Money isn't everything, but it sure helps. Savong's School - like every school world-wide, needs funds.

Money isn’t everything, but it sure helps. The school – like every school world-wide, needs funds.

Last week I reignited this blog after five months silence. A few of you will know that this year I had a health surprise, namely a diagnosis of Parkinsons disease.  So far the disease has not produced radical symptoms –  extreme shakes,  or, an affliction that strikes many sufferers, ( at least eventually,)  immobility. It is not uncommon for those with Parkinsons to freeze  when they get to a door,  and require some visual prompt to get them started again. I’d say I’m  bound to be on an interesting adventure to say the least.  But for now my symptoms include:

  • Loss of the use of my right hand when it comes to typing. My right arm is about as useful as a plank of wood.
  • The need for much more sleep!
  • A slowdown in my work rate –  my brain is sharp,  but it takes longer to get my thoughts down on paper.

During my  five months silence  I enjoyed a long overdue holiday with my partner, Susanna, and I spent quiet time ruminating about the impact of my condition.  It has scrapped the old rules, but the problem is there are no new hard guidelines.  Everybody with Parkinsons  experiences a different combination of symptoms,  and the onslaught of these occurs at different speeds. Who knows? So against this shifty backdrop I have been trying to contemplate what the impact will be on my life.  I’m starting to set goals  and objectives: of bucket list of things I want to achieve before – and just in case – I deteriorate beyond usefulness.

Some of these goals are very tangible.  I wish to complete a long cycle ride within the next 24 months,  and there are some writing projects that I have started already: things I have long wanted to write.

But there is one central crisis I have not been able to resolve,  and that is the funding  of Savong’s school in Cambodia. Savong’s project  has many branches –  two homes for children,  a student centre for older students in Siem Reap, as well is the school  in Bakong which serves primary school children as well is secondary.  It also provides scholarships to University  for the top grade 12 students each year.  These scholarships are worth about $1000 per student per annum  over the four years required to get a degree.

All up,  the school  requires at least $3000 per month to run, and a majority of this money has come out of my own earnings.  Over the past 10 years it has been more efficient for me to knuckle down to work, to earn my income as a researcher,  and to send the money over to Cambodia. Far easier than fund raising.

This last year I was going to make the transition  toward fundraising however.  I am almost 60, retirement is around the corner,  and I need to find an alternative  source of income to underwrite the ongoing expenses  of Savong’s school. I saw this as a kind of baton change in a relay race.  What the Parkinsons diagnosis did was cause me to stumble badly and drop the baton.

So now by my reckoning  I have got eight months  to get my fundraising act together.  Somehow,  somewhere,  through some people,  I need to find sponsors  to the tune of US$3000 per month. The school in Cambodia,  which serves many hundreds of children,  faces many challenges of its own:  my health shouldn’t be one of them.

See also: About the school.

And how to donate the school.

This boy needs love, attention and a role model

This guy needs love and attenton

Within any group of children there will be one or two who want extra love and attention. This young man is one of the needier kids at SOC and I recognise him from two years ago as “the boy who loved being picked up.”  His name is Sorm and his family circumstances are very poor – his mother unable to afford his care and his father is no longer part of the picture. This boy craves a father figure.

Latching onto a visiting stranger is not a long term solution though this boy is aware of the continuity of care – from sponsors who return, from visitors who have been here before. Better still, his life has structure at the SOC with friends, with daily chores, with regular mealtimes and with school classes: a far cry from his early upbringing where there was not always food on in the bowl.

Visitors to Cambodia almost always remark on the smiles on all the faces; but these days I’m more aware of the broken homes and tragedies that remain hidden from tourists. This boy is being given assistance and a relatively strong level of support – but growing up without a father is far from ideal.  We owe it to these children to provide them with steady, dependable role models.

Meet student Heak. I love this guy

I love this guy

Heak is a wonderful student at the SOC children’s home in Bakong, Cambodia near Siem Reap. Gracious, kind to other students, intelligent, helping the little ones – this photo was taken in 2011 and today he has grown taller and so have his responsibilities for it is he who drives the big tuk-tuk to the school each day, saving the students a hot dusty walk. I am convinced that he will go to University within a few years, and I wait in anticipation of what he will choose to do with his intelligence.

If you would like to know how to assist a Cambodian student through University, click here.

A most satisfactory visit with Savong.

