Donkao’s Success Story

26 02 2013

I was asked to submit a “success story” from my service to the Embassy newsletter. I thought I would post it here since it’s also a good update on how the second round of my nutrition project has been going. Enjoy!

Donkao is an energetic two year-old who lives with his family in a village off the national highway connecting Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. Like many kids his age, Donkao loves to run outside with his friends, play with the family’s soccer ball, and climb on anything his mother will allow. Donkao’s giggles are infectious.

Unfortunately, when Donkao was weighed as part of a Peace Corps-sponsored childhood nutrition project, he was underweight for his age. Childhood malnutrition is a devastating, yet widespread, problem in Cambodia that can ultimately result in death. In Donkao’s village, more than one in four children under the age of five is underweight, with the number reaching 50 percent in villages nearby.

Donkao’s mother recognized the importance of his health and began attending community meetings as part of the Peace Corps project. For ten consecutive days, families from this village gathered to learn how to make a nutritious weaning porridge, participate in health education sessions, and counsel one another on issues related to health and parenting. At the end of each session, the children filled themselves with porridge, which was fortified with eggs, pumpkin, green vegetables, and other nutritious foods brought by the families.

The community meetings were led by residents of the village, who had previously attended a training event organized by the local health center and the area’s Peace Corps volunteer. Donkao’s mother and grandmother participated actively throughout these meetings, and after only ten days Donkao gained 700 grams (1.5 lbs). This propelled Donkao into the healthy weight range for his age, reducing his chances of becoming ill and increasing his ability to develop at an appropriate rate. Donkao was not alone in his weight increase. In fact, fifteen other children in his village gained weight, with six others already reaching what is considered a healthy weight for their age.

When asked why she chose to participate in the project, Donkao’s mother said that she wanted her child to grow up to be intelligent, strong and healthy. Following the initial community meetings, both his mother and grandmother showed an increase in their understanding of complimentary feeding, hygiene, and breastfeeding practices. With this knowledge, the family can help Donkao remain at an ideal weight for his age, which has implications for his future education, wellbeing and potential.

In the coming months, project volunteers will be working with Donkao’s family, and others, to ensure that their children are able to maintain a healthy weight. Monthly weighing sessions, regular health education, and periodic home visits will ensure that these families are supported in their efforts to raise healthy, happy children. To date, 87 percent of the participating families have seen sustained weight gain over the duration of the project.

Currently, more than sixty families from Siem Reap Province are participating in this project, made possible with assistance from the United States Peace Corps through USAID’s Small Project Assistance fund.


A Cruise, A Cremated King and a Couple of Projects

9 02 2013

After more than two weeks of lying in bed nearly all day due to dengue, Tim and I were back at it this week. We’ve got a lot of small updates, none of which seemed to warrant their own post, but collectively seem worth sharing now.

First of all, not too long ago the Acting Director of Peace Corps – the person who manages the program across 68 countries – came to visit Cambodia. Tim and I got to meet her on a sunset cruise in Phnom Penh, which was a wonderful time. We even found out that she briefly attended Central Michigan, which is where Tim and I met. The morning following the cruise, another volunteer and I were invited to take her and her staff shopping for souvenirs. It was such a great opportunity to get to meet such inspiring and down to earth women – not to mention that marveling at beautiful clothes and jewelry is always a good way to spend a Sunday morning.

Tim and another PCV on their way to meet the Acting Director

Tim and another PCV on their way to meet the Acting Director

Shortly after the staff from DC got on a plane to head to their next stop, the former king of Cambodia, who passed away in October, was cremated. There was a procession in Phnom Penh that was attended by tens of thousands of people. The flags were at half-staff, many Cambodians wore black ribbons, and there was a 2-day holiday marking the occasion. Luckily for us, the holidays created a four day weekend that gave us some extra time to rest up before diving back into work.

It was quite a transition too since this week was a busy one. After having Monday off, I helped facilitate a 4-day training session for PD Hearth. Since the project results in the first two villages were promising and I still had money in my budget, I decided to involve two more villages. So another PCV, who did the majority of the training, and I spent four days teaching about childhood nutrition, how to properly determine the nutritional status of a child, how to support mothers with malnourished children, and how to make a healthy weaning porridge. During the training, we spent two mornings in the villages doing field work. On the first trip, we weighed more than 150 children under the age of five. On the second, we interviewed eight families who have limited resources but whose children are still healthy and at an appropriate weight. All in all, the training was a big success. The volunteers for the project are enthusiastic, willing to learn, and happy to help. I’m really excited to start the feeding sessions in these villages next week.

Feeding Session in Poom Trach

Weighing Session in Poom Trach

In addition to the PD Hearth training, I was also busy this week with my regular classes and planning for my upcoming domestic violence project. A huge thank you to everyone who has donated so far. For those who haven’t, please go here and consider contributing. I still need about $750 to make this project a reality. If it doesn’t get fully funded in the next few weeks, I’m not sure if I’ll have time to carry it out…

…and that’s because we have less than five more months in Cambodia! We recently found out that our last day as PCVs will be July 5th. Knowing that we don’t have much more time here definitely has me feeling extra motivated to make the most of this experience. It will be over faster than we realize.


‘Maan kilo?

9 11 2012

Not too long ago, I posted an update on my PD Hearth project, but since then there have been quite a few new developments. First of all, we’ve completed the follow-up weighing events in the two villages with very positive results!

In both villages, all of the targeted children who attended both weighing sessions gained weight except for one who stayed the same. That’s 26 underweight kids who are, theoretically at least, healthier now. Many of them even jumped from one nutritional status to another (eg: from severely underweight to moderately underweight; or from moderately underweight to healthy). For the next few months, we’ll be monitoring their growth to make sure they continue to gain weight and that the mothers are implementing some of the new behaviors they learned.

