Be the Change Network

aka "Kari's Blog"

Archive for January, 2008

Lessons Learned

January 29, 2008 By: karig2 Category: 2008 January Trip, General 1 Comment →

Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Sorry for the long silence, everyone. One of our computers crashed, I contracted an upper respiratory infection, and my kids, having been pretty much ignored for a month, finally cracked and demanded my attention. So we took a much-needed break. But that’s not to say we rested. Here’s a recap of the past week:

We left Chrauk Tiek with our team of 9 and a small box of briquettes and traveled back down the long, bumpy road to the coastal town of Kampong Som (Sihanookville). Along the way we stopped at restaurants and vendors to test-market our product. It was not difficult. The demand for cooking fuel is extremely high, and the 3 traditional options – wood sticks, charcoal, and gas – are either skyrocketing in price or limited in supply. As a result, people are surprisingly open to new ideas. Once the briquette is demonstrated and they see how well it burns with little smoke, we get immediate orders for more. We hoped for a 10% response to our marketing effort, and we got a 90% response. Although logic tells us this is a good thing, that is not always the case. The next challenge that faces us is keeping our customers supplied. The problem is not selling them, it is producing enough and getting them to market in a timely manner. This issue sent us back to the drawing board. We discussed production levels, transportation and marketing. At capacity, the 7 presses at our school operated by 19 workers can produce about a ton of briquettes a week, and once the expenses of labor and transportation are paid, we should have about $180 profit to donate back to the school. That is enough to give 7 teachers a $20/month raise and pay for the fuel to pump water and clean the bathroom. A committee of school supporters will need to decide cooperatively how the money we earn should be spent to strengthen the education in their community.

We created a bi-lingual marketing brochure, and chose the name Smart Choice Fuel Briquettes for our brand because the English metaphor “School Fuel? doesn’t make sense in Khmer. For fundraising purposes in our English speaking donor community, we’ll call it our School Fuel Program which teaches people how to make Smart Choice Fuel Briquettes. And the point of making them is to economically empower a community to support their own school. This product makes more sense than implementing a handicraft project where the market would be very far away indeed, or an agricultural project where the labor and time involved don’t produce an immediate return. Everyone uses cooking fuel on a daily basis and since briquettes are made from waste material, the raw material is essentially free. The demand is high, the market is close, and the skill is easy compared to other economic development options. As the news of the new idea spreads, more villagers have been showing up at the school daily to ask how they can take the training and buy a press. We may have another income-generating opportunity in the production and selling of briquette presses for those who wish to start the small business at home.

Realistically, the transportation expense down the long bumpy road is the biggest obstacle we face. It is humbling to learn firsthand how difficult it is to access the marketplace in this context. No wonder the rural areas cannot develop! Ideally, the briquettes produced at our school should be consumed locally. But the majority of people living in Chrauk Tiek are so focused on consuming the forest resources that it is going to take some reverse psychology to get their behavior to change. If the city marketplace deems the briquette product valuable, the people living in Chrauk Tiek will too. If people use them locally and we reduce transportation cost, more profit can be pumped back into their school. But these ideas must be learned step-by-step. And the reality is, if we create the demand in the city marketplace, and we don’t step up to the plate to meet that demand, someone else will. So we have been thinking about how to expand this training to other schools that are closer to the city.

We hired Savin Oeun, one of our translators with a bachelor’s degree in rural development, to spend the next month creating the Briquette Training Program so we will have an additional product to sell – our knowledge. We have had several requests from other NGOs to bring our training to their schools as a result of the report about our activities on Radio Free Asia. By selling the training program to other schools, working with community leaders to implement efficiently and effectively (learning from our own mistakes first, of course), and developing a marketing association around Smart Choice Fuel, we can envision a way to increase production, reduce forest destruction, and support schools on a much wider scale. And we’ll be generating more income for our school at the same time. Sounds like a beautiful solution, doesn’t it? Of course, changing behavior is not quite that simple. It remains to be seen if our Cambodian team can soldier forth independently, learn from their mistakes, build solidarity and grasp the opportunity to empower themselves.