A few weeks back I admitted to being somewhat apprehensive about this year’s visit to Cambodia. My last journey had not gone particularly well, and the agenda for this year – a set of business meetings to help get better systems and steer the growth of Savong’s NGO appeared to me to be fraught with risk. Put bluntly, I’m expecting Savong – who started the project 9 years ago with no more than a high school education – to adopt a full western-style operating system in order that donors and sponsors can satisfy our own authorities – inland revenue departments for example – about the validity of our gifting.  We live in compliance-driven economies, with huge office towers of graduates devoted to accurate book-keeping. It’s our business culture. How quickly can we ask Cambodian organisations to ramp-up?

Well this journey I’m filled with optimism. For a start, I’ve never seen the school better organised. A couple of original staff members have moved on this last year, but with their replacements has come fresh energy and commitment. Sovannarith, one of the first teachers and widely accepted as the most professional and well trained, is now the senior teacher and in charge of upskilling the others.

Exams are well organised, authorised by the Ministry of Education (a move established some years ago by good supporter Colm Power from Ireland) and close attention is paid to who has passed and who needs to try again. When I visited results were just being posted, and students were flocking, excitedly, to see whether they had passed or missed out. Most of those who missed out had only attended language or computer classes for a few months – so (at least the ones I spoke with) were keen to enrol again for another shot.


The photo here of Savong’s School was taken on a holiday, so it looks rather empty, but teachers are expecting at least 500 enrolments this new year.

An excellent part of the story at this school is the work put in by scholarship winning students who, after studying at University in the mornings, come back to the school in order to teach or conduct admin duties. They give something back, and they act as mentors for the existing high school students. I’d recommend the practice to any other school.  The enthusiasm of these scholarship winners is palpable (there are more than a dozen – soon to be joined by at least half a dozen more.) The first wave of these scholars will complete their Bachelors degrees a year from now.

When I asked Savong whether his objectives had changed over time he restated the same dream he outlined to me in 2004 exactly nine years earlier: to proved free education in order that poor students can reach their potential.

Along these lines we explored the development of the scholarship idea – assisting students not just through post-high-school university support, but through other career guidance pathways as well. This has been something I’ve been mulling over and was raised also by Amir and Dilshad, the supporters who bankrolled the school library. I met them while on this journey and we visited the library together  – it is a mutli-purpose building with offices, library, computer class-room and meeting/room (come classroom) and to my mind the heart of the school. Amir and Dilshad suggested that a career-guidance focus might be extremely useful not only through sending great students through university, but to support through sponsorship, expertise, good connections – students who wish to train in other vocations. A big part of that is the need to to simply open the eyes of our students to the vast array of career possibilities by bringing in guest speakers, to talk with our rural students and explain what their jobs entail, and how to go about training for that job.

A few years ago almost every student I met wanted to be a “tour guide.”  That made sense in tourist driven Siem Reap. This time when I asked students I found a couple who wished to be engineers, a number who wish to manage their own businesses, and a few who would like to be in a trade – such as electrician or mechanic.

That was the career choice of young Buntheourn whom supporters have sponsored since 2008. (Below)


He is now almost fully trained as a mechanic, and a year from now will be capable of earning something like $300 a month – unheard of money compared to his parents who struggled on something like $40 per month to support their son. His is one of those great leaps forward we can help local students achieve. Buntheourn is as delightful as ever, by the way, now a young man and completely at ease his profession.

Savong and I had much to talk about. Goals and objectives. Measuring KPIs. Budgeting (12 monthly rather than ad-hoc monthly forecasting) and the need to sharpen up the volunteer experience. A charge will now be imposed for this experience,  to filter out those who rock-up, interrupt the students and all they do is take photos for Facebook without even making a token donation. NGOs in Cambodia are getting mighty wary of these gap-year Facebook volunteers.

However good volunteers are still a necessary part of the story. They help bring expertise, knowledge, encouragement and yes – financial or business resources (good contacts) to the project. As Savong told me at the end of one meeting: “I fully realise how important our supporters are.”

What I found was a school in good heart, and functioning well: a school that is delivering on its objectives.  I’ll discuss in another post the work at the children’s home. Systems-wise it is still a couple of notches behind the school, but making great progress. A day trip with 6 new students to visit their parents 40kms away proved one of the richest experiences I’ve had in my 58 years. Stay posted.