Be the Change Network

aka "Kari's Blog"

Archive for February, 2009

Education, Leadership and Sustainability

February 17, 2009 By: Kari Category: 2009 February Trip, General No Comments →

February 14th, 2009 – Chrauk Tiek Village, Cambodia

My three day meeting with the School Supporting Committee went very well. The three keys to our model are Education, Leadership and Sustainability. We spent a day on each topic. Though the communication is a challenge at times, Yoen’s skill at facilitating discussion through asking questions rather than telling people what to do is getting better. It was kind of nice that school was off for two days for a Buddhist holiday, so we could use a classroom, chalkboard and focus our time.

Day 1 we discussed the Education Program. We asked the committee to envision the future, what do they want their village to look like? We asked questions like, what do you think will make the best school? The blank stares indicated that the ability to even conceive of a future is a stretch. It is hard for them to think beyond food necessities for the next day. It is also hard for them to believe that if they do step out on a limb and dream, that the support to achieve that dream will be there. That is why we make a 10 year commitment to sustainability. Together we established the needs of the Education program, teachers salaries for Khmer, English, Library and Music, scholarship needs and school supply needs. We established a budget for the Education Program and agreed to fund it for 5 years under this schedule: 100% for the first 2 years, 75% in year 3, 50% in year 4, 25% in year 5. The committee will fund the Education 100% starting in year 6, while SSI continues in an advisory role for another 5 years. We are trying to work ourselves out of a job.

Our goal is to empower the community to support their own school and to make their education system accountable to the local community needs. So the question is, how will they generate the income to pay for the Education program by year 6?

Day 2 we discussed Leadership. We asked questions such as, what makes a good leader? Heated discussion about the meaning of Trust, Respect, Honesty, Duty and Transparency ensued and ultimately we ended up with a list of Core Values to guide participation on the committee. To make the point clear, I told them that Cambodia has a terrible government that is not accountable to its people, if you want that to change you have to start here. You can’t change the people who are oppressing you but you can change yourself. The kind of leadership that you show running this school is what these 500 children will learn about leadership. If you show good leadership, then when they grow up they will know the difference, and that generation may make the bigger change in the government. I told the story of America’s journey from Martin Luther King to Barrack Obama. Cambodia needs it’s Gandhi, who knows if one of our students will be that person. We all agreed we would have grey hair by the time this is finished, but I said it would be worth it because the children will have better jobs and be able to care for us in our old age.

Day 3 the children were back in school and we squished into the small space of the English/computer class to discuss Sustainability and money. We explained the framework of having a Vision and a Goal, of building Consensus, and of creating a Plan of Action. In order to access the money in our sustainability budget for projects to support the Education program, they will work with Yoen to create a Plan of Action proposal complete with a budget. Each budget must include a 10% community contribution in time, materials or money. I drew 3 circles on the board and explained how to analyze a project in terms of whether it is positive or negative for the Environment, Economy and Society – where the 3 circles overlap is Sustainability. I was surprised to see how much interest the committee showed in truly understanding this concept. In the end they decided to focus their goal on #1 That All Students can achieve a high school education. We currently have 2 attending High School out of a potential 500. This is going to be a long journey.

But I have great faith because of the progress I have seen so far. The Grady Grossman School is like this little island of vibrancy and joy in an ocean of miserable poverty and environmental destruction. The teachers are using more animated teaching methods and kids are out of their seat and solving problems more. We are achieving outstanding attendance records, with nearly 500 attending, by comparison, neighboring schools of similar population have less than 200 and classrooms are closed most of the time. The teachers really appreciate our support, and I like the fact that they are becoming more accountable to the local community.

We have a new English teacher and new Khmer early reader phonics books coming, plus a volunteer American expat working on teacher training for these tools. She may also be able to email us directly from the school with our GPRS phone. More to come my meetings with the women in each village and the future of the Smart Choice Fuel briquette program….stay tuned.

Ly Vid, A Brave Boy

February 14, 2009 By: Kari Category: 2009 February Trip No Comments →

February 9th, 2009 – Chrauk Tiek Village, Cambodia

Ly Vid is a 7 year old in the first grade at the Grady Grossman School. About a month ago he was sleeping in his family hut at the nearby village of Po Meas and got up to pee in the night. A poisonous snake bit his leg. He was rushed 2 hours on the back of a neighbors motobike to a hospital in Kampong Speu where his leg was amputated just above the knee. This was apparently the only solution to keep the venom from reaching his heart.