I am humbled to realize just how difficult it is to empower people. It is easy to give people a fish. It is much harder to teach them to fish. In Cambodia, a culture completely distorted by the trauma of war, people have become used to waiting for handouts from donors – and it isn’t good. They’ve lost their initiative. From the top officials in the government right down to the village level, people expect money from donors to fall into their hands, or as my new Country Director Yoen says “they only want the food put directly in their mouths.? When you realize the psychology you’re up against, it can all get a bit depressing.

I take comfort in looking at people individually, seeing how we win them over one by one. Mr. Leng, who is HIV-positive, unemployed and completely dependent of rice handouts from Lutheran World Service, became our very best worker and he will soon become a trainer. Tau Soka, who wrote the first letter to stop the forest destruction and convinced her husband to stop taking bribes as a policeman, will now be making briquettes with a baby on her back. Sok Sarit used to be a woodcutter; now he is a fruit tree farmer, an avid school supporter and assistant manager of our briquette facility. I think of Sokea, a girl with tight curly hair who plays the Ta Kay beautifully and sits with her eight girlfriends in the front row of 6th grade, eager to learn everything we can teach. Will she get to secondary school? And if she does, will the teachers show up? There is no high school for her to attend. These problems are much more than one donor can solve, we must empower the community if there is to be real and lasting change. We must not make Sokea a beggar.

For the lessons we’ve learned, we see a valuable opportunity at hand, the only thing stopping us is capitol. When we return home we’ll be looking for board members and BIG fundraising ideas. Please contact us if you are interested. Our family leaves for the US tomorrow night. Now, I’m off to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to register our NGO…. I hear I have to “donate? a ton of rice…..

We’re Featured on Radio Free Asia!

January 18, 2008 By: karig2 Category: 2008 January Trip, General No Comments →

A pressed briquetteChrauk Tiek, Cambodia.

We’re calling it School Fuel. A small donut of compressed sawdust and scrap paper pulp that we hope will turn the tide of forest destruction toward an activity that supports schools. It’s a micro-business with big dreams. Our 3 day workshop concluded with certificates awarded to 41 community members who completed the training to transform waste materials into cooking fuel. We’re heading back to Phnom Penh with more than 500 kilograms of briquettes to take to the next step – finding the market.Pulping paper

The process of pulping scrap paper, mixing it with a raw material and putting it through the press is not difficult, but it is a little messy; yet the participants seemed to be having a good time. Sanu offered expert instruction and encouragement. Certainly, it is easier than traveling to the forest to cut down trees, and more convenient work than forcing children to skip school to help cut down trees.

I was most proud of the 9 women who joined the training; several showing up with babies on their backs. Three women traveled all the way from a Tropaing Ongrong, a village 7 kilometers to the east. They had heard through the grapevine about our training and decided to come, and as Chou Sanu speaking at the workshopLeng said to me, “the trees will all be gone soon, so I need to know how to do this.” She has experienced this problem firsthand when her former village in the Takeo province ran out of trees and she had to start cooking with cow dung. All our trainees are now also certified to become trainers, and we plan to export our skill to other villages where people want to learn the process and support their school. Workshops can be conducted at our facility or we can set up new ones. We will charge for this service, so we have another income generation stream for our school.

I was reminded again yesterday why income-generating activities are so important to Drying briquettesthe sustainability of our school. I spent the day in a long meeting with teachers, the principle, and the school-supporting committee, trying to settle a long-standing dispute over a substitute teacher who was not paid for her time. The principle apparently had kept her salary for operating expenses and to pay bribes to higher-up officials to keep the regular teachers from getting fired. One teacher had skipped two months to elope with her boyfriend, and another skipped 5 months to get training with a Korean company he hopes to join. All the squabbling has undermined the solidarity of the teaching staff that is critical to the functioning of the school, and a possible explanation for the decrease in student attendance this year. It’s also the reason the library had been closed for 5 months. All of this unrest over 50 dollars. When I asked each teacher to pitch in $7 to pay the substitute and settle the matter, not one of them had even $2. They are paid only $30 per month. Raising the teachers pay in a sustainable way is one of our highest priorities. You simply cannot run a school without good teachers.

