Erin West, a Utahn with a background in community-health education and wellness coaching, is on a mission to change lives in Cambodia. She is the founder of KindredHouse, a community-level aid organization bringing health care and education to the impoverished country. A team of 15 volunteers is getting ready for the organization’s first trip this summer to hand-deliver much-needed medical supplies and clean up the only health center available to roughly 14,000 villagers. Visit KindredHouse.org for more information.
What led you to start a nonprofit?
I had it in mind after my first trip in 2006 to Cambodia, a war-torn, scarred country. There was a genocide from 1975 to 1979 under Pol Pot ... and they killed the best educated, or the most professional, members of society, so there are few role models, and no infrastructure and no opportunities for young people. Watching kids in the street all day, no opportunity to go to school, no health care, no garbage pick-up ... it was in my mind from that very first trip—how could I get involved?
How did health care become the focus of your efforts?
I was thinking of education for children, first. The opportunity for education just isn’t there. I have a master’s in public health and was always interested in health programs. I thought maybe I could provide health education. The clinic just kind of fell into place once we saw how little they had. As I got to know them, they told me about the things they needed, and so then it just seemed like an obvious fit.
Chansor Commune, a region of about 19 villages, has only one clinic and a doctor that’s not there full time. He rotates through because most doctors don’t want to be away from the big cities. There are 14,000 people and there are maybe 20 medications on the shelf, and no bandages … they didn’t have lights at night to deliver babies. They have no mattresses, no blankets, no pillows, no layette sets to take your baby home in. Nothing. What they told me they needed was medical supplies and medications.
With so many NGOs, plus Kickstarters and other fundraisers in the world, what sets yours apart?
We’re different in that we can provide a safe opportunity for volunteers to reach out and touch the people they want to help, which I think everyone wants. It’s hard just to donate money to Unicef. But to be able to go and clean a clinic, you get to see their faces when you do the smallest thing. I think people want an experience to know they are making a real difference.
My personal philosophy is that you like to see where your money and your energies are going. And most nonprofits or charitable organizations need money and donations, but they don’t offer you a reasonably priced opportunity to go and do the volunteering yourself. A portion of that $1,200 [the cost of the volunteer trip] goes back to KindredHouse to buy the medications and the supplies we need for the clinic ... and eventually to maybe build a new hospital for them.