The Trailblazer Foundation in Cambodia strives to improve health, food security, education and economic development.
“Can you imagine what you would do if you didn’t have a toilet in your house? What would life be life if you couldn’t walk into the kitchen and just turn the faucet on?” Chris Coats, founder and executive director of the Trailblazer Foundation said.
This is what life is like every day for poverty-stricken families living in and around Siem Reap, Cambodia. It all began in 2001, when Coats and her co-founder were doing international volunteer work. In that process, they traveled through Cambodia and absolutely fell in love with the country and the people there.
“Back then the need was just right in your face,” Coats said. “It was just palpable the poverty.”
When she first set foot in Cambodia in 2002 while on her volunteer work trip, Coats crossed the border from Thailand. She realized the two places were like night and day. Thailand was so developed and Cambodia, although right below, was just not at the same level. It was filled with dirt roads which made it difficult to travel, the pot holes in the streets were unthinkable, people right outside the city of Siem Reap had no running water or electricity. It was heartbreaking to see.
Therefore, after Coats and her co-founder finished their volunteer work, they felt a strong need to revisit Cambodia. Through their work, they were partnered with nongovernmental organizations that were already well-established. The pair figured they would be able to tap into one of these organizations and work alongside them. They decided to take a trip back to Cambodia in 2003 in hopes of finding a group to link up with, however they were unsuccessful in this search.
“We just didn’t really find one we felt we could trust and so we thought ‘well, I guess we have to start our own,’” Coats said.
This is how the Trailblazer Foundation came to be. Becoming a certified nonprofit is not easy, so in 2004, Coats and another founding member took yet another trip back to Cambodia in search of a specific project to qualify them as a nonprofit. They were set on building a primary school in a very remote village. The very next year in 2005, Coats and her co-founder finally made the move to live in Cambodia and begin working on their project. Right away, however, they noticed the lack of clean and accessible water. This became their new main focus.
“We started hiring to have wells drilled, we inherited the bio-sand water filter mold from another organization that was coming through, it really has just evolved over time because we stick with what we do and we do it well,” Coats said.
The Trailblazer Foundation now has four impactful programs running in rural Cambodia: a health program focused on providing clean water, a food security program which provides “Homestead Garden Training,” focusing on teaching the basics of growing crops for personal and family consumption, an education program devoted to reducing the educational barrier children are faced with and an economic development program which funds their villages.
“On average, with our different products, which are the bio-sand water filters, wells and latrines, we probably help between 7,000-8,000 people a year,” Coats said. “With clean water people are healthier, kids can go to school, parents can work and feed their families. With the wells they have access to a year-round supply of water, so they can irrigate a home garden and it helps with sanitation and hygiene. Of course, with latrines, it helps to stop the contamination of their living environment.”
Every fall, the organization is invited to an integrated workshop in which the identified needs of the villagers are presented. They will then sign agreements to help specific villages with their necessities, whether that be filters, wells or anything in correlation to their four programs. This is how the nonprofit finds where to work. They aid approximately 20 villages a year, each with about 700-1500 people. The Trailblazer Foundation is providing individuals with better health, which is not an easy feat.
“The needs don’t change where we’re working,” Coats said. “Still, in areas where we are, they don’t have any kind of plumbing system. There is no infrastructure there like that yet. When we were in that first village, it was 10-15 years before they even got electricity, only 35 kilometers outside the city.”
The organization is still helping completely remote villages who have little to no access to water. Their choice is a traditional well pit, or the nearest pond or creek. This is why they provide bio-sand water filters, which can completely clean rain water, well pit water and other naturally sourced water. They work as a team to ensure people can stay healthy, with staff and partners from both Cambodia and the United States.
“What has helped make it work well is that the staff there are Cambodian. From the beginning we enlisted a Cambodian director. They know their country, they can speak the language, they understand the culture and how things work. Without Cambodians running the show over there, it would be really tough,” Coats said. “I think it was also great that we lived there on the ground. I was there for the first six years. For us to be there and help really get it established was amazing but the Cambodian director is really critical to keeping things going.”
The government in Cambodia is aware of how much help and money the Trailblazer Foundation has put into the development of their country which gives them a fantastic reputation there. To uphold this reputation, the organization guarantees that when they say they’re going to do something, they most certainly stick to it. Their Cambodian staff has the benefit of working with government officials to carry out projects, while on the United States side, the staff deals with fundraising efforts.
“We help the village establish what we call ‘village fund,’ so for every product, they have to pay a little bit of money into their village fund. As that capital grows, other villagers can borrow against it and they start their own little micro-loan program in the village. It’s their money, for them, managed by them,” Coats said.
This is what makes the Trailblazer Foundation’s efforts so successful and sustainable. The idea is to create a long-term impact, in that the villagers will be able to continue to thrive without the constant intervention of the organization. Without the organization, however, these villages would not have the initial boost they do now, which is why it is so important to keep the Trailblazer Foundation continuously funded. There are numerous ways to help.
Donations can be made through their website or via mail with a check. People are encouraged to physically volunteer as well on-site in Cambodia. This would entail helping with the bio-sand water filter project, sifting and washing gravel, washing sand and helping with the concrete mix that goes into the molds to make the filter. People can volunteer by going out on deliveries, aid in water filter installation and much more. Volunteers may come from across the globe, in fact, the Trailblazer Foundation has had volunteers from 32 different countries.
“The bottom line is, I just hope that Trailblazer can survive. It’s based on funding. If we don’t have funding, then we pretty much have to close our doors,” Coats said. “I just hope that we can continue to raise money to help people in Cambodia. There is definitely progress being made.”