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From grass huts to grass roots

by Ed Grisamore, published in The Telegraph, Macon, GA, March 4, 2009

Ron AbneyCOCHRAN — Growing up in the 1950s, Ron Abney knew more about places such as Cochran and Cary than he did about Cambodia.

Social studies? Geography? The earth might as well have been flat on the highway east toward Chester or south toward Empire.

So he never would have dreamed he would one day become a world traveler, waking up in places such as Uganda, Morocco, Indonesia and East Timor.

Or that he would work for Nelson Rockefeller, rub elbows with John McCain, have his worked praised by the United Nations and be at the center of an international event 12 years ago.

Or that he would be considered by several international democracy institutions as one of the leading experts in civil society and political party development.

Or become co-founder of an organization called Voices for Global Change.

Ron was a member of the 1959 Cochran High School state basketball champions, a team that stayed so close most of its players still live within a few blocks of each other.

But Ron has now been around the world and back almost has many times as he has been around the block. He has needed a passport almost as often as he has needed his driver’s license.

He is 67 years old and no longer active in the pro-democracy efforts overseas.

But his work is far from finished.

Ron now spends his time working on behalf of an orphanage in Takeo, Cambodia. He is such a familiar face there that many of the more than 125 children call him “Daddy.”

He stumbled upon the small orphanage in 1994 and has been raising money on its behalf ever since. Through his efforts, almost two dozen young people, including 17 current students, have received funds for tuition money to attend college.

But here is the truly amazing part. After Voices for Global Change, the organization he co-founded, lost a key donor last year, Ron issued a plea that stretched from the grass huts of Cambodia to the grass roots of Cochran.

He sent letters, made phone calls and approached civic clubs and churches. “The response has been a true miracle,” he said. “People gave with their hearts and money. Four-year-old kids at the First Baptist Church worked in their neighborhoods.”

His hometown, where he has returned after all his globe-trotting, already supports the local Middle Georgia College. But the community now has rallied behind college kids in Southeast Asia with names such as Ngy, Manh and Saing.

In Ron’s words, the folks in Cochran “saved a project 10,000 miles away.”

In 1997, Ron was in Cambodia as a democracy activist to help create a political system based more on ballots than bullets.

In an Easter Sunday attack that killed 19 people, he was wounded by a grenade blast, suffering injuries from shrapnel. He was the only American among the more than 100 people hurt in the assassination attempt against Sam Raisy, Cambodia’s main opposition leader.

More information and how to contribute to the orphanage can be found at the www.vfgc.org and takeochildren.org Web sites or by writing Ron at 140 Jessup St., Cochran, GA 31014.

Ron has called the experience life-changing. “My life is that orphanage,” he said.