‘Maan Kilo? (How much does he weigh?)

The other big news is that I’ve been approved to do the project in two more villages. I’m incredibly optimistic because I feel like I’ve learned a lot throughout the project and will be able to better manage the project this time around. We’ve made a lot of updates to the training curriculum, I know how to better identify communities and volunteers, and my language level continues to improve as time goes on. Hopefully next time we’ll see an even bigger weight increase! We won’t be starting the second phase of the project for a few months but I’m already looking forward to it!


Back at Work

21 10 2012

Vacation is over, and Tim and I are back at work. For Tim, that means wrapping up the first phase of his hospitality course and settling in to his new schedule at the public school. For me, it means back to my nutrition project. On Monday, we’ll be having another workshop with the project volunteers to practice their skills, share their experiences from the project thus far, and solidify the timeline moving forward. Then, on Tuesday, we’ll start the feeding sessions in the second community. That will keep me busy every morning through the end of this month and into November.

Tim’s hospitality students at a hotel in Siem Reap

The other project I’ve started working on is leading strategic planning workshops for an NGO based in Siem Reap. If you remember this post, you’ll remember how much I geek out over strategic planning. I met with some of the staff members earlier in the month to talk about how we might structure this process, and then I led my first meeting on Thursday, focused on creating meaningful mission and vision statements. In a few weeks, I’ll do an an introduction to needs assessments with them.

These things, along with trying to finalize my plan for working with students now that school is back in session, will keep me occupied until my parents arrive early next month. Just over two weeks before they touch down in Siem Reap!


Nutrition Project: Weighing Sessions and Community Research

14 09 2012

The past two weeks have been filled with activities for my childhood nutrition project. After organizing the training for the project volunteers last month, the next steps included (a) weighing all the children under the age of five in the two target communities and (b) conducting community research to figure out what positive nutrition practices exist in the communities already.

In both villages, we found that less than half of the children were considered to be at a healthy weight. That’s the bad news. The good news is that only a few children in each community were severely underweight, leaving the majority to be either moderately underweight or in danger of falling underweight. Hopefully, this will make it easier for us to pull the kids into the healthy category. To help accelerate that process, we also provided vaccinations, Vitamin A droplets and de-worming medication so that all of the children would be better positioned to gain weight.

All of the children who are  not considered to have a healthy weight have now been invited to a series of sessions where we will provide a healthy variety of a local weaning porridge along with some basic nutrition education. The education provided won’t come from textbooks or the internet though. No, the information will come from the community itself. We want to share with the families what their neighbors are already doing to promote nutrition in their households, with the idea that if an average caretaker is already doing this, the others in the community should be able to do it too.

In order to find out these practices, we conducted surveys in each community. The project volunteers and I went to several homes in each village to learn about how the families are currently helping their children to be healthy. Many of the results to the survey are changes that caretakers can implement without spending any additional money: breastfeeding for the entire first two years after birth, rinsing rice only one time while cooking, washing your hands before cooking and after using the bathroom (lowering the chance of illness), helping young children eat. Others might not be possible for everyone, but are attainable for most: feeding young children four or more times a day, avoiding junk food, adding nutrient-dense foods to porridge, continuing to feed young children while they are sick.

Next week, these feeding/education sessions will begin in one of the villages. We will have ten sessions over the course of 14 days. It can be difficult for families with limited resources to help their children gain enough weight to move into the healthy category so we want to help them out with that. Then, by hopefully implementing some of these simple and low-cost practices we’ll share with them, they will be able to maintain their children at a healthy weight over time.

Let’s hope this works! (More pictures here.)


Childhood Nutrition Training

23 08 2012

This week was the official kick-off of the childhood nutrition project I’ve been planning the past two months. The goal of the project is to rehabilitate malnourished children under the age of five who live in two nearby villages. The project is modeled off of a methodology called PD Hearth, which is used by international NGOs (and Peace Corps) in countries around the world. I won’t bore you with the details of the process now, but I will be updating on the project as it unfolds over the next six months.

Participants learn proper weighing technique

On Monday, we started with a three-day training for the village health volunteers who will be helping implement the project. A third-year Peace Corps Volunteer facilitated most of the training, with some help from one of the midwives from my health center. Although I helped facilitate a little, I spent most of the training behind the scenes, dealing with the logistics and organization of the sessions. Even without being the main facilitator, it was an exhausting week. We were pulling 12-hour days, spending hours each night debriefing about the day’s activities and preparing for the following day. It’s the first time that a PCV in Cambodia has done this training so it was a bit of an experiment. I think it went really well, but there is definitely room for improvement. Based on this week, I think we can make some important changes to the training that will benefit the other health volunteers who will be implementing this project over the course of the next year. Either way, I am really happy with how it turned out. Plus, I’m excited to be starting a new project, especially one that has me in the villages so often!

Reviewing Cambodia’s three food groups

Now that the training is over, we’ll move on to the first project activity – weighing the children in the villages to see how many are malnourished. But, in the meantime, I’m heading back to Takeo again to help out with K6 training some more. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, it’s been hectic lately – but it’s also been fulfilling. I think I speak for both of us when I say that we are really hitting our stride. Our language skills have reached a point where we feel comfortable with meaningful project work and we feel a solid sense of community in our village. We are certainly looking forward to the weeks and months ahead.

I’ve posted pictures of the PD Hearth training here, plus some of K6 training in Takeo. Now that things have slowed down a little, we’ll try to update more often, but no promises!