Cambodia: Part Two
When I was doing research into some of the issues facing children in southeast Asia, I came across a book written by Robert Spires, Ph.D., on the prevention of human trafficking. Dr. Spires is a professor at Valdosta State University, and much of his research has been done in this region of the world. He was kind enough to set up a video conference with me to answer many of my questions, and thankfully as our call was ending he said, “Do you mind if I tell you about some truly incredible work being done for children in Cambodia?” And that is how I found myself being introduced to Sokleng In, a young man living in Cambodia, who is one of the most impressive individuals I have ever met in my life.
Leng has one of those great faces in which you can clearly see kindness, and within a few moments of meeting him in person at the Cambodian border last week, I knew it was going to be a very special trip. We immediately hired a tuk tuk (a motorcycle rickshaw) and headed to visit the first project he had set up in 2014, the main EASEL school. It is here that hundreds of children come hoping to better their lives through education.
In every space we looked there were children, and Leng has had to rent additional rooms across the street to accommodate the growing number of kids now attending as they continue to pour in. Children in the first class we met, in fact, have to sit on the floor each day as every homemade desk is now taken. (Leng and his friends built the desks themselves).
Leng told me that the school operates seven days a week, morning to night, because so many children are desperate to attend classes. I was trying to imagine my own children yearning to go to school every single day. In the US, many children are praying school will be cancelled for some reason instead, as we often take our access to the power of education for granted.
In Cambodia, government schools are free but there are mandatory fees for uniforms and books, and many teachers withhold essential curriculum unless a student pays a special (and often high) “teacher fee.” For families living in extreme poverty, this often makes attending school impossible.
In addition, as I mentioned yesterday, Cambodia has the highest child labor rates in southeast Asia, with far too many children having to drop out of school to help support their families. Girls are especially vulnerable, and sadly many in the rural parts of Cambodia they marry by age 15. As we all should know by now, one of the most long-lasting ways to impact communities and even countries is through the education of girls. It is in this area that I especially got to see the amazing program that Leng has built in the last year.
Leng began an innovative project called MERCY, which stands for “Mobile Education through Remarkable Cycling Youth.”
Leng told me that the only hope impoverished children truly have is to finish high school, and he is currently helping (mostly out of his own pocket) 40 teens stay in secondary school.
Leng has encouraged each of them to take an active part in building up their communities and becoming the leaders of tomorrow, and girls make up a majority of the group. These teens not only work at the EASEL school, teaching the younger children each day, but they also volunteer every single weekend, riding bicycles and walking to rural villages to bring education and needed supplies to children in the countryside.
They teach reading, hygiene, and lessons on human trafficking, and work together on projects such as distributing rice and safe drinking water to villages in need.
I got to spend several days with these remarkable teens, many of whom come from very hard places themselves. Their dedication to ensuring that the younger children in the region escape a life of poverty was truly humbling.
There is a quote by Henry Taylor which says, “The world knows nothing of its greatest people.” I definitely got to meet some of them on my trip to Cambodia.
Tomorrow I want to tell you about a very rainy trek to reach two rural villages near the border of Thailand, as I’m so excited about the projects we could do together there. I love the idea of working with local teens in this region to ensure not only that they can fulfill their own dreams of an education, but also to directly impact future generations. I think it’s a remarkable cycle of helping others which could truly lift an entire village in the long run, if we dare to believe in the power of young minds.
~Amy Eldridge, Chief Executive Officer