A children’s book author from Laos asked PLF students to illustrate a story book, and offered to give a percentage of the proceeds from the sale of the book to the Foundation. In this article, Jonathan Osteen, the main volunteer on the project, recounts his experience.
By Jonathan Osteen
I was lucky to be referred to the Ponleary Ly Foundation by a friend from home. I was travelling through the region and reached out to the Foundation asking how I could help when I got to Cambodia. They set me up on a project at Chey Primary School involving the students who had developed an interest in art and a children’s book that was being developed.
A children’s book author from Laos had written a story about a dog named Zuzi who developed purple spots in her fur and was at first embarrassed, but then learned to enjoy the trait. It is essentially a story about overcoming vanity and embracing your true self. As it is a children’s story, the author thought it might be a good idea to have children do the illustrations for it. Some money would go to any children whose drawings were used, and some of the profits from the book would be shared with the school more broadly, facilitated by the Ponleary Ly Foundation.
My job was to go to the school and help the students with making illustrations pertaining to the story, working with a small group of students aged 10-15. I taught during the hours between the morning and afternoon sessions of school, when the students are able to take optional classes, essentially electives. The students seem to have a genuine desire to learn and the teachers seem to have a genuine desire to teach, but they could clearly use help with teaching and resources.
It was a truly incredible experience. I brought materials for the students to draw with, and using the help of the driver as an interpreter, I read the story with the children, explaining what images in particular needed to be drawn and providing as much guidance as I could. I think they thought that I was some amazing foreign artist because I came to the school specifically for this project, but I am genuinely worse at drawing than most of the students.
As a result, I brought in print-outs I found online about how to draw a dog and provided the best advice I could. I explained to them the phrase “Practice Makes Perfect,” and encouraged them to visualize the objects, to focus on the details, and not to rush things. If they didn’t like their work, I complimented them on it, but encouraged them to determine what they didn’t like and to go back and make targeted adjustments when they try again.
Previously, these students had only been able to draw during specific times at school, so they were unbelievably sweet and appreciative when I handed each of them colored pencils and crayons to bring home so they could practice drawing whatever they wanted. Students here have far less than Americans and so are far more appreciative of much smaller things. They each bowed graciously as they took the items, and two of the students came back with drawings as a gift for me.
The students seemed to very sincerely take my words as wisdom, and while I don’t really have the credentials to be in that position, especially in an art class, I realized I had an opportunity to influence these children’s development and should do my best to improve their self-confidence and outlook on life.
I knew that arts and crafts are actually a valuable and practical skill in the area, being so close to Angkor Wat and the tourism industry there, but I also knew that many of these students would not grow up to be artists. So I told them that drawing is just like any other passion or skill; with a focused attention to detail and a determination to practice while making intentional adjustments and improvements over time, they would become successful at whatever they set their mind to.
Perhaps a better testimonial than my own is the letter I received from one of the students, Chamroen. Chamroen had originally written me a letter asking me to review his work and give him advice, to which I responded and encouraged him to practice and improve. The letter included here is his reply to my response. I think it shows the earnestness with which the students receive guidance.
I was fortunate to have students who were eager to listen. I know my lessons won’t be the most formative experience in their lives, but I believe I influenced them nonetheless, and hopefully with other influences, teachers, and volunteers, they will develop a drive to pursue their passions relentlessly and the experience will have enriched their lives, as it has mine.
Thank you for the opportunity.