Ask the Bath Rotarians about their local hero, and they will tell you “Rich Cromwell.” This tall man with a shock of white hair is an unlikely hero for dozens of orphaned Cambodian children he met while bicycling across Southeast Asia.

Rich began his adventures in 2004 as he took up bicycling to shed some weight. He joined the local Merrymeeting Wheelers, lost 100 pounds and found a new passion. After many longer biking trips, Rich decided on a ride from Canada to Mexico in 2009. He spent 60 days biking during the day, camping at night. Rich then felt confident to follow his dream of biking through Nepal and Tibet. When his visa was cancelled, he switched the trip to Southeast Asia and flew to Hanoi with his bike in 2010.

Rich was amazed at the welcome he received. He calls the countries of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia “The Lands of Forgiveness” as he witnessed the ravages of a war that took so much from the people and the land. As he biked into villages, mothers rushed to have him hold their babies for a photo. Smiling children surrounded him and although the villages were very poor, the people shared their food and a place to sit or lie down. Rich marveled at the dignity of the people.

As Rich crossed into northern Cambodia, a chance encounter changed his life. A little boy named Ran urged Rich to follow him to meet his sisters and brothers. Rich found 26 smiling kids in one room. With two caretakers working in the rice fields, the children cared for each other. Rich explains that the concept of “orphans” differs from what we know. Some of the children had a parent, but the parent was ill or had disappeared. Some were abandoned and some had no living parent.

Unable to shake the image of the children, Rich met up with a fellow traveler that evening at a local pub and told the story of the children. Patrons overheard his conversation and when he spoke about the scarcity of food and clothing, the strangers surprised Rich by donating $300 to buy rice, fish oil, flip-flops, and books. It took two rickety cab rides to deliver the goods to the children.

Rich has made five trips back to Cambodia to see the children he loves. Meanwhile, everyone who heard his story wanted to help — especially the Bath Rotarians. Rotary is an international organization with clubs in more than 200 countries and 1.2 million members. Most clubs work on service projects that benefit their own community as well as the world community. The Bath Rotary is no exception. Through district grants, funded in part by Rotary International, Rich supported water and sanitation projects in the poorest Cambodian villages to improve the health of the villagers, especially the children. Rich has also worked to build schools and housing for the orphaned kids. He lights up when he talks about his kids, calling them “cute, loving, and trusting.”

Rich presented a series of before and after pictures at a presentation to the Bath Rotary on March 14. He expressed his gratitude as club members beamed with pride and appreciation of their hero, Rich Cromwell.

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