Lori Carlson

The rainy season has finally let up in Srayang and as the clouds clear we see things starting to take shape at the house. The 12 girls, recent graduates from Koh Ker Village, are getting themselves settled in at the house and into the rhythm of a new school, meeting new friends, and adjusting to life away from home.

Here’s the background story on the girls at Srayang.  “The House that Love Built”.

We started in September with nothing but an uncleared, unsecured plot of land, an unfinished and empty house, a ramshackle leaking hut, a broken down chicken coop, no suitable water source or latrines. Not much of anything in fact. But no matter. These courageous girls and their housemother marched right in, set up shop and got to work. Their enthusiasm, combined with the efforts of teachers and hire crews have the property in an accelerated state of  transition. We’ve been lucky enough to have a steady stream of visitors wanting to go and see the project so we’ve been able to make frequent trips up there to bring supplies, help with planning and check progress.

So here’s where we’re at:

The existing well was an open ground well that was not deep enough to get to any clean water and also open to the elements which is never good. We’ve left this well in position and it will be used to water the garden, etc. (photo at left and center)

A new well (at right) was sponsored by Eugene Nelson and the Blue Heart Charity who specialize in well digging. We’ve yet to have the water from the new well tested so in the mean time we are using the same water filters from RDI that are in use at all the schools to get rid of E-coli, which so far has proven to be the only problem with the well water.

All the repairs to the house have been made, including finishing the porch and adding rails and a banister (photo at left) . In the background you can see the big red gate, which along with a fence around the perimeter helps with security. The photo at right is looking toward the back of the property where the land has been cleared and is being prepared for the girls to put in their garden in the next couple of weeks. The very back of the property is the landing spot for House of Love Part II, which will hopefully welcome the first group of boys from Koh Ker next year. Everybody stop for a moment and visualize the second house please.

The photo below at left is the housemother’s house, still under repair, having just had a new metal roof put on. We still have work to do on Sieng Ry’s house, so she’s bunking with the girls in the meantime. We hope to build Miss Ry new house when we get fully funded for the second dorm next year. She was formerly the 1st grade teacher at Koh Ker School and has come to look after the girls in Srayang and seems to be enjoying her new position.

Attached to the back of the house is a kitchen that is now about 75% done and being made useful although there is still some flooring to be put in, shelves to be built, etc. The photo at right shoes the kitchen in the early stages of construction.

Below are photos of the latrines, the one at the left was in October, the one at right was taken in early November. Rain has dampened progress on the latrines. Everyone please try to imagine 12 girls, age 13-16 completely happy with no toilets or showers!

We are certainly stressing over this more than they are, but in another week or so these facilities should be ready for use and will be the first time in their lives these girls have ever had access to either. By the way, this fine gentleman in the white shirt on the far left is Richard Dinnison from Australia and he’s sending a very nice housewarming gift indeed; a solar panel to run the battery that supplies the only electricity in the house (or within a several mile radius for that matter). The girls don’t know it yet, but their days of taking the batteries to town to have them recharged on the back of their bikes in the rain are almost over.

Things are coming along inside the house as well. On the left are the cabinets that were built for the girls to lock up their personal possessions. The oversized bunkbeds were built to get the girls up off the floor (another first) and maximize space in the small space. It took them about two weeks to brave sleeping all the way on the top bunk but on our last visit it seems they’ve conquered it.

I’d like to interject here that every stick of furniture, every shelf, every everything has to built by hand in Srayang; there’s no such thing as running to the Ikea or even to the market to find such things. Ship it from Siem Reap or build it, that’s it. I really wish my dad was here sometimes! The photo at the far right shows the desks and chairs being built in the study, the only adjoining room in the house. OK everybody stop again and visualize computers in this room. Thanks.

It’s been a big transition for these 11 girls. They have spent their lives in the village pictured at left or one just like it, living a meager existence in harsh conditions, farming the land, tending the animals, foraging in the forest. The town of Srayang, pictured at right, not a big city by any stretch, or even a town necessarily, is still a big step for them. Culture Shock. New kid in town. Trying to create new community.  And then being away from their families is hard on everybody concerned.

Parents arrive for a visit on the first day of school

The parents, some of whom are pictured in the center above talking with Ponheary, below at right, are to be commended for their sacrifice and forward thinking. To let these eldest daughters, who are much needed at home,  go off to school in another town is a bold step in a remote Cambodian village such as Koh Ker. None of the parents went past grade 2, they struggle every day to find enough food to feed their families, yet they not only are willing to send these pioneer children, they are  dutifully paying 10,000 riel per month to show their commitment to the effort and contribute to the support of their daughters.

These families bring home an average of about $50 per month, so $2.50 means something to them. It means something to us too so we will keep this money in escrow, match it and return it to the families when the girls graduate. Harvest is coming in now and the parents have inquired if they could pay for the whole year up front. It feels nice to have the parent’s support behind the project, it would be impossible for the girls to succeed otherwise.

A happy “kink” in the plan came when a boy who tried to go to 7th grade last year and abandoned the idea a couple of months in, came to us with a request  he be allowed to try again. Of course we wanted him to give it another go but we weren’t sure where to house him.

Dr. Kim to the rescue as usual and now he’s residing in Srayang proper with Dr. Kim and his family  and goes over to the house with the girls every day to have lunch. He’s also coming in the evenings to the house for English lessons as the girls voted to reduce their food allowance by $30 a month in order to pay for an English tutor. In the background of the picture, attached to the kitchen wall under the house is a whiteboard we just installed.

We brought their textbooks and classes have already started.  Some readers (Jessica are you reading this?) will remember him as the student from Koh Ker who was brought to Siem Reap after waking up one morning unable to walk, and it was discovered he was suffering from a massive vitamin deficiency.

I can’t think of any way to explain what this all means, not only to these girls, but to their families and potentially to their village. It’s a great experiment, a big leap of faith, not only for us and for all of you who are out there quietly supporting this project, but mostly to them.  To them especially. They asked us to send their greetings, their gratitude and of course their most sincere best wishes for your luck, for your health and for your happiness.

Stay tuned!