Be the Change Network

aka "Kari's Blog"

Archive for March, 2012

Bun Thoeun’s Story

March 28, 2012 By: Kari Category: 2012 March Trip, General No Comments →

March 28, 2012—Chrauk Tiek Village, Cambodia

The school is such a happy and well functioning place, I can forget how miserable some of our students lives really are.  I’ve set out to make video recordings of some of their lives.

Bun Thoeun

Bun Thoeun is 14-years-old and attending 4th grade in Chrauk Tiek. He ranks 3rd in the class and he wants to be a doctor. I followed him home today to see what his family situation is like.

He is a morning student which means that he comes to school for breakfast at 6am, class starts at 7 and his school day is over at 11am. Different students study in the afternoon. He likes school very much because it’s fun and he likes to learn. He will work the rest of the day to support his family.

Bun Thoeun lives in the village of Po Meas and his walk home from school takes about 45 minutes. He turns off the dusty lane and continues down a cow path a half kilometer into the jungle to his family home. His parents have just returned from the forest with sticks to make charcoal. They are charcoal makers who earn about $7.50 per month to support their family of four.  They have six children total but only two live at home. His parents actually had ten children but four of them died of disease, his mother tells me. She is still traumatized that two of them died on the same day,  the 4-year-old in the morning and the 8-year-old in the afternoon.

Bun Thoeun shows us around his home. His parents hunt for sticks on foot because their oxcart has a broken tire. The oxcart is their only means of transportation and it will cost $30 to fix, a sum impossible for them to save. His brother is in the family kitchen getting ready to go to school for the afternoon class, eating a lunch of plain white rice stir fried with oil, no vegetables, no meat, no sauce. The family can only afford to eat meat and vegetables about 5 or 6 times per month. That is why Bun Thoeun looks like he’s about 8 years old, his body is small from malnutrition. The kitchen itself is a kind of ramshackle lean-to with two claypot cookers fueled by wood sticks and a few bits of thatch to provide cover from the rain. They have a cookpot, a frypan and a donated water filter. They must walk two kilometers to the river about to get water for cooking and drinking. One of  Bun Thoeun’s jobs is hauling the water buckets with a bamboo stick over his shoulder.

The main house has a torn thatch roof that leaks when it rains. It rains a lot in monsoon season which is just beginning. His little room is a kind of wooden stall tucked under the best part of the thatch. He sleeps on a straw mat with his brother on the floor. Below them the cattle are sheltered and fires lit to keep mosquitoes away. The entire roof is blackened by soot. There is no bathroom so the entire family uses the bushes everyday.


After quickly eating a lunch of plain white rice, Bun Thoeun starts his afternoon chore. Since the family can’t afford a fence or land to pasture their two cows, he must walk them for two hours so they can forage for food. Once the cows are fed, he’ll go to the river to bathe and haul back water. He never brushes his teeth because he doesn’t have a toothbrush. He doesn’t play because he doesn’t have toys. That’s why he likes school, there he can play with his friends and make up games using rubber bands, rocks and flip flops.

Bun Thoeun does his homework after dinner, around 7pm, using a candle to see because, of course, there is no electricity. Honestly, his home looks more like a barn to me. His parents will never make progress if they can’t afford to fix their oxcart. They want him to stay in school but I’m afraid the situation will become so desperate that he will be forced to drop out. I can’t let that happen for lack of a $30 tire. I sent Kong with Bun Thoeun’s parents to go purchase a new one.


Celebrating Success

March 27, 2012 By: Kari Category: 2012 March Trip, General No Comments →

March 27, 2012—Chrauk Tiek Village, Cambodia

118 people showed up for the school supporting committee meeting—WOW! It used to be like pulling teeth to get 6 or 7 villagers to show up. Many familiar faces greet me, some bring fruits from their farm, another gives me a goose and another homemade sour soup. I feel a little guilty that people with so little to eat are giving me food, yet I know it’s an important part of the process, a way for them to initiate their relationship with me.

Sobun cranks up the generator so Paul and I can start the meeting with video of the school 11 years ago, when 50 children studied in the dirt, sitting on logs under a thatch roof with holes. The parents remember those days, recognizing the children in the video who are all grown up now. Unfortunately, we didn’t grow as fast as they did, all of them dropped out after 6th grade and got married. Several have children of their own now. We’ve come a long, long way since then. Together we can celebrate success!

