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Sunday, April 03, 2011

Winery owner leads relief efforts in Cambodia

While he lives and works in the Napa Valley, John Schwartz, a partner at Amuse Bouche Winery, has strong ties to Cambodia and a passion for helping young people in need.

John Schwartz

Schwartz, 44, serves on the board for the American Assistance for Cambodia and its sister organization, Japan Relief for Cambodia. Since the mid-1990s, their Rural Schools Project has placed about 470 schools in rural Cambodia.

His nonprofit has also built an HIV clinic and an orphanage for children who have lost their parents to AIDS, while sponsoring programs intended to keep female Cambodian youths in school and away from sex traffickers.

Schwartz’ partner is Bernard Krisher — the twin nonprofits’ founder, a renowned American journalist and former Tokyo bureau chief for Newsweek magazine. Based today in Tokyo, Krisher, 80, launched the organization in 1993, according to the agency’s website.

“He and I started in the mid-’90s trying to sort of create awareness of the plight of the Cambodian people,” Schwartz said. “They’ve been through so much tragedy.”

An estimated 2 million Cambodians died during the Khmer Rouge holocaust between 1975 and 1979.

Schwartz said he and Krisher launched the sister nonprofits to help the Cambodians rebuild their nation after the tragedy.

“Bernie was good friends with (former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk), who asked at the time if we would help strengthen his country,” Schwartz said.

Krisher also founded the Cambodia Daily, the nation’s first English-language newspaper, in 1993 to heighten awareness about rural Cambodian conditions, foster literacy and raise money for humanitarian missions, Schwartz said.

Almost two decades later, Schwartz is continuing to help American Assistance for Cambodia’s humanitarian missions move forward. He is working with Krisher and other board members to find money and long-term planning. But drumming up dollars is particularly challenging in today’s economy, he said.

“Sustained funding is always really difficult, especially in times like this when there is only so much money to donate to charity,” he said. “Everyone is going after the same dollars.”

Schwartz said he travels to Cambodia about four times each year to aid fundraising efforts, and the Napa Valley Vintners donate wines to an annual wine auction in Cambodia.

Overall, fundraising efforts rake in about

$1 million for the organization annually, mostly to pay for building new schools, maintaining the New Life Orphanage in Phnom Penh, the nation’s capital, and the Bright Future Kids Home near the metropolis, the partners said.

Funds also cover expenses of the so-called “Girls Be Ambitious” program, which aims to educate young females and protect them from the sex trafficking industry. Overall, some 15 Cambodian staff members are based in Phnom Penh and about two dozen volunteers in the city aid the staffers’ efforts, Schwartz said.

Closer to home, proceeds from a new line of decorative wine bags — available starting next week at V Wine Cellar, Inc. in Yountville and Whole Foods Market in Napa once those stores are resupplied — will go to aiding efforts in Cambodia, Schwartz said.

The nonprofit also benefits from the sale of Cambodian silk scarves available at tasting rooms at two Napa Valley wineries, Amuse Bouche and Au Sommet.

Schwartz’s organization is among many humanitarian agencies spotlighted in “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof and his wife, former Times writer Sheryl WuDunn.

Focusing on the plight of poor women in Cambodia and other impoverished nations, the book is “a wake-up call for people in terms of what’s really happening in this world,” Schwartz said.

“I’m amazed at how resilient this country is,” he said. “Sixty percent of the population is under 30 years old because of the Khmer Rouge incident and (the country) is rebuilding. These children that have been dealt the wrong hands in life have an opportunity to get educated and go to college.”
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