Be the Change Network

aka "Kari's Blog"

Help Share our Student’s video!

August 27, 2014 By: karig2 Category: General

Visit with School Girls

July 14, 2014 By: karig2 Category: General

In preparation for this trip, Shanti had been talking about how to help other kids in India. We looked at different programs for the underprivileged and settled on the idea of supporting education, especially for girls. In many poor Indian families, girls education is still discriminated against. As it happens the orphanage that cared for Shanti in her first two years, Vatsalya Charitable Trust, now has an outreach program helping girls from low income families who are vulnerable to dropping out to stay in school through high school graduation through education sponsorship.

Shanti turned 10 in April. For her birthday party, she invited her entire 4th grade class to a performance of her Bharatnatyum dance troupe, having worked for months on a dance called Shabdum, a new and complicated number that tells the story of a mischievous little Krishna stealing butter from his mother. She asked everyone to give money instead of presents and with over 70 people in attendance, she raised over $1,000.

Each girl’s education sponsorship costs about 6,000 rupees or about $100 per year, now here we were meeting the girls who would benefit from her efforts. Mary Paul, the directress of VCT, had arranged for a group of girls from the convent school where the sponsor recipients attend to visit us. We expected to meet 10 girls and were surprised to find more that 30 of them seated and waiting for us on the rooftop patio of VCT.

The school girls began the program, first the 8th grade in their yellow and white uniforms, then the 9th grade in their blue and white, each singing what seemed like a prayer in the Karnatic language. A group of older girls dressed in colorful kurtas followed with an upbeat bangra style dance.

Then it was Shanti’s turned to share. We attempted to explained who we are, where we come from and how she had raised money to support their education. I’m not sure everyone understood, the white mom and Indian daughter was certainly a novelty. Yet, the video of Shanti dancing two Bharatanyum numbers on the screen held everyone’s attention. None of the girls had ever studied the ancient classical dance but they all knew what it was and were impressed. Where had she learned in it America? We explained that we had an Indian dance teacher who had graduated from the University of Varanasi, famed for its Bharatnatyum performers. We feel fortunate that one of them landed in Fort Collins, Colorado, not only because Shanti can learn the dance but it connects us to her Indian heritage and to our local Indian community. Her troupe often performs for the celebration of Indian festivals held by the Indian Association of Northern Colorado.

Mary Paul asked Shanti to teach the girls a few steps. She wasn’t quite prepared for that surprising request but rose to the occasion, teaching the first series of arduous and mudras (foot and hand gestures) that begin Shubdam. That totally broke the ice. Once we were finished the conversation began.

Some girls came up and asked Shanti questions formally but most were too shy for that. Once we ended the program though, the girls immediately grouped around all the members of our Holt Heritage tour, each of whom had an Indian adoptee in their family, and began asking many questions. I was most impressed with their confidence. They stuck out their hands, introduced themselves and wanted to know everything. There were girls who wanted to be teachers and doctors, policewomen and TV anchors. I was pleased to see that they had been exposed to many options, believed in themselves, and were taught to make the most of an opportunity like this one. Every one in our group was touched and impressed by their ambitions.

Many of them signed their name to Shanti’s list of girls who want to correspond, even though none of them have email. Mary Paul told us she would speak with the convent school director, the only person with access to the internet, about setting something up to keep in touch. Since Shanti has to do an exhibition project in order to complete the primary years program at her IB school next year before entering middle school, we’re hoping this will provide a bridge between her class and the girls so everyone can learn the importance of giving girls in a sexist culture a chance to shine in their own right.

Our Day with Mala

July 11, 2014 By: karig2 Category: General

We’ve talked about her since the day we came home. Mala. The lady in the picture holding a baby girl with the name Charu printed on a post-it stuck to her chest. The first picture. The lady in the bright blue sari who walked with a little girl in a bright red dress and squeaky shoes as we turned the corner toward VCT. The first time we saw Charu. The lady in the video in her little house with the green walls where Charu lay sleeping in a hammock hung from the ceiling when we came for her. The lady who bathed and dressed and fed her to get ready for departure. The lady who took her to all the friends and neighbors in the narrow alleyway to say goodbye. The lady who put her in my arms and cried as the car door closed. I cried too. We drove away to life in America where the little girl became Shanti, our daughter.