The education department held a competition for teachers to display their teaching techniques. Out of 24 schools two of our teachers ranked #1 and #2. Fifth grade teacher Vichet and first grade teacher Vannik receive applause from the community. Overall the whole school ranked #1—AGAIN!! As the model school, our teachers are sought after to advise others across multiple districts.

The sewing teacher and her 5 students received applause for nearing completion of the first course, producing 5 new skilled women in the community. The sewing teacher, Sowin, the principal’s wife, only has a 6th grade education herself. Already 3 new students have signed up for the next term.

We already have 15 more applicants for high school scholarships next year. Everyone is excited that they will come back to serve the community like Kong. We are three years away from having the next cohort of four graduates return. Once they do,  progress will speed up. The parents finally see the result. If they encourage their children to stay in school, its worth it. The villagers can see why  the kids LOVE school. It’s is the cleanest, safest, most attractive and child friendly place for 100 miles.

Our school success logic model visually helps the villagers understand their role. The critical piece is the relationship between the principal and the community. Principals across Cambodia are distrusted, a major reason for the lack of community involvement. Principals, typically low paid, corrupt government employees, really can’t help the way the system works, the way the culture works but we’re here to change that. Under Paul’s guidance, principal Sobun has made great progress on both honesty and transparency.

We ask the villagers to evaluate the principal. Sobun was actually really cool about it. He said he wanted the feedback. So, for the first time 118 illiterate villagers evaluated the trustworthiness of a government employee.

We gave everyone 10 beans, drew the word and picture for TRUST on paper and asked everyone to place beans on the circle to represent their feeling about the principal on a scale of 1-10. He scored 50% which is better than I expected but definitely needs improvement. To gain their trust they asked for transparency and communication. He needs to be  open and honest about the money from all sources and what it is spent on. The community decided to elect a member from each village to report the financial information back to each village.

Then it was time to evaluate the community. They told the principal what he needs to do but what do they need to do? If the children are going to succeed in finishing 9th grade, or get into the scholarship program, we need their help at the secondary school down the road at Bonteay Pranak. The same school success model will work there, if we can get more community support and a better principal. The Chrauk Tiek villages agreed to help their neighbors learn how to get involved.

The meeting ended with entertainment from the music class. Our 89-year-old music teacher helped the kids prepare a comedic play with a serious message. Their hilarious performance drew a huge crowd of students and parents around them. The message got across—don’t fight, don’t beat each other, violence is not a way to live. The performance was so good that someone hired them on the spot for a wedding next month. It’s their second $100 gig of the wedding season. Enough to pay their teacher.


The Clowns

Back Among My People

March 26, 2012 By: Kari Category: 2012 March Trip, General No Comments →

March 25, 2012—Chrauk Tiek Village, Cambodia

My arrival in Chrauk Tiek is a major town happening.  I open the van door to throng of children vying to touch me first. Hard to believe they used to be scared of me. Now, beautiful bright smiles meet my own, reflecting a palpable joy in the air. Maybe we’re all equally amazed at how well everything has worked out. A success so rare that it feels quite magical. I remember how miserable this place used to be. I can’t believe I’ve lasted 11 years.  The only true talent I bring to this project is my stubborn unwillingness to give up. This community may not need me much longer.

The female teachers greet me with a handmade necklace of flowers. Sokha, whom I call young sister, places one around my neck with a giggle. Sobun, the school principal, is smiling from ear to ear. His wife hugs me. They are my old friends, family in a way. One by one each scholarship student’s parent arrives to greet me with whatever food they have to offer. I’ve been in town less that an hour and I’ve been given 2 chickens, 5 coconuts, 2 jackfruits, and about 20 kilos of ripe mango.

My heart is bursting with pride, I can’t believe the tangible result I am seeing. Especially Kong, the first college graduate in this town, is admired and respected. He is humble in his work serving the community and everyone now believes in the power of education. They get it. It’s real. Change is no longer based on hope. It’s here.

Phnom Penh Happenings

March 23, 2012 By: Kari Category: 2012 March Trip, General No Comments →

The scholarship students greeted me with love notes written on balloons and a big welcome back sign in the leadership house. Gratitude, from teenagers, imagine that?

It’s good to be back with the SSI A-team, Paul and Kong, who are working wonders on every level of the program.  We jump right into debate and discussion to establish a definition of success. Everyone agrees that if we focus on one district and get all 7 schools operating to capacity and locally sustained, we should be able to achieve 90% graduation from 9th grade. The trick is to make sure students leave 9th grade with a viable life skill since high school will not be an option for most.

