A UBC student’s call to help a university in Cambodia resulted in a flood of donations from departments all over campus, via the university’s new reuse-it! program. The second-hand items were enough to fill a container, which is now on a ship bound for Southeast Asia.

Sarah Youngblutt, a graduate student in archaeology, first fell for Cambodia when she visited the country’s extraordinary temples on a backpacking trip through Asia 11 years ago. It was the beginning of a love affair that led her to set up a non-profit society to help the country’s Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) develop its fledgling archaeology department. Through the university's new reuse-it! UBC program, staff have helped her gather hundreds of unwanted items the Cambodians academics can now use to further their work.

Cambodia is one of the poorest countries on earth, ravaged by genocide and a decades-long civil war that only ended in 1998. “But it’s a fascinating country for archaeology,” Youngblutt says. “It has so many rich sites, covering many centuries, and they are largely untapped.”

The best-known temple, the massive 12th-century complex of Angkor Wat, is a major tourist destination, but aerial surveys suggest that there are as many as 800 or 900 other temples that are still undetected, lying underground and covered by the dense tropical forest. However, almost all the research in the country is being conducted by foreign teams, and many sites are inaccessible because of landmines left over from the war.

Youngblutt wants to help Cambodians to de-mine, excavate and restore their sites themselves. This will both provide jobs and expertise for Cambodians and allow them to manage their own history, which Youngblutt sees as a human right. So she asked the Cambodian scholars to draw up a list of needed items, including de-mining and safety equipment. Then she began to ask Vancouverites for donations.

The free goods started to pile up. “I got 10 computers from UBC via Freegeeks (a non-profit that recycles waste electronics), and another 15 from the Institute of Asian Research. They also donated some fax machines, an LCD projector and hundreds of books.” Youngblutt soon ran out of storage space in her Acadia Park townhouse, which she shares with her husband and three children. Luckily Lou Maznik, Superintendent, Municipal Services for Building Operations at UBC, stepped in and offered her free storage space in the department’s warehouse in South Campus.

Enter Allen Charuhas, Logistics Manager at UBC Supply Management. Charuhas helps oversee reuse-it! UBC, a program designed to help UBC employees at the Vancouver campus find and exchange low-value items that was launched on March 7.

“I got an email from Sarah back on March 28,” Charuhas explains “She had spent the last three years gathering stuff, trying to fill a container, but it wasn’t full yet. She forwarded us her flyer and we introduced her to the moving crew at Plant Operations, who have a warehouse full of filing cabinets, bookshelves etc. Sarah was able to go through those items, and we gave her access to the reuse-it! website, to check all the listings.”

“We sent out a broadcast email to all members of the site, about 400, that said, ‘Here’s a heads-up, the container will be leaving in about a week.’ In no time, we were able to help her fill it with a lot of items that would have been sent to the landfill if they hadn’t been claimed by anyone else.”

Youngblutt was overwhelmed by all the donations, which included books, desks, chairs, glassware, survey and computer equipment and camera gear, from many departments, including Chemistry, Linguistics, Earth and Ocean Sciences, Land and Food Systems, Forestry, Asian Studies, the Institute of Asian Research and Anthropology and the Laboratory of Archaeology.

“All that stuff was free, and in excellent working order,” she says. “People were very excited that they were contributing to another university, and one in real need.”

With the deadline looming, the Building Operations staff stepped in again. “There were several skids, heavy with computers, lab equipment and books, and two young men brought them onto forklifts and loaded them,” Youngblutt says. The container left Vancouver on a ship on April 19, bound for Sihanoukville, Cambodia.

Kara Bowen of the Sustainability Office is delighted that reuse-it! UBC could help out Youngblutt’s initiative. “The project is brand new, it’s a one-year pilot program co-owned by UBC Supply Management and Campus Sustainability,” Bowen explains. “Both departments have an interest in asset management and keeping reusable UBC items out of the landfill.”

All UBC employees on its Vancouver campus are welcome to use reuse-it! UBC to find or dispose of items like furniture, audio-visual equipment and office supplies. The program builds on the spirit of the Surplus Equipment Recycling Facility (SERF), UBC’s former program for reuse on campus. The service is free, as are all the listed items.

“At present we have 550 members registered on the site, and it’s growing every day, with 73 official exchanges since the project started,” adds Bowen. “The pilot is receiving a lot of positive feedback from the UBC community.”

Meanwhile, Sarah Youngblutt has just learned that she has received a UBC CARE award from UBC’s Lui Institute for Global Issues to allow her to go to Cambodia in July to teach archaeology — and to make sure that all the goods arrived safely. The award goes with a grant from the UBC Global Fund, which helped pay the shipping costs, and a nomination for the YMCA Power of Peace award.

And she’s not done yet. Youngblutt’s next plan is to encourage UBC to sign a Memorandum of Understanding to adopt the Royal University of Fine Arts as its “little sister” university, so that donations of un-needed items will become commonplace, and the two institutions can set up exchanges of ideas, students and faculty. She’s taking the idea to UBC President Stephen Toope, who she hopes to meet soon.

“I think it would be so beautiful,” she says, “if every big university in the northern hemisphere supported one in the south. Can you imagine archaeologists meeting archaeologists, engineers working with engineers?