VOLUNTEER REPORT by WILLIAM STAFFORD, age 17, UK
Returning to the Ponheary Ly Foundation after 2 years of forced absence made me realise just how difficult the pandemic has been – especially for kids in a country like Cambodia. Prior to Covid, I had been a volunteer with PLF every summer since I was 10 years old. However, it was my visit this summer that really hit home just how important PLF’s sustained efforts of community support have been.
To better understand the challenge in front of PLF, over a third of the population in Cambodia live below the poverty line, with the national literacy rate at less than 40%. More than 75% live in the countryside and, due to the genocide of the 70s, are mostly young (65% under the age of thirty). For most poor Cambodian kids my age and younger, the only vision of the future is to work the fields (as their parents have) to eke out a subsistence living. Then pile on 2 years of little access to education, and economic devastation with the pandemic, and you see how difficult the situation had become.
During Covid, the country closed, schools closed, and most children nationwide were unable to study. The poorest students missed 17 months of school and had few options but to work in the fields. Despite these seemingly insurmountable challenges, PLF never gave up. Instead they established an e-learning program in early 2021, opened an Urban Learning Center (equipped with a computer lab and lending library) and developed new ways for students to learn. These initiatives have been incredibly formative, with students growing ever-comfortable in self-directed study and developing a level of digital literacy well beyond PLF’s expectations (remember — most don’t own phones, let alone have access to the internet!).
Against all odds, PLF has continued its mission: giving 2,800 sponsored kids the chance of a better future. PLF supports kids from kindergarten through to university. They provide basics such as food, clean water, hygiene products, uniforms, and bikes, while PLF Learning Centres offer access to remedial lessons, study groups, life skill workshops, and perhaps more importantly, as they get older, English and computer skills (crucial for any type of vocational ambition ahead).
Most importantly, PLF helps students to discover and curate their dreams.
And that is why I am so moved every time I come. This organisation makes a difference, and that difference is ‘access’: to education, to better health, to opportunity, and to a better future. I am continually amazed as the kids vote every day with their feet, with most travelling long distances by foot, bike or bus to reach a PLF programme. In the face of insurmountable odds, these kids believe that their future can be different.
My visit this summer was infused with hope. The new Urban Learning Centre in Siem Reap was bustling with kids my age playing learning games, attending classes, and reading books. Working with PLF, we reinstituted something my sister and I had organised three years ago – a Sports Day event at a rural school. This is a common tradition in the UK, but something these kids had never experienced before. As small as it may seem, it was just several days of having fun, something we take for granted in the West. I also had an opportunity to see how the students were progressing with chess, something we started some years ago and is now being played more widely across PLF’s projects. The kids have really run with it, often playing every day and far surpassing my skill level. Separately, I got a chance to teach a science programme and lead a music class, a passion from my own life that I was excited to share. I brought some electronic style keyboards and taught the first basics of playing the piano to high school students.
The excitement is best captured in some of the images below. What is most incredible is the level of engagement. These kids really want to learn and embrace every opportunity with zeal and passion. But before you look on, consider how you can help. PLF needs continued funding to continue its incredible mission.
As the images attest, PLF provides the opportunity to dream.
A PLF Learning Centre with a library of books
Time for Science: no interest in pre-made slides; the kids loved squashing insects, examining leaves and splitting the mung beans that they gathered from nature around them. And in Cambodia, it is just as important to teach the teachers as it is the students.
Always time for a little football and chess! Though this time the kids were so good at chess (far better than me)! We developed a group game (so I had a little help from my Cambodian friends).
Time to teach music – some kids were just naturally musically gifted. And the best was when I worked with them to create their own music, showing how chords can blend together to make original sounds.
Demonstrating how to record music and use more complex gear.
Can you imagine being with kids that have never seen face paint before or participated in a relay race or won a medal for team sport together?
The excitement was just incredible. There were 12 teams of roughly 10 students each. Each team got to design a team shirt, based on the animal that they chose: chickens, pigs, snakes, tigers and turtles, to name a few. (Cambodian children are very artistic, maybe given how difficult the Khmer script is to write).
Medals were awarded not only based on the speed of finishing all six relay races, but your team’s ability to answer a series of academic ‘age appropriate’ questions, hanging from a clothesline at the end of each row. Some kids struggled to read Khmer and had to have the questions and possible answers read to them, a reminder to me of how much has been lost over the last two years.
Parents rarely come to a school event so that fact that over 50 showed up was a testament to ‘buy in’ – they were supporting their kids at PLF to engage in something different; younger brothers and sisters could see this as well. Here they are cheering for their child’s team.
The races begin!
Tracking progress and awarding medals
(we even had a medal for the Head teacher!)
A food drop at primary school, far up north. What was sad to see was that the kindergarten class had over 60 students, by the time we got to 6th grade, there were barely 20 in the class. Working in the field had become the norm.
The PLF School Bus. PLF supports students at 3 rural primary schools, accompanying them once they graduate Grade 6 by busing them to the nearest secondary school, 15 kms away. There they can also access a PLF Learning Centre to bolster their public school curriculum. The school bus is an old Korean military carrier.
Late night Pizza at the PLF dorm, where rural kids come to live (away from their parents and the rural life they know) to attend a better high school and receive learning, living and vocational support from PLF. One night, Ponheary asked each student to share their dream for the future. All of them talked about going on to university, something unthinkable before PLF. Many want to be a teacher (remember this is one of the few careers that they have seen) while others spoke to a career in information technology (the result of computer classes from PLF). Several students went further, to be an engineer, a major in biochemistry and a focus on international relations – newfound ambitions that validate PLF’s formula of success.
Like the sound of our programs and want to get involved, but not sure how?
For as little as $10 a month, you could contribute to the ongoing education of our students. $120 goes a long way in Cambodia: that’s 5 village children on the road to education, with access to school and clean drinking water for half a year. Or a million other things, all of which coalesce into the tools needed for life to change for the better!
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