We decided to develop the SSI Leadership Academy in Phnom Penh in order to accommodate the growing number of scholarship students who want to attend high school and college. They are our work force development team. To fund the Leadership Academy we aim to start an “American Standard English School” staffed by good quality American teachers. If we can get good teachers to come here and work for a year, we can charge the rich kids in the city a premium price for English instruction and use the income to support the poor rural kids who will go back and work in our villages.   I like the Robin Hood nature of the strategy.

If there is anyone out there who would like to spend a year in Cambodia teaching English, please contact me. It will be a paid position in Phnom Penh, housing included, with an optional volunteer assignment in the village schools.

It’s crazy hot and I’m sleepy from jet-lag. To fight the desire to fall asleep, we head to the river for a walk in the cool breeze blowing off the vast confluence of the Mekong and the Tonle Sap rivers. The King’s ancient residence marks this geographical center of the city in gaudy Christmas lights. The scholarship kids rarely do anything but study so a field trip in tuk tuk to the tourist side of town is a special treat. We passed up the bug seller’s offer of  fried tarantula and headed for the “Kari” restaurant. Unfortunately the Kari didn’t sell pizza, so I just took a picture of my namesake and headed across the street to Happiness Pizza. I’ve corrupted these pure Khmer rice-eating village kids who look forward to a pizza excursion every time I come. It makes them happy (without the special ingredient that caters to tourists who like to order it “happy”).


Also found a new coffee shop with rip-off branding of Starbuck’s, called The Terrace. The coffee is from real beans, not instant Nescafe, and the place is quiet and air-conditioned. A 60 minute foot massage is available for $3 across the street. If we want to keep our English teachers happy, we’ll find a location near here.

Follow Kari in Cambodia

March 20, 2012 By: Kari Category: 2012 March Trip, General No Comments →

The great thing about a long haul flight to Asia is that I get to catch up on my pop culture.  I watched my first episode of Glee on the airplane TV to get in touch with the culture I’m leaving behind, rushing jet speed backwards in time to rural Cambodia where people still get around by oxcart. A single DC car battery powers one TV for the whole village to watch badly dubbed Chinese Kung Fu movies.

Making my usual preparations for this trip in the pharmacy section of King Sooper’s grocery store, I was reminded again why I am  leaving my beautiful children and my comfy life in Colorado to visit the hot outback of Cambodia. I spent an inordinate amount of time picking out band-aids.

Legs lacerated by rusty bike chains leave chunks of flesh festering with infection on an eight year old for lack of a band-aid at our schools in Cambodia. My mind spins with the overwhelming choice in the band-aid section of my grocery store: big, small, finger, butterfly, sheer, waterproof, assorted, aloe coated, cartoon characters – which will make my ouwie better? It’s time to go back to Cambodia, where choices matter.

I find it beyond ridiculous that we have so much, too much choice, and that the kids in Cambodia have nothing, not even basic health care. Not even peroxide to keep that bike chain wound from infection. Never mind that they can’t get a bike their size to prevent the mishaps in the first place. One rusty old bike might be their families only means of transport and the fact they get to use it to go to school is a blessing.

This imbalance between our world and theirs really bothers me. That’s why I’m going back, again, to try to make it right.  Somewhere.

I’m more at peace with the SSI mission than I’ve ever been. Maybe its because we are making incredible progress at the new schools thanks to Paul Chuk and Sem Kong, the utterly capable SSI staff in Cambodia. We had our strategy sessions last August in Fort Collins and the boys have been running with it. This trip is an implementation reality check. For the first time, there is a light at the end of the sustainability tunnel. To find out what that means you’ll have to keep reading this blog, or the SSI Facebook page, or the tweets.  I’ve entered the tweetmosphere. Perhaps all this electronic gadgetry will help me get the kids the attention they deserve…until the power runs out that is.

Here’s what we’ll be working on:

1)  Bonteay Pranak Secondary School. They’ve come a long way in a short time, now we need to envision life skills training and business to support it. Most kids won’t go beyond 9th grade, they need to leave here skilled.
2)  SSI Leadership Academy. The future of our High School/College scholarship program, a pipeline to keep sending more skilled human resources back to the village.
3)  Community Prosper Bank. This little invention is the SSI flagship sustainability project, how effective is it and what is its potential for growth and scale?
4) Student stories. To add to our ever growing collection of videos and narratives that keep it real for the US students who participate in the Make Change Matter service learning program

A lot of work. I’m tired just thinking about it. Follow along here to see how it all works out.  There’s bound to be some drama.

And if you’re a tweeter, follow me: @Karig2
I’m learning tweet-speak on the fly.