My recent week in Cambodia was all too short. However, I did manage to sneak a lot in. In addition to playing house in Phnom Penh, I was lucky enough to get a truly behind-the-scenes look at two organizations making a big difference in the lives of the Cambodian people.
Kampong Trach Middle School
Betsy is one of a small group of adults that was just always around when I was growing up — at every birthday party, graduation, holiday, and many a random Wednesday. Technically, she’s my older sister Margaret’s godmother, but she just feels like family.
Years ago, Betsy learned of an organization called World Assistance for Cambodia and their Rural Schools Program, which, you might guess, builds schools in rural areas and aims to lift the country out of poverty through education. Betsy and a friend raised enough money to start a school in Kampong Trach, and in 2010, ever the world traveler, she journeyed there to attend the opening.
When I told Betsy I was returning to Southeast Asia once again, she asked if I’d be interested in taking a trip out to the school to give her a first-hand report of how things were going, and to gather stories and photos for future fundraising efforts. I jumped at the chance.
I was picked up in the morning by Sok, a well-spoken Khmer man who remembered Betsy instantly. “very elegant lady,” he recalled, and I nodded and smiled in agreement. We had almost a three hour drive out to Kampong Trach, so we had plenty of time to chat. He was proud when I told him how much I loved Cambodia, but shared his grave concerns of what visitors to Cambodia must think of all the dust. I tried to reassure him that I think there are other things of far greater importance to travelers, but he remained uneasy. “What must they think when they see these dusty roads outside the airport?,” he asked. “I want my country clean.” I liked him immensely.
When we turned onto the actual dirt road that the school was set down, I could see how far we’d come from the urban sprawl of Phnom Penh. These were the homes of children who attend the school — simple one room stilted bungalows with the laundry strung up, often with a cow or hog sleeping in the shade beneath.
an unconventional school bell; left
When we pulled up at the school, a teacher named Reaksmey was waiting to greet us. She was only nineteen but was extremely enthusiastic about her position as the school’s English and computer teacher. When we walked into the classroom I was greeted with a blast of hospitality as the 40+ students jumped up to shout out a big welcome greeting in English. Their English was limited and they shyly struggled to introduce themselves and give their ages. I was absolutely gobsmacked to find these students were between the ages of thirteen and fifteen — I would have guessed they were around the age of nine. They were so small.
The school has over 200 students and just one computer. Still, Sok assured me, this would be invaluable. In some rural areas, students have never seen a computer before and refer to it as a TV. Just learning how to put their hands on the keyboard and use programs in the most basic sense will give them a huge leg up in continuing education or the job market.
I think I was quite the distraction to both the teachers and students. The students were too shy to speak to me but stared wide-eyed. Even kids who didn’t go to the school were pressing against the metal bars of the windows, just staring, confirming my suspicion that blondes are few and far between in this area.
I enjoyed speaking with the teachers, though, whom I regaled with stories of snow days and of learning instruments in school. They were all eager to do well in their positions and some had fascinating backgrounds — one was a part time musician and lyricist and the others confirmed they heard his lyrics on the radio often! The teachers were shocked to hear that back in New York, we were taught things like art and music in public school.
I asked what these students could aspire to, and the answer was that the girls were most likely headed to factories — there was a big news story the week I was in Cambodia that the factory minimum wage was raising from $90-95 per month to $140-170 per month, for six days per week of work. Girls that were studious might become teachers. Boys could hope to find office jobs in Phnom Penh. Those that took to English could aspire to work in tourism.
the temple in the school complex
It was an eye-opening visit. In this extremely rural part of Cambodia, children seem happy and grateful to be in school — many of them are there for only a half day as the rest of the time they are helping their parents farm the rice fields or care for younger siblings.
Before this school was built, the students in attendance either didn’t go to school at all or had to travel more than ten kilometers away to the nearest one. It is without question that their lives are improved by the existence of this school.
Betsy tells me her next fundraising project will be for Girls Be Ambitious, another program run by World Assistance for Cambodia, which gives stipends to families for every month their daughters have perfect school attendance.
The Kien Khleang Rehabilitation Clinic
I spent years confused over what exactly my friend Wes did for a living. I knew it was an intense, important kind of job that involved lots of travel to places where it’s hard to get a visa, and it maybe had something to do with public health on the global scale. Then he did an Earning Abroad interview, and things started to click. Then, I went to Phnom Penh to visit him, and we stopped by a rehabilitation centre that Wes studied at in university. It all started to make sense.
The Kien Khleang Rehabilitation Clinic lies just outside Phnom Penh, a short tuk tuk drive away from the city. Open for 23 years, the goal of the clinic is to assist disabled Khmer — disabled not just by landmines, a cause that brings a lot of money but neglects a lot of the population — but also by genetics, by disease and by accidents like motorbike crashes.
As Wes wrote in his interview, “I know I am doing my job well when my colleagues feel confident and skilled to take over. ” Kien Khleang is run by an all-Cambodian staff, making it an example of the final goal of that model — and they were, notably, the first organization in Cambodia to hire workers with disabilities.
The day we dropped in on the center was a quiet one. The wheelchair basketball court sat silent and the exam rooms were empty. Most of the employees were attending a conference, and there were just a few patients around — a group of Australian physical therapy students were working with infants born with genetic diseases, and one young girl, a double landmine amputee from a rural village, was learning how to walk again.
But, an artist as heart, I was fascinated just to wander through the workshops and see the process through which these life-changing prostheses are created. Wheelchairs, walkers, and custom-fitted prosthetic body parts are lovingly constructed here using simple yet innovative and effective methods.
In a country with virtually no social services, programs like this one are essential. Patients are housed and fed onsite at a free dormitory, and travel stipends are provided. Patients who hear about the center are able to come, receive a diagnoses, be fitted for custom prosthesis if necessary, attend physical therapy, and live on site for the duration of that treatment. All services are free, and it is the most comprehensive physical rehabilitation program in Cambodia.
The goal, as Wes explained, is simply to allow people to live with dignity.
It was a privilege to visit both these organizations and be inspired by the work they are doing. While neither accepts visitors or volunteers on a regular basis, donations are graciously accepted and put to wonderful use.
Many thanks to Kampong Trach Middle School and Kien Khleang Rehabilitation Clinic for the fabulous work their do, and for allowing me to share their stories of hope and healing.