Pagetís road to true happiness, March 13, 2009

Sydney, Australia -- Doing something useful for other people – that’s the ultimate anti-depressant. If that philosophy is true, then Paget Sayers would have to be one of the happiest people in Australia.

About 30 years ago, the 78-year-old shrugged off the trappings of his former life as a successful import-exporter, retired at age 51 and committed himself to Buddhism.

Paget (his grandmother’s maiden name) particularly embraced the Buddhism principle of helping others.

He started the popular Buddhist Library, in Camper down, run by a charitable trust he set up that is also behind Project Cambodia. It is Paget’s work in Cambodia that he calls his ultimate anti-depressant.

About four times a year he goes to Cambodia to oversee the installation of rainwater tanks in villages after he discovered naturally occurring arsenic in wells was poisoning hundreds of villagers.

He has also set up an education program and built schools, with the flagship school at Kampot.

Now he’s started building a dental clinic that will be run by volunteer dentists from Australia.

“Each time I go to Cambodia, in a week I visit about six schools, each with about 10 classes,” Paget said.

The visits involve checking the water supply and overseeing the classes, which include lessons in English, computers and sewing.

So far, more than 1000 concrete tanks, each costing $150, have been installed at villages/schools throughout Cambodia.

During recent floods, the 2000-litre water tanks, shaped like huge urns, were rowed down the river to villages by young people perched inside them.

After several years of regular visits, Paget is still amazed how much difference a relatively small amount of money can make to a child’s life.

“I take toothbrushes with me and when the water tanks and guttering have been installed and the fresh rain water starts to flow, I give each child their own toothbrush,” he said. “They are so happy with such a small gesture.”

For $20, one 14-year-old girl was able to buy herself clothes and shampoo. She then enrolled in English classes and now, three years later, is one of the star pupils.

As well as the formal classes, where it is compulsory for students to attend every day, there are also informal classes, where adult villagers and children who cannot get to school every day can learn English, sewing and other lessons.

Paget said gaining the trust of the children is essential for them to get the most out of their education.

“To break the ice, when we first arrive in a village we’ll do something as simple as blow bubbles with them,” he said.

“I introduced some students to classical music by showing them Fantasia DVDs (solar-generated electricity and a small diesel generator run the televisions and computers) and I’m taking some David Attenborough nature DVDs with me for this visit.”

Paget said all classes are non-denominational, with several Muslim students among the Buddhists in one class.

The Buddhist Library Project Cambodia’s latest initiative is to build a dental clinic at Kampot, adjacent to the flagship school.

It will cost $37,000 – a relatively insignificant amount in Australian terms.

Life devoted to helping others

An Australian dentist has donated a dentist’s chair and Cenovis has donated $5000 worth of vitamins.

Paget said about 20 dentists a year will be recruited on a voluntary basis. Volunteer teachers are also desperately needed to help teach in the schools (you pay your own costs, however a comfortable self-contained hostel room can be as low as $20 a night).

“You don’t have to be a teacher to help us,” he said. “And anyone with sewing and computer skills is needed.’’