I met Ly Vid on the first day at school when his father came to ask for help getting his son to school. His older brother cannot carry him on his back the 1.5 kilometers. The family has no means of transportation. I gave Ly Vid a bicycle so his brother can ride him to school each day. I asked his dad to rig up a basket to the back rack so this darling, bright-eyed boy would be safe. Ly Vid flashed me his dimpled smile and showed me his new crutch.

I met up with Ly Vid later in the newly painted library where teacher Ya was instructing the first grade class how to make their Khmer letters. After each student draws their letter on their slate, they raise it proudly to show the teacher. After the lesson, I was moved to tears at the joy the children express while playing with the toys and books in the library, especially the Legos and K’Nex!! Ly Vid and his friends were deeply engaged in their creations and their Khmer letters closely resembled the real thing.

When I visited Ly Vid’s parents at their home, I realized how poor they are, subsistence fisherman with a tiny thatch hut surviving on a small plot of land that was given to them by a widowed woman on our school supporting committee called Long Sum. They came here to catch fish and snails in nearby Peam Levia lake after they were evicted from their former home near the provincial town by the government. Land grabbing and selling it off to private companies happens all over Cambodia, and some refugees are making their way to Chrauk Tiek to start over with nothing. For Ly Vid’s family the bicycle is a new beginning.

His family allowed me to take pictures of them and their home. The parents do their best to catch enough food to survive each day. Ly Vid is skinny but clearly loved. He showed me the white scare of his stump where the still fresh stitches are already beginning to stretch because of the growth of his bone behind it. It hurts most of the time but he still smiles. Because he is a growing child and his bone will continue to grow through the skin, he will need multiple amputations of the bone until he stops growing. He and his family accept this with little dismay. He is so very brave. I asked Ly Vid what he would like to be when he grows up and he said “A Doctor.” I will do everything in my power to make that dream come true.

The 3 day meeting with the school supporting committee goes well….stay tuned.

Where in the world is the globe?

February 11, 2009 By: Kari Category: 2009 February Trip 3 Comments →

February, 7th 2009 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The last time I saw Sokea, he was sitting in the outside his parents cottage with his head down and a foot kicking the dirt, wishing he could continue to go to school. He couldn’t look me in the eye. When I told him we had a boarding house in Phnom Penh who would take him if he wanted to attend high school in the big city, he practically cried. When I met him at high school today he was bright eyed and smiling, looked me directly in the eye and spoke in English, “Hello, how are you Madame?” He is happy and proud to be the first in his village to go to high school. He is also a dedicated student our boarding house partner, Sam Sunduoen, tells me.

Sunduoen runs an amazing operation with 45 students from the rural provinces living with him to attend High School and University. Each student must work one hour per day to care for the many gardens and animals that sustain the dormitory, one of the chores is making briquettes! Sunduoen runs a tight ship. The students rise at 5 am to meet and organize the chores, each day a different student is the team leader. They eat promptly at 6 am, 11:30 am and 6 pm, attending school the hours in between. Work is typically done after lunch before returning to school for the afternoon classes. Everyone is required to drink 3 bottles of water per day and to listen to Radio Free Asia during the dinner hour. After dark they gather for evening tutoring sessions given by the best students in English, Math and Computer. The one house computer is old and slow, I want to contribute a new one. Sokea tells me he loves Math. Sunduoen says he is so happy that our partnership helps him to find the very bright but poor rural students. He is especially interested to help girls and minorities, and we are all annoyed that Kim Sarim, our second high school scholarship student from the Souy hilltribe minority, has not started school yet because we are still waiting for the provincial education department to issue his secondary school certificate – it’s been 9 months already! Obviously, I am going to have to get this done myself.

We met Sunduoen because he was interested in our briquettes to use at his 100% sustainable boarding house. His staff and students are using briquettes exclusively to cook, and each student dedicates 1 hour per week to making them. He says if he could figure out the secret to make them not cause smoke, he would be a millionaire. I was pleased to learn that the principal at the new high school where we will be enrolling the students next year is also interested to have his students learn the briquette technique. Sunduoen and Nao Ridthy, the principal at the Samdech Hun Sen High School in Phnom Penh Thmey are the kind of people we want to work with, men with a social conscience. The principle and I had a long talk about the disadvantaged students from the countryside and how to make sure that they are not forced to pay the teacher the customary bribes. His school even gives coupons for complimentary bicycle parking to the most poor students. We are all aware of how bad and corrupt the education system is, but I am pleased to see he has a pile of letters from other NGO’s who have enrolled students with him because of his honest treatment of the poor. I look forward to Sokea and Kim Sarim enrolling at his school.