The video of this moment saw us all through the tough transition of a toddler adoption. Charu had been with Mala for 19 months of her first two years. The moment Mala said goodbye and gave Charu permission to let her go is the loving and selfless act of a foster mother. I imagined Mala grieving when we left. I know that Shanti did. That video saw a toddler through her grief, I often wondered what helped Mala. I now know it was the hope that she might see Charu again someday.

This trip is about finding Mala. Shanti is now 10, the age when we always promised her we would go back to India. The inaugural Holt Heritage Tour gave us this opportunity.

When we walked into VCT we were greeted by the warm director Mary Paul and spent the afternoon in her office, just as we had 8years ago, when our 14-year-old son Grady was just 5 and trying to get his new baby sister in the red dress to play with him. Both of our kids quickly connected with Mary Paul, even as we looked through ” the file” and asked our questions. There was nothing there we didn’t already know, which isn’t much, about where Charu came from. When Mala walked in the room, that no longer mattered.

Shanti wasn’t sure what to make of her, she has no first hand memories, only the video and our stories to connect her to this woman. But Mala was clearly thrilled to see Charu, she squeezed her tight and held her face and kissed it. She pulled her husband into the room too and while Shanti had no memory of Apa, he rubbed her arms up and down as if to test if it was really Charu. He loved her too. The visit wasn’t long as Mala and her husband only had a short break from work but she invited us to her house the next day, when they both had requested the whole day off special for our visit.

Mala still lived in the little house in the video. The front entrance adorned with rangooli sand painting. She’s a devout Hindu. We walked in and I pointed to the hammock hanging in the same corner, telling Shanti,” that’s it, that’s the spot where you were sleeping when we came to get you.” Shanti smiled, “really?”

We spent the whole day with Mala. She made us chapati, sambar, papad and potatoes, cooking up a storm in her small kitchen with her daughter-in-law, while neighbors and relatives stopped by to see Charu grown up. Mala had given us a few pictures from Shanti’s first birthday party and now here was one of the girls, maybe 5 in that birthday party picture, sitting next to Shanti in her long braids and blue and white school uniform, looking at photos on our laptop. Veronica is now in 8th grade. Shanti is in 5th.

Mala piled second and third helpings on our plates, never flinching at our protests. The last course was curd rice. I remembered that’s what Shanti wanted when she said “bua” in her first weeks with us when she didn’t know how to ask for food in English. Here was Mala, chatting while mixing the curds and rice with her hand on Shanti’s plate, adding a little water and salt because that’s the way she remembered Charu liked it. Shanti didn’t quite understand how she was showing her love.

Next came the videos and photos Shanti had stored on her laptop. Mala looked through them all, taking a special interest in Shanti’s Bharatnatyum dance performance. Mala shared the photo album of her son’s wedding from three years back. Then it was time for a ride on Apa’s motorbike. Both kids behind Apa, and their toddler grandson seated in front for a trip around the block. Apparently something Charu loved to do with Apa every evening after work. My husband George taking video of it all, just as he had the last time, for us it was like living her adoption moments all over again.

Mala brushed Shanti’s hair and set it into a beautiful french braid. Little by little Shanti settled into the reality that this was her place, her Indian family. She walked around the neighborhood and through the house and started to act like she belonged there. Her roots were talking hold, grounding her, she said she had no more questions. This was enough to fill the hole.

Mala had done it again, giving her exactly what she needed to thrive. The last time it had been fortnightly mud baths and standing in a bucket of sand in order to heal a weak hip that had labeled Charu “developmentally delayed.” Now, she’s a dancer and a volleyball player.

Mala asked when Shanti will come back again, saying “you always come see me, even when I am an old woman,” and gave her a long embrace. I squeezed her tight and when George hugged her, they both cried. Then the car door closed and just like last time we said goodbye with happy tears. Only this time we felt like family.