Solidarity is a problem in Cambodia on many levels, and the lack of it threatens our ambitions. It is very difficult to get people to work together for the common good when all anyone cares about is putting money in their pockets. Long term vision is non-existent. Still reeling from traumatic memories of the Khmer Rouge regime and its extreme form of forced cooperatives, the society as a whole is distrustful of giving anything to one another.

“Cambodian always look down on Cambodian,” Madame Ouk Savborey said when she interviewed our team for Radio Free Asia. She was so interested in our briquette project that she drove the 5 hours of bumpy road to interview our Radio Free Asia Interviewparticipants directly. While researching her story she stopped in Kantout (a village 20 kilometers to the west) to compare the regular charcoal-making process with our briquette process. It takes 40 kilos of wood to produce 10 kilo of charcoal, and only scrap sawdust (or other materials) to make compact briquettes.

After the interview Madame Savborey, 52, recalled how as a 16-year-old girl the Khmer Rouge had held her in a prison camp in nearby Kantout. She was lined up at a mass grave for execution, and when the man in front of her failed to die after being struck with a hoe, she passed out. She awoke in the morning in a pile of dead bodies and someone rescued her. With memories like that, no wonder building solidarity is so difficult. Sadly, it is a common story.

Briquette workshop participantsDuring the workshop one monk looked into the classroom where we were serving lunch to the group and commented, “this how we eat during Pol Pot time.” He didn’t join us. Not far from here, about 5 kilometers upstream is beautiful lake Peam Levia at the base of Aural mountain. The dike is 5 kilometers long and it was dug entirely by hand for a failed Khmer Rouge hydroelectric project where 10,000 people labored and thousands died. The two men who recounted the scene, Sok Sarith and Bun Vanna, had witnessed it as boys; they are now the principle managers of our briquette program. There is only one way they can succeed in building community support around it, by selling lots of briquettes. If there is money to be made, people will change – but that remains to be seen.

Hanging rack outside the schoolMadame Savborey seemed a little baffled as to why a family of Americans are here, offering our support to this school in a remote village, far from the tourist centers. I explained that we have many new school buildings provided by donors in this region, but ours is the only one that continues to receive donor support. As a result, ours is the only school in the region with a computer and English class. Another school in the area has a solar panel that hasn’t been used for 2 years, since the power storage unit was burned out by vandals. Those teachers live in the pagoda because their salary is too low to survive independently. The school down the road has a failed garden project, and our sister school at the Pos Meas village has high teacher absenteeism. If we did not continue to support our school, the same things would happen here. We’ve taken our first small step toward sustainability through life skills training. If it is to progress, we must help the few members of the community who believe in our vision to build support – no matter how frustrating it may be.

When I start to feel like giving up, I go visit a classroom. I shout out the Khmer letters with 60 first graders. I teach the second graders how to use Play Dough,Students show off their high jumps Legos and K’nex. I help the 6th graders sound out words in English books and teach them to sing “If You’re Happy and You Know it Clap Your Hands.” I give the blind boy private music lessons. I add a Saturday English for the secondary students who don’t have access to computers and language lessons. I show everyone how to do yoga and jumping jacks. I listen to them sing. I see their smiles. And I pray for the support we need to keep it going.

The children are magical; they deserve better.

Dear Ms. Gimmlet

January 15, 2008 By: Kari Category: 2008 January Trip, General 5 Comments →

Chrauk Tiek Primary School, Cambodia. We will soon have a new building to house our library and music class. A huge thank you to the parents and grandparents of Peter Pisey who have donated the funds for the building in his name! Like our son Grady, Peter was born in Cambodia and adopted by a family in the United States. He is 6 years old and a fellow first-grader in Ms. Gimmlet’s class at Dunn Elementary in Fort Collins, Colorado. Thank you to Peter and his big sister Maya for donating their soccer cleats and over $100 worth of art supplies. The kids are really enjoying these. In honor of their commitment to help us build a new library we are dedicating this post to Peter and Mrs. Gimlet’s class.

