Their children are a drug like no other. The tykes poured out of their huts, running to road’s edge with their scruffy, smiling faces and ragged clothes, hollering “Hello” and “Bye-Bye” and waving until I thought they’d break a wrist. I often had big alligator tears of joy smudging my sunglasses.
BRUNSWICK — Rich Cromwell wrote these words in 2010 after a long bike ride through the remote corners of Southeast Asia.
Along the way his encounter with children in a Cambodian orphanage forever changed his life.
Cromwell did not make the trip to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to have his life transformed. An adventurous sort, he had taken many bike trips since his retirement in 2005, including a ride down the Continental Divide from Canada to Mexico and a 1,000-mile ride across southern Spain.
During his ride through a floating village on Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia, a group of excited kids in yellow T-shirts rushed up to greet him. They invited him inside the orphanage where they lived.
“I spent three or four days there,” Cromwell said. “I couldn’t speak their language, but they were kind and patient people. The little they have is offered generously to strangers.”
A few days after Cromwell left the orphanage, he met Martin and Janet, a couple from Holland. He told them about the orphanage and the needs of the children. For example, although the orphanage had 26 kids, the kids had to take turns going to school because they had only eight sets of clothes and flip-flops.
Martin pulled out $60 and gave it to Cromwell, saying “Maybe this will help.” Cromwell urged the couple to return to the orphanage with him, which they did.
“We had such a joyful time buying clothes and wooden bowls for the kids,” he recalled. “There wasn’t a dry eye when we left.”
After returning home to Brunswick, Cromwell kept in touch with the people at the orphanage and with his Dutch friends. He knew he would return to that village, even though it takes a grueling 40 hours to get there, using planes, trains, buses and boats.
Last October, Cromwell mentioned to some friends that he would be returning to Cambodia to help out an orphanage he had visited in 2010 as well as a satellite orphanage. In just two weeks, he received $3,000 in contributions for what he terms his “Cambodian Kids.” Stunned by the generosity, Cromwell wrote, “There is a lot of darkness in the world, but the sun was shining from Brunswick to Cambodia.”
In November, Cromwell went back to Cambodia with a buddy who had just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. They accomplished a lot in just three weeks, everything from providing basic necessities (like installing a new water filter system, a new floor in the common area, new mosquito nets, and buying shoes, socks and uniforms) to contributing items to enhance the kids lives (coloring books, paints, soccer balls and Frisbees).
They even took the kids and staff on a day trip to a karaoke club in Siem Reap, a remarkable experience for kids who had seldom if ever left their village, one of the poorest in the country.
Cromwell was blown away yet again by his second visit to Cambodia. As he wrote in his follow-up report to friends and supporters: “I appreciate your kind words and I love the attention (at my age I get excited if a stray dog sniffs my leg), so your continued interest is really welcomed.
“But think it through. My friends entrust me with their hard-earned cash to help less fortunate little tykes in a far away land. Then I get to travel to this far away land to work with the wonderful and cooperative Cambodian people to help the cutest, most affectionate kids on the planet. What a life!
“The kids now have a source of clean water to drink and less mosquito-infested standing water, more sanitary kitchens and, most importantly, a volleyball court. My scruffy little buddies have a better life! I thank you on your behalf for making this wonderful trip possible.
“What we do for ourselves dies with us, but what we do for others lives on.”
Cromwell proves: Good things happen when a man with a big heart on a bike in a far off land meets kids with big smiles.
To learn more about Cromwell’s work with kids in Cambodian orphanages, contact him at Richcromwell1@gmail.com.
One in a series of profiles by Brunswick writer David Treadwell about people who quietly contribute to the quality of life in greater Portland. Do you know an Unsung Hero? Tell us: email@example.com.
Rich Cromwell of Brunswick has traveled widely across Asia and Africa providing hope and help to children and families across the world. Roger S. Duncan / For The Forecaster
Rich Cromwell of Brunswick looks at a poster he made of pictures from his journeys across Southeast Asia. He has traveled widely across Asia and Africa – riding his bike, on foot and on his next trip – rowing – providing hope and help to children and families across the world. Roger S. Duncan / For The Forecaster