"What's really cool about this award is the (schools foundation) is helping education in Champaign-Urbana. That's exactly what we're doing with young people in Cambodia."
This weekend, two former Urbana Tigers and a pair of one-time Central Maroons will join Roger Ebert, Bonnie Blair and other local legends as Champaign Urbana Schools Foundation honorees. Leading up to Saturday night's gala, we're telling their stories. Up today: Bhavia Wagner, Urbana Class of '74.
Bhavia Wagner was quite surprised to learn that she was being honored as one of the Champaign Urbana Schools Foundation's 2014 Distinguished Alumni.
"I was a shy person. I didn't think anybody at school knew me," she said with a laugh.
Wagner attended Urbana public schools and graduated in 1974 as Carol Hartstirn. She is the founder and executive director of Friendship with Cambodia, a Eugene, Ore.-based nonprofit that raises funds for humanitarian projects aimed at empowering people in that country.
Wagner is honored by the recognition but says it's her nominator/mother, Emily Hartstirn, who's happiest. "She's always wanted me to have more recognition for the work I've done," Wagner said. "... I never felt I needed any recognition. The work I do is rewarding enough."
But "what's really cool about this award is the (CUSF) is helping education in Champaign-Urbana. That's exactly what we're doing with young people in Cambodia."
A look back at her long, winding road that started at Urbana High School:
As a high schooler, Wagner joined a grass-roots coalition to stop the Oakley Dam and Reservoir Project, proposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and backed by many state politicians. The project would have flooded Allerton Park, as well as fields and woodlands.
The park "is a little gem on the prairie," said Wagner, whose love of nature was awakened on family camping trips to Michigan and ignited during an environmental problems class in junior high.
Wagner was also part of group of high school and college students who, under the direction of Dave Monk, worked to preserve native prairie plants along railroad tracks.
"He taught a course called Reading the Landscape at Parkland" College, Wagner recalled. "It was about developing a love and appreciation for the geology of the area. He turned people on to appreciating the landscape and native plants. It was all very cutting-edge. Where else could you go in Illinois to learn about that?"
Postmark: Madison, Wis.
After graduating with a degree in environmental education from Colorado State University, Wagner worked for the Michigan state legislature's environmental committee. One bill she worked on exempted farmers from liability of people who came onto their property to glean apples, which were donated to food banks.
"In a sense," she said, "it was helping to end hunger and not waste food."
Two years later, she led Tip of the Watershed Council, an environmental organization in northern Michigan. Next, she and her then-husband launched Earth Care Paper Co. in Madison, Wis. The mail-order company, which operated for 10 years and grew to 60 employees, bought high-quality recycled paper from paper mills and converted it into stationary, envelopes, greeting cards, wrapping paper and other products.
In 1985, Wagner traveled to Liberia to visit a friend in the Peace Corps.
"It completely opened my eyes up to poverty in developing countries," said Wagner, who traveled around the African country and lived in rural villages for a month. "I saw children who were so bright but had no opportunity to stay in school. They were working in farm fields. It was hard to come back to a wealthy country and feel the injustice of the world. It really took me about a year to process my experience."
While still running the paper company, Wagner went to Guatemala to study Spanish. In rural areas, she met people who were struggling to survive and had seen human-rights violations firsthand.
"I remember living with a family. Both the husband and wife had gone to law school. A lot of their fellow students had disappeared. Their bodies would be found tortured and murdered and lying in a ditch. It may have been because they attended a rally on human rights. There was just a lot of terror in that country."
Upon her return to the states, she started raising money for human rights organizations.
In 1992, Wagner took a three-week "peace walk" tour of Southwest Asia. Her time as a goodwill ambassador in Vietnam and Cambodia left such a big impression on her that she returned to Vietnam the next year to lead her own tour.
Afterward, she went to Cambodia for a few weeks to work with women's organizations, primarily helping women market their handicrafts in the U.S.
She called her first trip to Cambodia "the most impactful experience of my life." The country was heavily bombed during the Vietnam war; the Khmer Rouge's rule from 1975-79 resulted in nearly 2 million deaths from execution, starvation or disease. Then, the country endured a 20-year civil war.
"There was not only poverty. The people had been psychologically shattered by their experience with genocide," she said. "That's why I chose to work in Cambodia. I felt the need there was so great."
Postmark: The road
Upon her return, Wagner spent two years writing a book — "Soul Survivors — Stories of Women and Children in Cambodia" — which she self-published in 2002. One research trip to Cambodia in 1994 was the only time she ever felt scared for her safety.
"They were murdering foreigners," recalled Wagner, who stayed mainly in cities where it was safer. "I had an interview with someone in the countryside. I remember being in the car covering my head with a scarf hoping nobody would know I was a foreigner.
"I never really felt in danger in the travels I did. I feel like I met nice people. You just have to be very aware of your surroundings and cautious."
After taking a break and living in Scotland for two years, Wagner — who by then had taken the Indian name Bhavia to align with her work — embarked on a 30-city book tour back home. At each stop, she put out a sign-up sheet for people who might be interested in supporting the work she wanted to do.
"I came home with a long list of people who wanted to help," she said.
Postmark: Eugene, Ore.
Wagner founded Friendship With Cambodia in 2003. She mainly raises funds in the U.S., while Chem Kosal, her translator during her book research, directs programs on the ground.
A cornerstone program helps children get an education. In Cambodia, only 6 percent finish high school, and about 75 percent drop out by the sixth grade.
The organization currently supports 54 students, 40 of whom are attending college. Seventy-five percent are girls.
"We initially thought we would help people finish high school. But we've sponsored some of the brightest, most motivated people. When they wanted to go on to university, we couldn't possibly say no," said Wagner, whose graduates have returned to their communities as teachers, midwives, social workers and leaders.
Another main program empowers women in rural areas by helping them market their crafts and products and start savings programs, among other things.
"It's actually transforming their savings habits," she said. "Even if they have a small income, they can save a little. They might just want to buy a sleeping mat. Some actually save for their own small business. This is the most effective method of ending deep poverty and really turning their lives around.
"Their children aren't malnourished anymore. They've got money for the doctor. All these things that were creating so much suffering in their lives, they've gotten beyond that."
Postmark: Home — at last
Wagner admits she's the type of person who needs a change every now and then. She's also interested in ending homelessness and has been volunteering in soup kitchens.
But for now, she plans to stay put.
"I feel very happy doing this work," she said.
3 QUESTIONS ... for Bhavia Wagner
Best school memory? "In high school, I was one of two or three students chosen to enter a national writing contest. I didn't place. But just having someone believe in my writing ability gave me the confidence to write a book later in life."
Teacher who inspired you? "Mrs. Rising, my third-grade teacher at Wiley Elementary. She was just so loving to all of her students. She brought that kind of warmth to the classroom that was just precious."
Advice to students? "The secret to success, as far as I'm concerned, is persistence. Anybody can do it. You just keep have to keep trying."