When asked how to best address the challenges of poverty in her country, Ponheary’s answer is always the same: “We will educate our children. We will do it one by one, step by step”.
It all started with one student. Ponheary Ly, who served as a teacher and later tour guide in Cambodia. She had a passion for education. Living a portion of her life in poverty, Ponheary knew the struggles that children in rural Cambodia faced when trying to attend school. Starting with just one student, Ponheary began what has grown into the Ponheary Ly Foundation, sponsoring 2,800 students in four primary schools and five secondary schools through rural northwestern Cambodia.
Ponheary grew up in a family where education was important. Her father was a teacher, and she and her siblings knew the value of education. Early in life she took advantage of opportunities to learn and expand her knowledge, but all of that changed when the Khmer Rouge took power. The Khmer Rouge abolished education and killed many of the intellectuals and educators in Cambodia during its rule of the country, including Ponheary’s father and thirteen of her family members. In the aftermath of the regime, Ponheary and her surviving family members worked to rebuild their lives. Ponheary became a teacher. It is during her teaching years that she began supporting students and extra programs at the schools where she worked.
After working as a teacher, Ponheary then became a tour guide. It was here that she began to secure funding for poor children to attend school. At the Temples of Angkor where she took tourists, Ponheary came into contact with numerous children who spent their days selling trinkets to tourists rather than attending school. Moved by what she saw, Ponheary decided to use her tips to support a better education system for Cambodia’s children. She encouraged the tourists she met to sponsor children’s education programs rather than buying from the children at the temples, which only encouraged them to continue missing school.
Ponheary started supporting one student with her own earnings and soon, with the help of the tourists she guided, she was able to expand this number. In 2005, Ponheary met a tourist from Austin, TX, and both of their lives would change forever. Lori Carlson came to Cambodia on vacation and was inspired by Ponheary’s work. After returning to Texas she set up a foundation in order to help Ponheary to broaden her efforts. After two years of visiting Cambodia to help with projects on the ground, Lori moved to Siem Reap to work daily with Ponheary and the children of Cambodia.
PLF is now supporting some 2,800 children, and Ponheary’s dream of helping Cambodia’s children has become a reality on a larger scale than she ever expected. PLF is driven not only by the number of children that it helps but also by what education means to Cambodians.
After living through the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge, Ponheary has been able to do something that honors the memory of her father and all those who lost their lives because they were educators or educated. She is working to move past her own struggles as well as to move her country beyond the traumatizing memories of the past. Education provides new life and opportunity.
We hope that you will join us in supporting the children of Cambodia. Today over 50% of Cambodia’s population is under 18, and half of the population living in rural villages is illiterate. While the challenge is large, Cambodia’s future depends on these children. We believe education will not only help to pull children and their families out of poverty, but it will also help the country to move forward on it’s own.
Read Ponheary’s Letter to her 13 year old self.