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Support for Cambodian Health, Education & Communities (SCHEC) - Creating a Smiling Future for Cambodia Through Water, Education and Dental Checkups -

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SCHEC President Dr. Atushi Nagai (L) and Executive Director Mr. Naokuni Yamanaka (R)
By profession, respectively these gentlemen are a dentist and a lawyer.

In this month’s Close Up, we introduce a certified non-profit organization called “Support for Cambodian Health, Education & Communities” (SCHEC). SCHEC is an NPO that was established in 2002 with the foundation of its activities being the original provision of water wells to communities in rural Cambodia which was undertaken by Mr. Yoshitaka Taguchi (a freelance journalist who currently serves as SCHEC Vice President). These days, through boring wells, constructing school buildings, and offering dental checkups, SCHEC works to support Cambodian communities so that the locals can lead healthier and more hygienic lives. In that in the fifteen years since it was established SCHEC has endeavored to conduct assistance programs twice annually in Cambodia, in spring this year the organization undertook its 30th such initiative. On this occasion, we had the opportunity to talk with SCHEC President Dr. Atushi Nagai and Executive Director Mr. Naokuni Yamanaka about the organization’s development and the activities that it undertakes.

Q. Please tell me what led to the establishment of SCHEC.

A. Mr. Yamanaka: What led to SCHEC’s establishment was that back in 1993, Mr. Taguchi, who currently serves as our vice president, undertook to visit Cambodia in his role as a freelance journalist. He went there to report on the activities of Japan’s Self Defense Forces who had been dispatched to the country as part of a United Nations Peacekeeping Force. Upon seeing with his own eyes the devastation that had befallen the Cambodian people due to 30 years of civil war, Mr. Taguchi began to wonder what he “might be able to do to assist.” For people living in farming villages who had no storage of water but who instead drank rainwater with little consideration of hygiene, he recalled the practice of boring wells. By obtaining the cooperation of some local people whom he had met through his reporting activities, he managed to have his first four wells sunk in 1999. After returning to Japan, through appeals that were made through his network of contacts, the number of people who were willing to cooperate with Mr. Taguchi continued to grow, and more and more wells were sunk. In that the scale of the activities grew; a decision was made to establish SCHEC in 2002 after some 82 wells had been successfully bored. It was from that point that we commenced our activities as an NPO.

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A group of SCHEC participants passing along a footpath in the direction of a well (L).
Signs are put up that list the names of the people who supported the boring of wells (R).
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Q. Please tell me about the main activities that SCHEC undertakes.

A. Mr. Yamanaka: SCHEC is active in Cambodia’s Siem Reap Province, which is famous for its temple ruins at Angkor Wat. The activities that we undertake can be divided into three major categories. In addition to the boring of wells that I mentioned a moment ago, we also build elementary and junior high school buildings so that more children can receive the benefits of an education. Additionally, we conduct dental checkups among the residents of rural communities to combat tooth decay. We do this because there are not enough dentists in Cambodia. As such, those who live in rural areas often don’t have access to dental treatment. As to what distinguishes SCHEC’s activities, our efforts are undertaken in a “visible manner.” For both our boring of wells and our building of schools, we either raise a sign next to the well or place a sign on the wall of the school that, if they wish it, includes the names of those who supported the project. That way we leave behind locally a visible indication of those who helped. I must say that some people who have donated to our efforts ask for the listing of their own name, that of a spouse, those of their children or grandchildren. Indeed, there are many reasons why people decide to donate.

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As a commemorative project, this elementary school building was made possible through a donation that was received from a graduate of a school in Tokyo’s Edogawa City that was celebrating its 90th anniversary (L). Students attending the opening ceremony of the new school (R).
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Q. So Cambodia also still suffers from a shortage of wells?

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Children playing with clean subterranean water brought up by a well.
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A. Mr. Yamanaka: Yes, it is my impression that the number of wells to be found in rural areas of the country is still insufficient. Talking about farmers in Cambodia, it is said that their average monthly wage is between $10 and $20. Thus, if you just rely on the efforts of villagers who don’t have much in the way of cash on hand, when digging a well it isn’t possible for them to get down deep enough to create something that offers superior hygiene. With the wells that SCHEC bores, we put a two-meter square of concrete down to protect the water source. We then place an order with a local business that can develop a hand-pump well for us. We have them bore down to approximately 30 meters. On average, it costs about ¥25,000 to set up each well. For those that have been completed, SCHEC makes arrangements so that we can check each individually twice a year. When we return to Japan, we then prepare some photographs and text in the form of a report that we send to those who have contributed to our activities.

Q. And is it still the case that there are not enough school buildings either?

A. Mr. Yamanaka: The education situation in Cambodia remains dire, and there is an absolute shortage in school resources. To accommodate the huge number of children, schools currently run on a system of two sets of lessons being given each day, once in the morning and once in the late afternoon. Even so, the classrooms overflow with children. What is more, many more are unable to attend school despite having reached the mandatory age for starting which is seven years old. This shortfall in school numbers is especially apparent in rural areas. For rural areas as well, because there are also many poor households that rely on the additional labor provided by their children to live, unless there is a school in the immediate vicinity, then such youngsters are unable to gain an opportunity to learn. To speak of population demographics, more than half of Cambodia’s citizens are under 18 years old. Thus, the situation whereby many cannot currently receive even a rudimentary education represents a huge issue for the nation’s future. Accordingly, as one of our main activities, the decision was made by SCHEC to commence building schools in Siem Reap Province. Currently, we can build a single reinforced-concrete building that contains five classrooms for ¥4 million. When we complete such projects, we again send an activity report with photos to those persons who have been kind enough to support our activities.

