plenty you can do right now, and it will cost you very little and take only a few moments of your time. That’s the thing about Trailblazer. Small donations go a long way, since 93 cents of every dollar donated goes directly toward helping Cambodian people.

For instance, $50 pays for a Cambodian farmer to attend a mushroom farming training seminar, with over two days of instruction, a mushroom training manual, and spores to get started growing a cash crop that can mean the start of a better life for an entire family. A gift of $45 provides a child who lives in a village with no secondary school with a bicycle, so she can attend school in another town, and $10 will buy her school uniform that she is required to wear.

With the holidays approaching, consider making a donation to Trailblazer in honor of family and friends, rather than buying another shirt or gift card. Your generosity will do plenty of good, and it’ll rub off on the recipients of your kindness, too.

For instance, my 8-year-old and 11-year old granddaughters opted for wells in their names as birthday presents this year. The thrill of getting their certificates, which they proudly showed to their friends, will only be exceeded by the photo Trailblazer will send us of their wells, complete with signs bearing their names. Even if replacing that iPad with a well is a non-starter in your family, why not consider adding a certificate for a mosquito net or a few pairs of flip flops as stocking stuffers? It’s a great way to engender a sense of pride and responsibility in your kids as well as foster a lifetime of giving.

You can visit the Trailblazer Foundation’s website for more information and to donate.

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