SMU Volunteers Offer Support to Cambodian People Living in Landfills

By: Debra Holtz

A Samuel Merritt University (SMU) faculty member and several nursing students gave up holiday parties and shopping during the week before Christmas, choosing instead to travel to Cambodia and help some of the most impoverished people in the world.

The SMU volunteers are running a makeshift medical clinic near a garbage dump where families survive by picking through mounds of trash for anything of value that they can sell.  In addition to bringing medical supplies and clothes, the volunteers will purchase dental supplies and food such as rice and cooking oil to donate. 

Nurse practitioner Alex (Peck) Malliaris left for Cambodia on Dec. 13, just a day after graduating from SMU’s Entry Level Master of Science in Nursing program. It is the second time this year that she has traveled to Cambodia on a service trip.

“I developed this tremendous passion for working with the Cambodian people,” she said. “They are lovely spirited people.”

Malliaris says a small contribution of time on the part of volunteers can bring lasting change to the lives of people who have so little. One particular moment from her earlier trip left a lasting impact on Malliaris: After buying supplies at a local store, volunteers distributed 30 reading glasses to some elderly women who were very grateful. 

“It was like giving the blind sight,” she said.

The group is led by SMU Associate Professor Valerie Dzubur, EdD, who has been taking her family nurse practitioner students to Southeast Asian countries, including Burma and Laos, on service and learning tours for the past 15 years. 

“These trips provide students with cultural immersion as well as the opportunity to provide health care,” she said. “They are exposed to really poor people in really difficult circumstances.” 

The current trip to Cambodia is different from previous trips when students did health screenings and provided education to people in villages with basic plumbing and some electricity. Now the volunteers are working with even more impoverished people living in filthy conditions.

“It’s pretty moving,” said Dzubur, who has spent her nursing career working with at-risk groups. Earlier this year, she co-authored an article about the increasing rate of Type 2 diabetes in Cambodia.

Dzubur traces her interest in Southeast Asia to when she was a little girl and her father regaled her with stories of his time as a World War II fighter pilot with the “Flying Tigers,” a legendary group that conducted missions over the Himalayas to fight the Japanese. 

A trip to Cambodia two decades ago was tremendously moving for Dzubur.

“Everybody I met had a relative who had been killed in the genocide,” she said. “All of that captured my imagination.”

The more Dzubur traveled and read about the region, the more her interest grew. She took her first nursing students to a remote part of Burma in 2004 and many other service trips followed.

“We would see people who walked up to three days to come to our clinic,” said Dzubur.

To help support the relief work in Southeast Asia, Dzubur and a colleague created Lanna Kingdom, a nonprofit organization that provides basic supplies including clothing, first aid materials, and medical and health supplies for health centers, agriculture equipment, and educational scholarships.

For this week’s trip to Cambodia, Dzubur raised funds to purchase supplies that included a $1,000 donation from the local chapter of the international nursing honor societySigma Theta Tau.

SMU nursing student Nadine Huerta said she was inspired to go to Cambodia after participating on an SMU medical mission to Panama last spring.

“It ignited a passion in me for serving vulnerable populations,” said Huerta.

Malliaris said she didn’t hesitate when presented with the opportunity to return to Cambodia. 

“I feel very invested in this work and love it so much that I can’t see my life without it,” she said.




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