By Travis Thompson

Throughout decades of war, genocide, and conflict, social work has been virtually absent from Cambodia.  Now, Ponheary Ly Foundation is adding a student counseling unit to the organization, joining other professionals who are bringing this line of work back to the country.

A photo taken by PLF's new social work unit during a home interview.

A photo taken by PLF’s new student counseling unit during an intake interview of a PLF high school student who earns $30 a month as a trash picker.

From the beginning of PLF in 2001, when Ponheary and her family were aiming to get kids away from temples and back into school, they had one goal: Help these children attend school and believe in education.  From bicycles to uniforms to health, breakfast and scholarships, the organization has evolved to meet more and more student needs.

But, this is Cambodia and we can give students all the things they need to attend school — but there will often be gigantic obstacles that material “gifts” aren’t going to fix.  Maybe a student was sent out from home, or abandoned, and is left to fend for himself. Maybe another is being “strongly advised” by her family to stop just short of completion of Grade 12 in order to marry. Maybe an A student will stop school five months before graduating in order to make $40 a month at a massage parlor so she can help to feed her family, who don’t have enough to eat, and maybe that girl will be trafficked out of the country never to be heard from again. Maybe a handicapped student has a malfunction in his specialized bicycle and can no longer get to school but he doesn’t know who to call.

Poverty causes multiple challenges on multiple levels for all of our students, from the time they start school until they finish, at whatever point that is. For our students who are pushing toward a high school diploma, those challenges become exponentially difficult as the student reaches working or marrying age

sokha interviews

Sokha Khoun interviews a student’s family in Srayang.

PLF wants to be more responsive and help our students develop the skill sets to overcome those hurdles.  The answer is a fully-staffed student counselor program. PLF has targeted Media teachers Sokha Khoun and Saveth Chhean to be the first counselors for the Foundation.  They came to PLF having lived the experience of the severely difficult Cambodian countryside and school system.  During their tenure as Media teachers, they have developed excellent mentoring and communication skills and are a natural fit for the need that exists.

We jumped at the first-ever opportunity to train them during a three-month social work course taught in Siem Reap by the country’s most prestigious university (Royal University of Phnom Penh). At the end of their course, they expressed what a powerful experience it had been for them as they gained a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on the family unit in Cambodia.  The course gave them a depth of empathy, a set of skills they can transfer and, most importantly, an improved ability to interview students and their parents.

Sokha and Saveth are adding social work to their duties in addition to teaching PLF’s media classes.

Sokha and Saveth are adding student counseling to their duties in addition to teaching PLF’s media classes

Sokha and Saveth are now equipped to better see which students are going to find success with our scholarship program, and also better able to counsel each student’s family so that parents and caretakers provide better support and think long-term about the potential benefits of having educated children.

Sokha and Saveth are visiting students outside school, in their homes, visiting their families, and heightening PLF’s response to very specific student needs. This process will allow PLF to better ensure scholarships reach their fruition by having the maximum number of students finish Grade 12. It will also help us identify students whose families will not support their upper secondary school education, and potentially be able to counsel that student away from low-paying, potentially exploitative work, instead steering them toward vocational training or at least safer working environments.

As a side note, Sokha and Saveth will also continue their duties as teachers of PLF’s ground-breaking technology program.