Savong and the senior students. Removing risks and setting guidelines.


2014 is shaping up as the year that Savong gets really systemised. I’ve worked with him since 2004 and since then we have progressed from a small ad-hoc classroom to gradually become an NGO that includes a student center, a school with 650 enrollments, two children’s homes and a provider of scholarships. By the end of last year Savong was run ragged, trying to keep everything running smoothly.

Two days ago I had a long Skype chat with Savong and he explained how he was, step by step, putting management systems and reporting structures in place throughout his organisation. As with any organisation that gets bigger, one loses some of the informality and one starts having to lay down rule and guidelines.

Yesterday Savong assembled the senior SOC students who are supported through funding from the Savong Foundation in the USA (Phil and the team do an amazing job) as well that those students I raise funds for: the Scholarship students of whom there are 16.  So that’s the photo above, this rather large family of sponsored senior students.

Savong has worked with them to establish some operating rules and as we discussed, these include some expectations (this is no place for laziness) but also a clear commitment to keep supporting the students even when there are challenges. I certainly feel that the money we provide in support is only half the story: the real thing we’re providing is the absence of fear.

I saw that when Savong and I first worked together.  When he realised that we were committed to assist him through thick and thin, then his dreams got bigger and more useful: his plans became longer term.  So it is with the students in the photo. They are a committed group of young people, but the difference between these students and many others is that we’ve moved them a few steps away from the risks and unforeseen disasters that plague life in Cambodia, given that there is no safety net.

For many young people the four-year trek towards a degree is almost certain to include bouts of sickness, or family tragedies, or perhaps an accident that wipes out one’s precious savings. One of the teachers once told me of a friend of his who was electrocuted, due to faulty wiring in the young man’s corrugated-iron shack: he touched the wall one morning and was killed tragically.

How can one dream big when you are worried by the risks of life?

I felt a pang of regret when Savong told me of the rules and guidelines he’s setting for the students. I guess I miss the laissez-faire days and, for sure, I would make a lousy manager of this burgeoning NGO. But one thing about guidelines: these also establish more certainty for the students as they embark on their journey through the sometimes rough seas of higher education.  A ship is safer when it has handrails and life-jackets.

Librarian with a heart of gold – an awakening of a memory.

Librarian with a heart of gold - an awakening of a memory.

Sreylam is one of the quiet unsung heroes at Savong’s School, serving many years as librarian. As any school librarian knows, the job involves encouragement of new students and the creation of an environment that is conducive to the full flight of young imaginations. I cannot imagine anyone better suited to the role than Leam Sreylam: she is like a child-magnet and in her presence students open themselves up.

When I first met her I was reminded at once of a teacher of mine, when I was 5 and in Canada. Mrs Cohoe was a golden presence who made us feel so welcome in her classroom. When I was almost 40 I visited Canada once more and looked Mrs Cohoe up in the phone book. I gave her a call and her now elderly voice creaked open like a door. “Ye-e-e-e-e-s?” she asked.

“You won’t remember me but my name is Duncan….” but she chipped in and completed the sentence.
“…Duncan Stuart…why your family emigrated to New Zealand in 1961. How is your mother Margaret?”
We swapped notes and it appeared that Miss Cohoe had kept tabs with legions of students. So I asked her, “How do you keep in touch with everyone?”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” she pondered, “it seems everybody keeps in touch with me.”

Sreylam is from the local community and I’m certain that even though she is very quiet and unassuming she’ll also have legions of students who grow up and forever remember her as a favourite. What a difference these wonderful individuals make in our lives.

For more about my favorite library in Cambodia – click here. And here. And about other initiatives in Cambodia – Room to Read.

Crackle and Pop. Restoring Cambodia’s precious vinyl history.

I collect vinyl myself and know how hard it is to track down pop 45s from the 1960s. But I’m blow away by the music restoration process happening in Cambodia thanks to the courage of collectors (under Pol Pot music was banned) and the dedication of new curators. An excellent video.



Sok Sovannarith is the most senior teacher at Savong’s School and recently he has been promoted to a teacher training role – sharing his skills each week to develop the skills of the other teachers, not just at Savong’s School in Bakong, but at another smaller school at West Baray, near the airport and at two children’s homes also – Happy Sunshine home in Siem Reap as well as the SOC in Bakong.

The promotion reflects a new era of management maturity within Savong’s organisation.