Life at the Grady Grossman School

( as written by Grady Grossman and typed by his mom)

gradyandriat.jpg This is Riat and he is one of my new friends. He is blind. I am very caring to him. He is really good at playing instruments. He smiles when I chase the other kids around. He always carries a piece of wood that is brown and shaped like a rectangle. He uses it to feel things. We like to walk around together but Riat can do it by himself. Even though he can’t see, he can feel his way very well. Now he’s learning English at our school.

our swimming place This is the swimming hole where we take a bath everyday and wash our clothes. I have fun with my sister Shanti. There is a beach on the other side where I like to dig. One time it rained very hard and the river got higher. My mom is wearing a sarong, that’s what ladies in Cambodia use for a bathing suit. It’s very hot in the daytime and we go swimming to cool off.


playing with tires

Playing with tires is extremely fun. Some other kids included me to come in and play. I went up the ramp and the other kids did the same. Then we chased them down. Then we did it again.



I am helping my friend Theary pick up briquettes and take them to the sun to dry. Briquettes are made from dead stuff you get from the ground and mix with newspaper and water. Briquettes are used for cooking fuel. We are teaching families how to make them so that they don’t have to destroy their environment to cook. A lot of kids miss school to chop firewood.

where we sleep

This is where I sleep under a mosquito net. The mosquitoes in Cambodia that come out in the evening cause diseases like malaria. It is fun to sleep under a mosquito net. Sometimes I have a stomach ache but I don’t think it is malaria. If we get malaria we have to leave for America right away. To stay healthy I always have to drink a lot of water and wash my hands and sleep under the net.

at the wedding

We went to a wedding for teacher Srey Mau. It was fun. I got carried on the shoulders of someone kind. I had fun touching the roof and scaring the bugs. They play loud music and give us a lot of food. I like the little meatballs in the soup. The sound was so loud that I could hear it from the Grady Grossman School. In Cambodia people like to sing karaoke very loud.

on the oxcart

They have not much transportation in Cambodia. This is an original oxcart. I had fun riding on it. It was a bumpy ride. People use it a lot for transporting wood from the forest to their home.

at the well

This is the water well that was in the movie. We can get fresh water here. I clean my feet in it. The pump has very hot metal in the daytime.



at the library

This is the library we are going to put in Peter’s new building. Then this room can be a classroom again. I went to first grade one day. There were a lot of kids in the class (60+). I tried to study Khmer language but is was very difficult to understand their writing and language. It was loud and I had to share a desk with 2 other kids. One of them was my friend Hong Leng. He is great. He doesn’t have a kneecap so he limps most of the time. I learned that they repeat the writing on the board after the teacher says the words. It was kind of boring.

meal time

This is where we eat on a straw mat on the floor. They don’t have a table. My sister and I are eating breakfast. We usually have rice. I always ask for soy sauce like this, “som duk see ewou.” When we are eating the cat comes in. I think the cat is cute, but I’m not supposed to play with him when I’m eating. They have different foods like jack fruit. My mom really likes it. I have a loose tooth. When you loose your tooth in Cambodia you throw it on the roof, so the new one will grow in straight. I know the tooth fairy can find me with a jet-powered vehicle.

I miss you all. I am coming home to Colorado soon.



We’re Making Briquettes!

