The Starfish Project

by Doug Mendel, Jan 24, 2004 | Destinations: Cambodia / Sihanouk Ville

In June of 2001 I visited Cambodia. Little did I know how fortuitous my third trip to the Kingdom would be.

I took the bus from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, a coastal town three-and-a-half hours south of the capital. I checked into the Melting Pot, a guest house on Weather Station Hill that is a favorite among backpackers. After a few days of relaxing, drinking ice-cold beer and eating delicious Indian food, I stumbled upon a flyer that caught my eye. The flyer explained how a disabled fisherman in the community became the impetus for starting a project to receive donations to help him and others.

The Starfish Project was born of this idea to help individuals in the Sihanoukville area that have fallen through the cracks of other aid organizations. Here is a description of the Project from its literature:

A Buddhist monk was on the beach with his apprentice the day after a fierce storm. Thousands of starfish had been washed up and stranded on the shore. Stooping down, the monk carefully lifted a single creature and returned it to the sea. His young apprentice wondered aloud why his master bothered to do this when it made little difference to the mass of helpless creatures. As they walked along, the monk picked up another single starfish and replied, 'It makes a difference to this one.'

The object of the Starfish Project is to provide direct person-to-person assistance to Cambodians who are stranded outside the bounds of conventional assistance. We came together as a group of interested volunteers to help a village man whose situation was outside the criteria of local aid organizations. We put 100 percent of the donations we received towards the assistance of this man and his family. Our projects all have an end in sight when we undertake them.

The injured fisherman spent two years sitting on the floor of his house because his leg had been badly broken in an auto accident and had never been repaired or healed. He did not even have crutches and was unable to feed his family or repair the fallen roof on his house. His fractured leg needed to be amputated and a prosthetic leg fitted. We asked people in Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh to help.

The donations received supported this man and his family during surgery and rehabilitation, put a roof on his house and bought him a new fishing boat. He has now received a free prosthetic leg from the Cambodia Trust and is back fishing in his new boat. With the help of a mere $200, he and his family are again supporting themselves. In addition to helping himself and his family, he is now the leader of a self-help organization for disabled people in his village.

We have helped over three hundred people from the community with health care, housing and small business projects like this one since our beginning in December 2000. On average, projects cost less than $100.

We are able to put 100 percent of donated money to actual projects because the Starfish Bakery Cafe funds the necessary administrative and overhead costs of the project. This includes rent, utilities, projects staff salaries, and vehicle maintenances, among other things. All the permanent cafe staff members are disabled people from the community, as is our field worker. Other people you may see working around the cafe are volunteers and interns. Many local businesses support the Starfish Project by getting involved with projects, helping with fund raising initiatives, or they use products in their cafes, bars and restaurants.

New situations needing person-to-person assistance appear daily. All of our projects are funded by small donations from individuals. We would greatly appreciate the support of anyone who can offer money or expertise to make the difference to people in vulnerable situations in our community.

Over the ensuing days, I got to meet the people behind the creation of the Starfish Project. I fell in love with the idea of helping people disadvantaged by disease, accident, or misfortune. At the time, all I could do to help was contribute financially to the cause.

I had visited the fire station in Sihanoukville. As a volunteer firefighter in Colorado at the time, visiting fire stations during my travels was a fun endeavor. After my visit, I knew I wanted to help the station, but I didn't know what to do. Because I had become friends with the Starfish Project, I asked them to see what items the station needed. After I left Cambodia in late June '01, I exchanged several emails with the Starfish Project to get an idea of how I could help the station.

After I received a list, I took it to my fire station to see how they could help. Over the ensuing months, I was able to collect clothing and boots from my station. In February '03, I brought three boxes of clothing and other equipment from Colorado to Cambodia to donate to the station.

Once in Sihanoukville, a field worker by the name of Sarin from the Starfish Project helped me with the translating for the donating of clothes and other items.

When I was there a firefighter came up to me and said they needed radios. I replied I would be back within 12 months. In October '03 I came back with five radios and with the help of the Starfish Project and Sarin, was able to give the radios effortlessly and with ease. The Starfish Project is helping with the ongoing support of projects in the community.

For more information on what the Starfish Project is about go to

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