Montrose man devotes self to nonprofit work for Cambodia
Doug Mendel first went to Cambodia 11 years ago, but it’s like he never came back from the Southeastern Asian country.
Mendel, 43, fell in love with the people, culture and food he discovered in the city of Sihanoukville and has visited the country about a dozen times now. Even now, while living in Montrose, he spends several hours every day finding ways to funnel funds, supplies and support to the impoverished kingdom of about 14 million people.
In subsequent trips, Mendel, who dubs himself a “one-person nonprofit with a lot of help” has taken with him more than three tons of lifesaving medical supplies, toys, firefighting gear and two fire trucks.
“I never thought I’d be doing this, but it’s great to have a passion,” Mendel said recently from his booth at Grand Junction’s American National Bank Farmers Market.
While juggling a full-time job at Home Depot, Mendel finds time to staff the booth, selling colorful, ornate
Cambodian crafts to raise money for his needy friends across the globe.
Mendel’s goal is to raise $35,000 to build a fire station in one of the country’s 29 provinces.
As a former volunteer firefighter in Summit County, Mendel was appalled by the lack of resources for firefighting in Cambodia. Because of a lack of tools, a burning market stall could wipe out the entire market, demolishing the livelihoods of citizens who consider good pay to be $50 a month.
After meeting in 2004 with the fire chief of Sihanoukville, Mendel took the chief’s request for a fire truck to heart. While the wish seemed insurmountable, Mendel said he’d give it a shot.
“I said, ‘Give me two years, and I’ll bring you a truck,’ ” Mendel told the chief.
In April 2006, Mendel delivered on that promise with the help of Breckenridge’s fire department.
“The station called up and said, ‘Doug, we have a fire truck for you,’ ” Mendel said.
Sending that truck 8,000 miles around the world was the next challenge, but the yellow Engine No. 633 eventually was loaded onto a ship in Savannah, Ga., and delivered to Cambodia for $18,002.61, Mendel said, the exact amount etched into his memory.
When he donated a fire truck a year later, he had the vehicle built in the country’s capital, Phnom Penh. That truck found a home in the city of Ban Lung in the Ratanakiri Province, he said.
Mendel’s latest goal is to build a station in one of the rural provinces with about 100,000 people that is about “as big as Grand Junction” but has only nine firefighters.
“Firefighters here in the U.S.A., it’s almost like we take it for granted what we have,” he said of having a station to work from.
Mendel said he has heard back from fire chiefs that firefighters last year were able to extinguish three house fires and one fire in an outdoor market stall.
“Consequently, the whole market did not go up in flames,” Mendel said, saving the livelihoods of about 100 families.
The man whom Cambodians once thought of as the “crazy American” knows his charity is making a difference, and in a couple weeks, he’ll venture to Cambodia again, making the 35-hour trip armed with 14 boxes of supplies weighing about 900 pounds.
“What I’m bringing over is priceless,” he said.
Mendel said he’ll take a year off next year from visiting Cambodia because he is getting a little burned out.
But he has a long-term goal of raising $200,000 for his efforts.
“It’s nice to have a project that is so much bigger than myself,” he said.