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Inspiring Story: Family going around globe to help others survive

March 1, 2009

From The Post & Courier

Their house is nearly empty, and there’s a “For Sale” sign in the yard.

In the past few months, James and Cara Garcia have sold nearly everything they own, taken the rest to Goodwill or the dump.

They got rid of the BMW just last week.

Now they can fit everything they own into a few suitcases and duffle bags — one each for them and their two daughters.

These are not victims of the recession. This is a family that has found a new purpose in life, and it lies on the far side of the world.

This week, the couple — one a paramedic, the other a registered nurse — are moving to the jungles of Cambodia, where they will open a clinic to serve thousands of people who have no medical care and few modern conveniences.

“They’ve got an old hospital that sits empty most of the year,” James said, watching Cara and their oldest daughter, Sam, inventory medical supplies for a shipping manifest. “They said, ‘If you come here, we’ll let you use it.’ The plan is to be there for two years.”

Their family members are not thrilled, and they get strange looks from some people when they explain their mission, but the Garcias don’t much care.

They have seen a need, something far more significant than a world of shopping malls and fast food, stock markets and bailouts.

“We learned what poor really means,” Cara said. “We found out how hard it is for some people just to live.”

It all started last April, when James and Cara took a 2 1/2-week vacation to Cambodia, ostensibly to see 1,000-year-old temples. Cara had read a book about them.

The sights that impressed them most had nothing to do with ancient architecture.

For Cara, it was a man lying in the street, too weak to pick up the money people had dropped at his feet.

James was touched most by a 5-year-old girl holding her 3-week-old brother, begging for money to buy some formula, her mother too emaciated to stand and ask for herself.

“We thought all the formula in the world wouldn’t help them if they were going to mix it with that dirty water,” James said. “That’s why two out of 10 kids die there before they are 5 years old.”

When they returned to Summerville, neither James nor Cara could stop thinking about what they had seen, that beautiful but impoverished country a world away.

They had learned about the country’s sad and violent recent history, killing of between 1 million and 3 million people under a Communist dictatorship that moved in during the Vietnam War.

Things that had meant little when recited on the evening news — Pol Pot, the Killing Fields — took on new meaning when James found the tooth of one of the victims lodged in the sole of his shoe.

It made some of the things here seem virtually meaningless. Cara grew sick of hearing people talk about how to divvy up a more than $700 billion federal bailout when there were some people who died from infection after getting a simple cut.

At first they thought they would take work at a hospital, and then learned there weren’t any in the worst parts of the country. They considered joining a missionary, but could not abide by groups that offered medicine only to people who would give up their Buddhist religion.

So they started their own nonprofit, Share the Health Cambodia, and began to collect donations. They picked up surplus supplies from local hospitals, such as a load of vacuum-sealed syringes that the American health care system declares “expired” after a few monthys.

“Tell me how this can expire,” Cara said.

Regardless, it is better than what anyone there has now.

The Cambodian government has been welcoming, thanks in part to a member of the country’s version of a congress.

The couple is scheduled to meet with the vice president at the royal palace later this month.

Of course, they are expecting a bit of culture shock. They have been promised that they will have electricity, and then they laugh, knowing there are no guarantees in the Third World. The place they are going is called Baray, in the Kampong Thom province, in the middle of the country.

They expect culture shock, and to eat a lot of fish and water buffalo, which is what passes for beef there. They plan to live in a hut on stilts. It has to sit high because of the rainy season, monsoons that last four hours a day for several months. The monsoons bring the snakes, including king cobras.

Samantha, 12, jokes that she wants to get a pet mongoose to protect her — the kid apparently has been reading Rudyard Kipling. Her father jokes that a mongoose is nothing but a super-aggressive ferret, perhaps not the best pet.

The move will be, the Garcias admit, hardest on the girls. Moira, 10, is content to follow her mother to the end of the earth, but Sam was not crazy about the idea at first.

She’s better with it now, mainly because “all my friends have moved away.” At first, she was adamantly opposed to the move.

“I gave in,” she joked.

The Garcias expect that it will take two years to get things going. They have enlisted a Buddhist monk to help ingratiate themselves to the locals because many are understandably wary of Americans. After all, they are the ones who left the land mines that injure and kill so many of them.

“We don’t want to put a Band-Aid on it, we want to train the locals to do it,” James said.

They expect to have the help of doctors to handle procedures beyond their abilities. Mainly, the things they can do — stop infections, administer first aid — will save many lives.

The Garcias are putting their own money into this, and taken donations, but those are hard to come by in these times. They will make do. Nothing is very expensive there, and they figure now, with the recession, it’s the perfect time to take a timeout.

“I’m trying to think of what I’m going to miss,” James said. “I’ll be glad to get away from CNN and Fox News.”

The nearest McDonald’s will be hundreds of miles away, in Thailand, but they expect to have satellite phones and Internet for medical and schooling purposes. And that, coupled with the knowledge that they are doing something meaningful — saving lives — is enough.

And they will always know that, no matter what, they tried to make a difference.

“If it doesn’t work, and we come back with our tails between our legs, so be it,” Cara said.

But watching the family pack medical supplies, inventorying every syringe, every IV tube, it seems like the Garcias can do whatever they put their minds to.

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