Words and photos by Julie Barry
Even with jet lag setting in at day three, I was ready to hit the ground running. Our first stop was the Steung Meanchey Primary School. All of the Cambodian Children’s Funds beneficiaries must attend public school for half a day and then attend CCF classes until about 7:00 pm or 8:00 pm resulting in a 10 to 12 hour school day. The challenge with public schools is that the teachers are paid poorly, supplies as simple as paper are hard to come and so they are forced to ask the children for money to attend class. Oftentimes, the children aren’t able to afford to pay and so find themselves unable to attend.
Scott Neeson – who is always thinking of ways to offset financial challenges for the children – brainstormed with public officials like the governor of Steung Meanchey, and created – with donations from Velcro Industries – the Teacher Resource Room. Access is dependent on not asking families for money to attend school. In exchange the center provides photo copies, staff to assist and a full room of computers. We were shocked to hear that 60,000 to 70,000 copies of school work only breaks down to two sheets of paper per child per week.
Will and I thought we were visiting the opening of the space but didn’t realize that there was a formal presentation and that we were going to be a part of it! We were honored to be able to help with the ribbon-cutting and appear on-stage with Scott and town officials.
After we talked and played with some of the children, then visited the daycare, we met the junior leaders of the CCF. The Junior Leadership program was put into place about a year ago to help support pre-teens and teenagers who are already at high risk and may have never entered public school before and are now maybe realistically too old to begin. This program provides students with vocational and community leadership training and many of the students that have gone through the training are employed by the CCF in childcare, administration and/or clothing design. They also help lead community based programs such as the nightly food walk where they deliver food and water to the underserved including the elderly.
The goal of these programs is truly to educate all children regardless of age and ensure that they have the skills to take care of themselves and give back to their community. The hope in the children’s eyes is something I have never seen and they are so giving of their spirit. Some of their stories are shocking. Situations of horrifying neglect and abuse are prevalent but with the CCF’s educational system and support these children are learning and breaking the cycle one-by-one.