January 11, 2008 By: Kari Category: 2008 January Trip, General 1 Comment →

Chrauk Tiek Primary School, Cambodia. I just bought a deer. “Sat P’iam – (sweet meat), the cooks say. We’ll eat it over the next two days, hopefully before it spoils.The Kitchen It’s costing about $35 a day to feed everybody: 7 teachers, 5 community volunteers, our workshop team of 9 and the cook crew of neighbor ladies numbers 4 or 5. The School Director’s wife, Sowin, heads the show, cooking 3 meals a day for about 25 people on three clay pot cook stoves and a small wooden chopping block on the floor of the 2 room, thatch roof dwelling she, Director So Bun, and their 2 year old daughter call home. No running water. No refrigerator. No electricity. It’s a bit like camping and a huge family reunion rolled into one. Keeping everyone well fed is key to our success. I’m deeply The cook crewappreciative of their efforts. Almost everyday someone from the community donates something to our crew. Yesterday it was a giant jackfruit, the day before that a black swan, and today the blind boy brought me boiled taro roots (a snack time treat served with sugar). So far, our intestinal tracks are taking it all fairly well. Only Grady, the native Cambodian in our family, has an upset stomach. It is just as likely due to dehydration or accidental intake of water from the river we bathe in daily. He’s also had some spiky fevers and I’m watching for symptoms of Dengue fever, an endemic disease that is spread by insects. Our 3 year old, Shanti, has finally accepted the fact that she has a nanny, and as long as she gets to swim in the river every day and take a nap in the hammock, she’s happy. She has even started to speak a little in Khmer.

The Briquette Training Facility full of actionAs soon as the first metal presses were completed, we began making briquettes. A core team of about 10 volunteers have been showing up daily to help with the workshop preparations. Sanu wanted to encourage their interest so we began production with sawdust waste collected freely from sawmills and carton paper bought from the scrap trader. The team was shown how to tear up the cardboard, soak it in water, pulp it with their feet and wooden hammers, and then add about 20% to the sawdust mixture. Thus 100 kilograms of sawdust requires 20 kg of paper to function as a binder in the compaction process. Once the Rolling the pressesmixture is complete, a little water is added to help fill the tubular dyes; with thin metal separations each dye can mold 3-4 briquettes in a single press. The press extracts the water. When the volunteers saw the products begin to roll easily and quickly off the production line, the usefulness of this technology became clear. Within a day 4 families have asked if they can buy a press for their home, and the monks want one for the forest pagoda. We’ve told them they must complete the workshop first. As a certified briquette producer, they can buy a press and set up their own business, or work for us and become a trainer. The good news is that we have over 40 participants signed up for the three day workshop starting January 12th. I can never be sure, but I think that being here for an extended time, requiring volunteerism and community contributions is creating the personal investment and ownership we are hoping to build.

High quality saw dust readily availableSadly, we have an abundance of illegal sawmill operations. Since the sawdust piles are evidence of law-breaking activities (extracting bribes rather than repercussions), the wood cutters are keen to get rid of it. Our raw material collection team was distressed when they discovered some sawmills burning their debris. Apparently a rumor spread about law enforcement in the area due to the foreigners’ presence at the school. I’m not too worried, Sok Sarith says there is about 100 thousand tons of sawdust; we are using his decrepit 1987 pickup for collection. More importantly, we need a place to store the stuff.

A severe monsoon rainstorm yesterday afternoon presented the next obstacle – keeping the finished briquettes dry. Briquettes are dried in the sun and must remain dry until use. Our thin plastic coverings offered cheap protection to our 2 days work. The weather presents an expense I hadn’t considered, how to store and transport them without being damaged by moisture in a monsoon climate? Oh yeah, that.Briquettes drying

If that wasn’t enough to frustrate the project, our music teacher quit. Rather, his family made him quit, because at 84 years old, his health is failing day by day. As much as he loves teaching the kids, he just can’t work anymore. Until we can find a replacement, our Briquette Project Manager will be the substitute teacher for the after school class. His grandson is the blind boy, Reat, who has an excellent ear for music. Sanu has offered to buy the boy his own Ronet (xylophone) so he can practice at home and become a master musician, and I have invited him into the English class. He picks up the language very quickly. We are hoping that with music mastery and some English, he’ll be equipped with the skills for a decent life. He’s twelve. Before we started the music class, he’d never been to school. Needless to say, the other students make fun of him and we’ve had to reprimand some kids and teach them about kindness. Grady has discovered that not all kids have “IB” attitudes, and you can’t discuss your feelings with people who don’t speak your language. When I wax philosophical, I think it is a good lesson for him, even though the misunderstandings have brought tears.