I visited Sokea at his present high school earlier in the day. It was a crazy busy place with more than 4,000 students in 6 cement block 3 story buildings. His class had 66 students squished onto 6 rows of desks. They were studying geography, so I told the class I’d give a dollar to anyone who could show me where Colorado is located. It may have been easier if they had either a map or a globe or at least a book, none of which were present. The system works something like this, all the information is stored in the teachers head, and if you don’t pay the teacher, he or she doesn’t give it to you. I met with the principal who pretty much confirmed the system but told me if we supply the names of the kids we support he would be sure they were exempt from the practice. Pathetic. I did not like this principal and I am glad Sundoeun will be moving the students to Samdech Hun Sen High School soon.

In the absence of a map, I posed an easier question to the geography class, “Who is the president of the United States?” Gasps and smiles and lots of hands raised. I picked a girl who perfectly and proudly pronounced Barack Obama. I asked, “What’s special about Barack Obama?” “He has black skin,” she answered without skipping a beat. When I gave her the dollar, she asked me to sign it. All the students love Barack Obama, not for what he says but for what he symbolizes, black skin in this country is considered ugly and low class. To have the leader of the free world with dark skin seems to level the playing field for everyone. Now, if we could just get a globe into the geography classroom.

I wish that building a proper education system in Cambodia was as simple as outfitting proper school supplies. Not so, as my meeting at the Kampong Speu Provincial Education Department reveals. The first item of business is Kim Sarims secondary school certificate which miraculously appears before the end of the meeting. I had to come from halfway around the world to secure that. Then Yoen and I and the Provincial Deputy Chief of Education and 6 members of his staff discuss the situation in Aural, the region where the Grady Grossman School is located.

The group of education officials agreed that the schools in Aural District are difficult to operate because of the remote locations and marginalized populations; they basically haven’t got a clue what to do about it. Needless to say, asking the local populace for their input is not on the radar. Aural District has almost 10,000 students served by 25 primary schools, 3 secondary schools and 1 poorly funded high school. Our school at Chrauk Tiek is the only one with ongoing donor support and thus, better attendance records. The Aural District chief tells me that 80% of the schools have student retention problems. The drop out rate is 12% per year, which if you do the math works out to 20% complete primary, 10% secondary, and less than 5% high school. I told them our objective is to strengthen rural community support of their schools to increase student retention.

We agreed to regular communication mechanisms between SSI and the Education Department, and we will have letters of support for funding applications and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I said we’d like to expand the program to 2 schools in Aural District next year, and 2 more schools in the following year. They suggested the schools also built by foreign donors who “walked away,” two of them were built by the same organization that built the Grady Grossman School with our donation, and most of the others were donated by foreign NGOs or governments. The Deputy Chief asked me how many schools I intend to build. “None,” I told him, “we build the inside of the school, not the outside.”

I am worried about getting the funding in place to meet expected timetables. You simply can’t talk to people about doing something and then not do it for a year or 2…they just don’t get the time is takes to research, plan, apply, and receive funding to begin. Time is of the essence if we are to solidify their support. To many NGOs have promised things and left because of “no fund”. Hence the reason we are focusing our programs around long term sustainability. The current situation perpetuates powerlessness.

I’ll be meeting with our school supporting committee over the next 3 days to discuss their Vision for the future, but first I need to see the District Chief about getting a secondary school teacher fired….he’s been harassing our female teachers. We need to send a loud and clear message that this will not be tolerated.

Look out Wimbledon, here we come!

February 04, 2009 By: Kari Category: 2009 February Trip, General 1 Comment →

Phnom Pehn, Cambodia.

I’ve just landed in Phnom Penh and fighting off jet lag at the Almond Hotel. Need to get rest because tomorrow Yoen and I will hit the ground running with a whirlwind of work to be done over the next two weeks.

Tomorrow I’ll visit our scholarship students at the boarding house here in Phnom Penh to see how they are faring at high school in the big city. Next I’ll be meeting with some top education department officials to see how we can partner to help strengthen school support at the grassroots level for all the schools in our region.

On Saturday, I’ll be off to school to see the students at the Grady Grossman School, where we will begin a 3 day community mobilization and visioning process with the school supporting committee. I’m looking forward to creating an empowering partnership and to see where a sustainable approach will lead.

I am excited to see the new library, the interior was recently painted with cartoon characters and vibrant children’s colors by students visiting from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. A big thank you to them and their professor Nancy Janus who led the trip to examine the “rebuilding of Cambodia”  through service projects.  We expect the happy environment will attract more students to read. Very cool.

One of her Japanese students brought a tennis set and taught the children to play. Look out Wimbledon, here we come!

You will all get Sustainable Schools International T-shirts and stars for service!