Security blanket

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA—As he steps out of the air-conditioned restaurant and into the hot, muggy night air, Craig Muller abruptly turns his attention to an emaciated woman desperately begging for spare change.

She carries a small boy, about 5 years old, who has a giant gash on his head covered by a blood-soaked piece of cotton. He's barely conscious, lying limply in the woman's arms.

"Wait a minute," says Muller, examining the child's wound. "We need to get this baby to a hospital."

The woman, unaccustomed to being distinguished from the other beggars on the street, breaks down in tears over Muller's concern. With a local woman translating for her, she explains how her husband died of AIDS, leaving her alone on the streets of Phnom Penh with her two young children. She gestures toward a little girl curled up in a ball on the sidewalk nearby.

She tells Muller that she has already brought the boy to the hospital. So Muller and his colleague, Rich Ludwig, give her a stack of Cambodian currency and tell her they'll be back the next day to try to find her a home.

"God bless you. God bless you. God bless you," she says, her hands folded in prayer.

"There's 10,000 of those kids out there, laying out there somewhere tonight," says Muller as the taxi bounces back to his guesthouse. "It's hard to walk away from that. I can't even talk about it."

Actually, Muller talks about it all the time. It's just about all he's talked about for more than two years, since he started his work in Cambodia.

As a successful Chicago entrepreneur, Muller knows how to make ideas fly. He co-founded San Francisco-based MyPoints.com Inc., a Web-based direct marketing business that's since been bought by United NewVentures, a subsidiary of Chicago-based UAL Corp. UAL also owns United Air Lines Inc.

Muller later founded CultureWorx Inc., a Mount Prospect, Ill.-based application service provider that uses Web-based software to monitor and manage employee performance.

But during the past decade, Muller's spiritual faith has grown, leading him to become a nondenominational Christian pastor. During his divinity training, he says, he knew he had to put his business savvy to use for something deeper than financial profit, so he created Warm Blankets, a nonprofit organization that supports groups aiding widows and orphans around the world.

Initially, Warm Blankets provided only financial assistance and technology support to these groups; for instance, it built the systems that are now used to track children in more than 100 orphanages in 16 countries.

After visiting Cambodia to see the charities in action, Muller realized he could do much more. So he became directly involved with the Foursquare Church of Cambodia to build and support orphanages and churches throughout the countryside.

Unlike other Third World orphan-care organizations, Muller has been soliciting donor teams to support whole orphanages rather than individual children.

Since Warm Blankets has only two paid employees, the mission depends heavily on IT volunteers from CultureWorx, who develop the wireless tools needed to gather information about the children, caregivers and homes, build the databases to store that information and select the communications platforms they need to get that information to potential donors.

The donations are used for capital expenses—building homes, installing generators, buying livestock, planting gardens, paying for immunizations and training caregivers. It is hoped that in time, the orphans will be able to produce their own food and learn skills that will enable them to support themselves and that eventually, they'll be able to build commerce throughout their communities.

That's Muller's plan. But he still has a long road ahead of him.

Visiting Toul Sleng Prison helps Muller and his Warm Blankets team grasp the weight of their mission by facing the demons that are still tearing apart the country.

Pol Pot, who led the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979, had a plan to halt development in Cambodia and bring the nation back to its agrarian state. But to succeed, he had to kill the wealthy, educated urbanites who would most likely revolt against his plan. The Toul Sleng torture camp was his primary base.

Blood still stains the tiled floors; photos of victims—some alive, some dead—line the walls of the prison; weapons of torture, such as scorpion boxes and bayonets, still sit on display. In the last room of the prison, a giant map of Cambodia fills an entire wall. It's made from skulls from the victims of the Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge's legacy isn't limited to the museums. It still litters the countryside, with bones scattered about the Killing Fields and scores of Cambodians missing limbs from detonated land mines. In fact, only now are many of the Khmer Rouge soldiers facing war-crimes trials.

With all of these reminders, it's been hard to move forward, says Ted Olbrich, an American missionary who's led the Foursquare Church of Cambodia with his wife, Sou, for the past two years and coordinates the orphanages that Muller helps support.

The massive Khmer Rouge army killed an estimated 2 million of their own neighbors, he says. "Then you put them all together. Your taxi driver could have been the one who killed your mother," he says.

Sinai Phouek, 32, former president of the Foursquare church of Cambodia, was only a child during the Khmer Rouge regime, but he says he'll never be able to forget it.

"They kill 100 to 1,000 every day," he says. "Not so long ago. I still remember. I have bad dreams. They just try to kill, make us suffer like a dog."

Randy Kist, field service director for Warm Blankets, has spent months dreaming about Giordano's pizza and his jeep.

It's late May, and he's been living in Phnom Penh for almost four months. He can't wait to get back home to Chicago. "But there's still a lot to be done here," he says, already planning his return visit.

He spent several weeks on the road with Taing Ly Heng, a local who will take over his work once Kist returns home. They visited all of the orphanages supported by Warm Blankets, collecting information about the caregivers and children—names, ages, inoculation records—with personal digital assistants. "We found 108 kids that we didn't have records on," says Kist.

Kist spends his final week in Cambodia touring the country with Muller, Olbrich and some potential donors who flew in to meet the children.

At one orphanage in Krava, the kids sing cheerful songs to greet their visitors. They laugh and play with the toys and lollipops they're given, but the grim realities lie just beneath the surface.

"This place is a breeding ground for malaria," says Muller, explaining that four kids recently died of malaria there. "Then there's [tuberculosis]. A lot of kids die of that, too."

But when they arrive in Kampong Speu, at the first orphanage built by Foursquare and Warm Blankets, Olbrich and Muller excitedly take the donors on a tour through the gardens out back, past the pig pens, the patches of eggplant and the mango trees.

"Then they got this river," says Olbrich. "Kids come down here in the afternoon and go swimming, take a bath. They've got their own private beach."

"See—they can get self-sufficient here," says Muller. "They're close to it."

Back at home in Chicago, Muller keeps donors and friends updated on the progress in Cambodia via e-mail.

There's the new center being built in Phnom Penh, where caregivers and pastors will be trained to care for the children. There are the new training tapes for caregivers, with information on subjects such as hygiene and food preparation. There's the medical team from California that flew to Cambodia to treat and vaccinate thousands of Cambodians per day.

After finishing his update, Muller says farewell and shifts his attention to the present.

"Well, it's Saturday morning and my kids just came downstairs," he writes. "They are provoking a pillow fight with me, so I have to get some ammo and put down the rebellion."

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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