Kari leading morning yogaA week of sleeping on a wood plank bed has made me stiff and my early morning yoga stretches outside my room landed me job. The school director asked me to teach the students how to exercise. In the morning after pledge of allegiance and morning prayer, the kids go to the soccer field for a poor excuse for physical education. A militant series of basic postures with little movement: arms up, one foot forward, arms down, other foot forward, swing side to side, a lot of slapping your hands against your legs. It didn’t raise my heart rate one beat.Cambodian high jump

Now we’re doing Yoga together. The stretches bring huge smiles. When I taught them how to do jumping jacks, the squeals of delight lit up the school yard, reminding us all why we are here.

We Need a Library Room – Please Help

January 07, 2008 By: karig2 Category: 2008 January Trip, General 1 Comment →

Chrauk Tiek Primary School, Cambodia.   Today is a national holiday, Chey Chom Nas Prom Bei Makara, Victory Day (when the Vietnamese Army freed Cambodia from the grip of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979).  There is no school.  The rice harvest is not yet finished and many families sleep in the rice fields to protect their crops from thieves.  The students spent the holiday working; I spent the day cleaning the library.  

Computer- and English-roomWe have a 5-classroom building for 6 grade levels teaching more than 400 students, but one room is divided in half by library shelves for multi-use: half computer-and English-class and half library/store room/music room/principle’s office.  We have serious space problem.  I dream of building another 5 room cement structure for additional classrooms but the immediate needs require a solution – if even a temporary one.   

How are the students supposed to enjoy reading time in the library if they can’t find Library roomthe books?   They are stacked in cramped piles on rattan shelves and covered in dust because the director wants them to remain flat.  You have to step over musical instruments to get to them.  School and art supplies are in a locked cabinet and the pieces to puzzles and learning games in complete disarray.  It took two days to organize. While I was working, two boys played legos with my son Grady, a group of girls worked puzzles, and a girl named Neat read books quietly to herself.  This is how it should be: time and space to read.   To encourage them, we need to dedicate a building and a librarian.

School director Ngim So Bun and his family live in a shack on the school premises now, and as luck would have it, he is willing Future library and music roomto sell us his former home for $2,000.   We went to look at it in the poor Souy village called Ca Peou.   It is made of sturdy hardwood beams and planks with a good tin roof, big enough for two classrooms to house the library/reading room and the musical class.  The price includes the carpentry work to disassemble and move it to the school grounds where it will be reassembled on our private property behind the school building.  The school director and school-supporting committee will donate the cement foundation.  We need a donor. If anyone would like to donate the library building we’d be happy to put your name on it.   Please contact us by email, or click the Network For Good button to make a contribution by credit card.

When we do finally build another cement building, we should convert the wooden building into a medical clinic.  Since my arrival, people have been coming to me daily with every medical condition under the sun.  I’ve been administering care as best I can with no medical background and a very limited supply of over the counter medications.  I don’t even know what to do with the few donated prescription medications I have.   There seems to be a chronic case of fevers among the population, heart disease, arthritis, asthma, gastro-intestinal disease, and toothaches – just to name a few of the things I have treated.    Sanu told me about several international organizations that donate prescription medications and birth control for free; we just need a nurse to diagnose and dispense.  A doctor visit is a long, bumpy, expensive bus ride away, so people just use natural home remedies and put up with conditions most of us would consider unthinkable.  Getting a doctor or nurse to work here is nearly impossible because of the living conditions and the limited supply of professionals in the entire country.   They simply don’t want to work in the rural area.   The best solution would be to educate one of the local girls to be a nurse because she is obligated to live here and care for her parents.  If anyone would like to donate a scholarship to educate one girl to nursing school, please email us or click on the Network For Good button.  This is a critical need in this community as medical care is completely non-existent.  I administered to a 14-year-old student this morning who has had high fevers for 6 days; I’m not sure if it is Malaria, Dengue, or something bacterial. She may die for lack of medicine.   We also have one blind student who is 12 years old, and one 9-year-old who limps for lack of a kneecap.  We are discussing what can me done to help them.

If you cannot help, but you know some one who can, please send them our contact information.   

The briquette making facility and preparations continue, I will write more about it tomorrow.

Network for Good - Friend of the Grady Grossman School