Volunteer Tom Conner Pays it Forward

June 25, 2014 By: karig2 Category: Cambodia Volunteer Program, General

It is time for me to offer some concluding thoughts on my experience at SSI. I leave in a few days’ time to return home. It has been a very good experience for me on the whole, though I was expecting to do more teaching. However, thanks to my conversations with Bruce and Paul, I have acquired a basic understanding of how SSI works. Moreover, we have discussed various initiatives that might help the organization to grow by generating new sources of revenue. In the end, it is as much about money as anything else. Good ideas will never get implemented without money and to continue the good work it does SSI needs to raise more money. Donations only go so far, which makes it necessary to contemplate other initiatives. For example, Bruce has a plan to create a “language café,” which will lead to the creation of a de facto language school. While the Language Café will generate income of its own, it will need funding to get started and to operate. So why not consider other projects that might generate the income necessary to stay in business and to expand?

Before checking out I thought I would take a stab at a few things a college professor like myself could do to contribute to the mission of SSI without expending too much time or effort.

A teacher like myself could easily put together a short-term trip to Cambodia and use SSI to coordinate the visit. SSI would host visitors much like they do today and arrange day trips and visits to points of interest in exchange for which they would be handsomely paid. Visits come in all flavors: study tours (I regularly teach a section on French Indochina in my French Civilization class and would love to take a group of students to Cambodia); service learning projects (SL is the new buzzword in higher ed and participants would teach either at the Academy or at the local high school); teacher education (students could come for a month or more and teach as part of their practicum and gain valuable intercultural competence); recent graduates of ESL programs could volunteer for a semester or longer in order to gain an edge on the job market (although the ESL business continues to grow, graduates are not finding good employment immediately and need additional teaching experience).

Further, professors could organize Skype partners for deserving students at SSI’s Leadership Academy from among their students and engage in fund raising on their campus. In addition, I don’t think it would be impossible for us to petition our administration to sponsor the occasional ESL student. Senior administrators everywhere are always talking about “community,” “compassion,” and “solidarity.” Let them put their money where their mouth is for a change! In this respect, my home institution, St. Norbert College, has been quite generous. For example, we have an ESL program like this for Vietnamese nuns (we are a Catholic college). If we were to receive an ESL student from the Academy, a homestay with an American family could easily be organized and would not cost anything. SSI can easily tap into the good will that exists on American campuses and among Americans in general; the volunteer spirit is still alive and well. Donating books or computers might prove too expensive due to the exorbitant fees charged by UPS and the non-existence of a functioning Cambodian post office, so donating money might be far more practical. Lastly, sponsoring a student or group of students in Cambodia need not cost more than $40 a month, according to the literature I have read. SSI is a very worthwhile and credible institution with a small but extraordinarily dedicated and competent core of hardworking officers.  When in doubt and unsure of what you can do, get out your check book! Even a small gift can make all the difference in the world.









Tom Conner

St. Norbert College

De Pere, WI



Volunteer Arrives in Chrauk Tiek Village

June 23, 2014 By: karig2 Category: Cambodia Volunteer Program

By Tom Conner, Chrauk Tiek Village, Cambodia

Several days have passed since my last blog. Since then, I have visited the SSI model school, the Grady Grossman School in the village of Chrauk Tiek, which is situated inside the Aural Wildlife Sanctuary, about three hours by van northwest of the capital of Phnom Penh. Apparently, road conditions have improved in just the last year or so, making the trip a lot easier than I had expected. Or else we were just lucky. Traffic can be a nightmare in Cambodia, though not as bad as in the Philippines, for example. Also, the weather gods have blessed us with clear skies. Rainy season is late this year, just like in Japan, which I visited last month to teach my summer class at our sister university outside Tokyo. What is it with the climate everywhere these days? But the good weather is a mixed blessing for some. Farmers have plowed their fields and are busy planting a variety of crops; they need the rain desperately.

