by Brooke W. Stanley
Oct. 8, 2003
Sambonn Lek hands out rice to flood victims in Cambodia this summer as part of his work with Sam Relief, the non-profit organization he founded two years ago to help improve impoverished conditions in his native country. With 27 years of bartending experience, Montgomery Village resident Sambonn "Sam" Lek is perhaps most well known for the 101 different martinis he makes and the 30-some magic tricks he uses to wow customers at the Mayflower Renaissance Hotel in Washington, D.C.
But the 52-year-old award-winning bartender is also making a name for himself as the president of Sam Relief Inc., a non-profit organization he founded two years ago to help impoverished residents of his native Cambodia.
Each summer he spends several weeks in the country with a handful of volunteers making sure that people's basic needs are met.
He returned from his latest trip, where donors celebrated the completion of two new schools they funded, on August 30.
Lek, who immigrated to the United States in 1974, returned to Cambodia in 1999 to help the poor with some money his mother left him when she passed away. Lek said he did it to honor a cause his mother had cared deeply about when she was alive.
With that money and some other small donations, Lek was able to fund the construction of a new school and provide medicine, rice, school supplies and clothing to the residents of his mother's home town Wat Tmor Kor.
Lek said he was moved by the level of poverty that afflicted residents there, a situation caused by years of war. He said conditions have deteriorated significantly from when he lived there.
“I see they need a lot of help,” he said.
The next summer, Lek returned to the same town and helped several hundred families and students by donating rice, school supplies, medicine, reading glasses and money.
After his second trip, he decided to start Sam Relief.
“Mainly, we are focused on education,” Lek said.
“One of the group's main initiatives is building elementary schools. In order for kids to make education a life-long priority, they must get involved young,” Lek said.
“Even now, many people even 21 years old cannot read or write,” he said.
So far the group has funded the construction of four schools and will fund three more in 2004.
“Education is a fundamental base for economic growth,” explained Cambodochine Dao, Lek's brother-in-law and a vice president of Sam Relief. “More than three decades of war, economic and political dislocations has made Cambodia destitute,” Dao said.
Sam Relief has also funded the installation of 96 wells to provide drinking and bathing water for residents.
“For some poor areas, they had to walk for miles to get water,” Lek said.
And this year alone, the group donated 55 tons of rice.
Information about the organization has spread mainly through word of mouth. Some of the group's donors are people Lek has befriended through his bartending job at the Mayflower.
One of those friends is William Batdorf, a D.C.-based accountant who has donated his services to the organization, helping Lek achieve non-profit status for Sam Relief.
“Sam is a good person; he's got a wonderful heart,” Batdorf said.
Batdorf said he decided to get involved in the group because, like most people, he feels good about helping others.
“It's amazing to see how much of a difference just a small donation can make,” Batdorf said.
“A hundred dollars goes a long way over there,” he said.
In 1999, Lek collected about $4,500 in donations. This year, the group has already raised $77,000.
The rate at which the organization has grown is surprising, said Margaret Mathes, Lek's sister and another vice president of Sam Relief. What is not surprising, she said, is her brother's desire to help others.
“He is very kind,” she said.
Mathes said she now works on recruiting donors where she lives in Massachusetts, while Lek continues to recruit donors here.
Lek says he considers himself very fortunate to have made a great living in the United States. Though he said he has no plans to move back, Cambodia remains close to his heart.
“I don't forget where I come from,” he said.