You are the salt of the earth. – Matthew 5:13
Mother Theresa. Nelson Mandela. Mahatma Ghandi. Martin Luther King Jr.
Sprinkled throughout history we read stories about extraordinary people who standout amongst the rest us. Their selflessness, actions, and unwavering commitment to leaving their communities better when they leave make them incredibly special. It’s rare to meet anyone so unique, but I think I’ve found a few in my lifetime. If you pay attention their easy to identify right away, their character precedes them. I spent a week in Cambodia with three of these people, I think it was divine intervention that brought us together for a week, I can’t explain how else it happened. Dan, Ellen and Sothy inspire me, in so many ways they are everything I’m not and everything I hope to be. I’m extremely grateful for them, and I plan on holding on to them pretty tight.
I met Dan when I started donating to 88bikes in 2016. We exchanged a few emails, like he somehow finds time to do for every donor, and I shared that I’d love to find a way to become more involved. When I decided to go to Banff Mountain Film Festival on a whim to help him setup the 88bikes photo installation we got to know each other even more. Dan is one of the most creative and energetic people I’ve had the pleasure of working with. Dan Austin may as well be synonymous with the term idea man. Given my logical, results orientated nature this can be slightly frustrating at times, but working with Dan has helped me to change the way I think about approaching an opportunity. Dan started raising money and giving bikes away in 2010 and he hasn’t stopped since then. He has impacted hundreds, possibly thousands of lives in the process. Traveling around the world giving out bikes may sound glamorous, but the fact is that Dan has sacrificed so much to make this happen. He walked away from a successful film career to start 88bikes, and he doesn’t even take a salary. Dan’s courage and selfless nature inspires me, I don’t know if I could do what he’s done, but my relationship with him has forced me to start asking myself if I would, and for that I’m thankful.
Ellen Spatt. It’s hard to find the words that can come close to doing this justice. I donated a few bikes in Ellen’s honor and shared this post about her in early 2017. Ellen made a profound impact on my life at the time, but what I didn’t realize then was that I had only scratched the surface with this one. I invited Ellen to come to Cambodia with me because she loves bikes, and is without a doubt the most positive person I have ever met, which made her seem like an ideal person to travel with internationally. I explained this to my sister at some point and she asked me if Ellen was the annoying type of eternal optimist (my sister and I share a very similar personality!), but that’s the thing, there is not one ounce of insincerity in Ellen’s upbeat and affirmative attitude, it is one hundred percent genuine. While I know I’ll never be as positive as Ellen, because it’s not my personality, spending time with her does help me to keep complaining in check.
When I first met Ellen I thought it was totally rad that she was a retired fire chief, what a kick ass and noble career. Somehow I was too ignorant to put two and two together and think about what cultural norms were like when Ellen started her career. One morning over breakfast in Cambodia I asked Ellen if she always wanted to be a firefighter. I’m so glad I asked. I learned that Ellen originally wanted to be a Game Warden, got a degree in biology and since she was on the waitlist to become a Warden she decided to give firefighting a try. Apparently the fire academy still operated in a militant fashion in the 1980s, so Ellen endured trial by fire from her trainers who shouted at her and tested her like drill sergeants. Ellen’s grit is only outdone by her grace. I look up to Ellen and feel so fortunate to call her one of my closest friends.
The world would be a better place if we were all a little more like Sothy. Sothy was our fixer while we were in Cambodia. He’s actually been Dan’s fixer ever since he started going to Cambodia. I’ve been thinking about what I would write about Sothy since our fourth day in Cambodia. He is, hands down, one of the benevolent human beings I have ever met. There are so many things to say. Sothy greeted us at the airport and immediately grabbed my bags and put them up on the roof rack of his Toyota Land Cruiser. As we got in the car he handed us a fresh coconuts to sip on as we drove back to the hotel. He was always bringing us thoughtful treats that he hand-picked for us. He would select the coconuts from the tree when he bought them for us, making sure only the best were purchased. He brought us papaya and jackfruit from the trees in his yard and always had a special treat to make us smile. His work ethic was unmatched. He arrived early every day and stayed late, always patient with our ambiguous itineraries. It was extremely evident that he took pride in his work, no matter the task. He must have taken my bike on and off the bike rack thirty times throughout the week, and he never complained. It was a nice reminder for me and one I will carry with me for a long time. Sothy’s family lives in Phnom Penh, five hours from where we were working in Siem Reap. We got to see him FaceTime with his kids and neighbors throughout the week. I loved seeing how proud he was of his family and how important they were to him. He told us how his young son (7) and daughter (9) both attended school everyday, went to tutoring after school and English school on the weekends. His daughter studies Khmer, Chinese and English and his son studies Khmer, Japanese and English. His wife speaks Khmer, English and Korean.
Before Sothy owned his own rental car business he worked for AFESIP for eight years. He was responsible for reintegrating trafficking survivors into local communities. He would determine which communities could support the women, help them to establish their businesses and drive around Cambodia following up with the women once a month for the first year and then less frequently over the next five years. If necessary he would help relocate the women to different communities to ensure they were successful. When he told us about his experience with AFESIP he told us about the girls that were rescued on raids in Thailand or in the country side. He spoke with conviction and purpose. When I asked him why he chose this type of work he said, “I like the girls, I want to help them.” Now a days Sothy has his rental car business, he serves in the Cambodian military and for whatever reason he acts as the Cambodian liaison for 88bikes. During our time there he brought Dan plans and requests from several NGOs, all supporting women and girls, they wanted bikes, and they know Sothy can help them get them. When Sothy dropped us off at the airport he had fresh black pepper that he picked up directly from the farms for us, we exchanged hugs and said our goodbyes. As we walked through the doors he said his final goodbye with a salute. A simple salute speaks to who Sothy is in so many ways, I’ll never forget it and hope it will become one of many goodbyes I say to Sothy over the years.