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Elementary school students studying in a rather windy wooden classroom.
This building will be replaced by a reinforced-concrete structure in November of the current year.
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Q. And I believe that some of you were even offering dental checkups prior to SCHEC being formally established?

A. Dr. Nagai: We conducted our first series of dental checkups in 2000. Since becoming an NPO in 2002, we have continued to carry out such activities at the pace of once a year. To comment briefly on Cambodia’s modern history, when Pol Pot was in power, the regime instituted a systematic genocide that fell heavily on the intellectuals. One outcome of that shocking turn of events was the deep scars inflicted on Cambodian dentistry. Currently, there are perhaps 300 dentists in practice throughout the whole of the country, and it is said that there are only a small number active in Siem Reap Province. Thus, members of the general public have very few opportunities to receive dental treatment. Furthermore, in rural areas, because a single extraction of a bad tooth costs roughly $10, the figure is basically the equivalent to one month’s income for a farmer. That means that from the economic perspective as well, it is very difficult for people to receive treatment. At SCHEC, through auxiliary tasks by which we support both the work of dental stakeholders such as dentists, dental hygienists, dental technicians and nurses, etc.; and through the participation of our volunteers, we can carry out both dental checkups in rural areas around Siem Reap Province and instruct members of the public as to the importance of brushing their teeth. It can be very difficult to treat patients in such a limiting environment, and since commencing our activities, I have realized on occasion that in order to relieve the pain of patients with cavities, we have to resort to teeth extractions because there is simply no other option. Looking back, I also remember a case when we had to remove the permanent (adult) teeth of a six-year-old patient.

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In that the dental checkups are conducted outside under a blazing sun; the dentists also tend to sweat.
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Q. Have there been any changes over time as you have continued to carry out the dental checkups?

A. Dr. Nagai: Having participated in dental checkups over many years, I have sensed some change in how the local people in Cambodia perceive their own teeth. The female population in particular have become more conscious of their own appearance, and that is perhaps because some have seen their incomes rise. Furthermore, because our activities also involve our making arrangements so that we have the necessary equipment on hand, over time a shift is occurring in that we are no longer forced to simply extract teeth. Rather, we are now in a position to also provide patients with maintenance treatment alternatives. There is also the prevention issue. By being able to offer ongoing dental checkups at elementary and junior high schools, centering on a group comprised of dental hygienists, we have been able to enhance our program of instructing children how to brush their teeth. What is more, we are also thinking of creating areas in which we would work to help improve the general level of dental health throughout society. Using elementary schools, etc., as hubs, I would like for us to create regions with fewer dental cavities. We would do this by increasing the dental IQ of the whole of society (their knowledge and understanding of dental health). One day, the children we are currently seeing will become parents themselves. It would be great if they could pass onto their own children the importance of having healthy teeth.

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Having healthy teeth represents the basis of good health.
As such, instructing children how to brush their teeth correctly is imperative.
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Q. Please tell me about the results you have achieved thus far.

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A. Mr. Yamanaka: As of this April (2017), SCHEC has been successful in boring some 2,890 wells in Cambodia. This year, we might reach the milestone of 3,000 wells. We have also constructed a total of 24 buildings for elementary and junior high schools, and November of 2017 will see the 25th completed. Approximately 15,000 people have received a dental checkup from SCHEC over the years, and that record has been recognized locally in that we continue to receive many more requests, etc. All of these results have contributed to the building of strong relationships between SCHEC here in Japan and our friends in Cambodia. Furthermore, at Kouk Thlok Leu Sang Khim Junior High School(*), one of the schools that we have built, in responding to the desire of the students, we commenced Japanese language classes that are now being given once a week. It is one of our hopes that from among the graduates of that school, we might see some exchange students who will come to Japan to study at some point in the future.
(*In the Khmer language, "Sang Khim" means "hope.")

Q. Could you please offer a final message to our readers?

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A. Dr. Nagai: Mr. Nakayama, Mr. Taguchi (whose experiences led to the establishment of SCHEC), and myself are old school friends, and it was the passion of Mr. Taguchi that got us involved. These days, what perhaps helps me to experience a change of pace more than anything else is going to Cambodia and helping people, and then in the evening perhaps enjoying a quite drink in Siem Reap. We are talking about Cambodia, a country that is undergoing economic development at an amazing pace. However, between the city and rural areas, and between rural areas located along national highways and more remote districts, what is occurring is expanding economic inequality. Thus, assistance is necessary in those areas left behind by all the economic growth. To those of your readers who have an interest in Cambodia, I would strongly like them to join us in our work. They don’t need to be dentists or nurses. Indeed, we would be very welcoming to people even if they lacked any qualifications at all. You can get involved even as a companion of children who are waiting for a checkup, or by just helping to distribute medication. While interacting with the local people, the opportunity exists to learn something about the real Cambodia. We would love to hear from those of your readers who are interested.