A Quiet Voice, a Force for Others
Part of The Sun’s “Be a Volunteer” series.
By Robert Mills
LOWELL -- Bunrith Sath worked to help others even while living through his own personal tragedies, but don’t expect him to bring it up in conversation.
“He’s a very good, silent, modest person who does a lot,” said Dave Ouellette, president of the Coalition for a Better Acre, where Sath used to work. “If you speak to him he’s mild-mannered conversation-wise, but he’s always involved in everything to help people.”
Sath, of Lowell, was recognized as Volunteer of the Year for 2018 by the Non-Profit Alliance of Greater Lowell. The other finalists were Lori Yutzy, of the Wish Project, and the LAB Radio Reading Volunteers from the Lowell Association for the Blind.
Sath, a Cambodian refugee who first started helping out with a local Khmer-language radio show in the mid-’90s, has been producing and hosting his own show for Lowell Telecommunications Corp. since 2011.
His show, Sentimental Khmer, is in both English and Khmer, and seeks to raise awareness of issues important to the Cambodian community, while also helping to preserve the language.
Perhaps most telling about Sath’s urge to help others is the work he did in the wake of the devastating fire on Branch Street in Lowell that killed three children and four adults in July of 2014.
About a month before the fire, Sath lost his wife, a nonsmoker, to lung cancer. With a daughter who was just 6 months old at the time, and two older children, Sath nevertheless worked with Fay-McCabe Funeral Home to help arrange burial for several of the fire victims.
“I thought this will help ease my pain because I just lost my wife to cancer in June,” Rath said. “I said ‘I need to help this family because I know how hard it is to get the money to plan a funeral.’”
Sath credits Sean Rourke, from the funeral home, of offering to help the families, some of whom Sath already knew.
Sath is also a past board member at the Brush Art Gallery and a former vice president of the Angkor Dance Troupe.
On his cable access show, Sath translates the words of English-speaking guests into Khmer. In past years, he said, the show focused on topics like education, community, and issues at the local Buddhist temples. More recently, it has focused on civic engagement and financial literacy.
Sath said he tries to focus on issues that the Cambodian community can at times have difficulty getting more information on, from high blood pressure to HIV education.
Sath, who now works for Fallon Health’s Navicare program, spent years working for the Lowell Community Health Center and the CBA. Much of his work involved empowering people to become more civically engaged, helping them deal with landlords, financial issues, and other matters.
“That inspired me to bring it up through the show,” Sath said.
Another focus of the show is to preserve the Khmer language, even as many second- and third-generation Cambodians speak only English in school, and move away from Khmer.
“I want to at least preserve the language,” Sath said. “I hope that the show inspires a lot of people to get their grandchildren to watch with them.”
Sath said he thinks preserving that native language helps younger generations connect better with older generations, some of whom don’t speak English.
Wendy Blom, executive director of Lowell Telecommunications, said it’s dedicated producers like Sath that keep local public access running.
“In public access, we rely on volunteer community members to come in and produce shows for their neighbors,” Blom said. “Bunrith has just been a really steady producer here who really cares about the community and puts in all the time and effort to do a weekly television show year in and year out.”
Elizabeth Cannon, from the Non-profit Alliance of Greater Lowell, which seeks to strengthen local nonprofits by fostering collaboration, said this was the second year of the organizations volunteer awards.
Last year, the “Tuesday Group” from Habitat for Humanity won the volunteer of the year award for working together every Tuesday for years to support Habitat for Humanity.
“Volunteers are such an important part of local nonprofits,” Cannon said. “It is important to recognize people such as Bunrith and the other finalists for the work.”
Follow Robert Mills on Twitter @Robert_Mills.