I traveled together with the local SSI team consisting of Paul, Bruce, and Phearith. Our driver was unusually law abiding and, thankfully, seemed intent on getting his passengers to destination in one piece. Otherwise, driving in Cambodia can be adventurous, to say the least. I was riding “shotgun,” that is, in front, in the so-called “seat of death” and kept my eyes glued to the road as well on our driver. Cambodia has one of the worst traffic safety records in the world and I was in no mood to contribute to the gruesome statistics. For starters, why can’t the government impose a helmet law like in Vietnam. I was in Hanoi when the law went into effect a few years back and people complied without protest. Although motorbike taxis here usually have a helmet for a foreign customer and helmets are a common sight on roads in Phnom Penh, many Cambodians still resist the idea of protecting themselves. My vigilance during our trip up did not prevent me from enjoying the view, however. Cambodia is changing rapidly. New developments are going up everywhere and it seems they can’t build fast enough. As Bruce pointed out, Cambodia seems poised to “take off”  in a not too distant future. The National Geographic Guide to Cambodia proclaims: “The 21st century has served as a new dawn for the kingdom of Cambodia. With the scourge of war gone and economic investment flooding in, there is a palpable exuberance throughout the country. And as Cambodia grows integrated in the world economy, foreign visitors, ideas, and trends increase in influence” (14). But, for this economic miracle to happen, the government has to lead by example and set realistic goals that do not sacrifice the interests of ordinary people or the environment, for that matter. I am not sure that this kind of leadership exists today. All to often, the big companies, many of them multinationals, come in and lay down the law.

We arrive in the village and are greeted by a throng of curious students, boys and girls ranging in age from seven or eight to about sixteen. In many cases it is quite impossible to guess a student’s age; a young girl looks about eight or nine and turns out to be thirteen. Although the school enrolls students in grades one through six, children often matriculate at an older age because they have started late or dropped out for a year or more, which is why in one sixth grade class I visited there was a student as old as sixteen. We chat for a while with the students and then unpack our few belongings and settle in.

We are staying in two guesthouses on school grounds, at a distance of about one hundred yards behind the main building. Accommodations are spartan but perfectly adequate in my opinion, though I imagine many tourists would be unimpressed and rather frustrated by the lack of electricity and running water. But this is not your average tourist destination, either, and visitors from abroad who make the trek the whole way up here usually are mentally prepared and aware of the challenges involved. No thrills and no frills, but I am nevertheless pleased by my simple room with its mattress on the floor with a mosquito net draped over it. The veranda has a chair and a table where I can sit in the afternoon evening and contemplate the landscape. The surroundings are peaceful, almost serene. The Cardamom mountains rise majestically in the background. Mount Aural at just over one thousand meters high is the highest peak in Cambodia. Perhaps I will climb it one day, adding to my list of mountains climbed (all of them very modest, I hasten to add. I am not a hero and no one will find my frozen body at 7678 meters one year after I disappear).

When the sun sets it gets dark very, very fast. The generator is on a for a few hours in the early evening and helps us get our bearings in the dark. But we turn in early being quite tired after a long day on the road. I sleep soundly, and my sleep is interrupted only by the tireless loggers whose trucks lumber by on the newly constructed road that passes in front of the school. These guys won’t be happy until they cut down every last tree, I think to myself as I go back to sleep. What will happen to the rainwater then during rainy season when there are no longer any roots to absorb all that water? But no seems to think that far. At least they are planting trees and crops on the land, unlike in some places I have visited, Indonesia and Malaysia, for example, where the ravaged land lies obscenely bare, like an open wound (which is exactly what it is if you think about it).

In the afternoon I teach an English class to about twenty-five third graders. Students listen attentively and are exceedingly polite: when called upon, they rise to answer. However, most are unable to comprehend or at least respond to even basic phrases even though they have been studying the language for at least two years. I attribute this weakness to several circumstances, among them a lack of appropriate textbooks and an outdated teaching methodology. As a foreign language teacher myself back in the States, I was not exactly happy with what I saw in this classroom. Teaching seemed to consist mainly of rote memorization and studying basic vocabulary charts (animals, fish, trees, vegetables, etc.) I prefer to the so-called interactive method, which has students practice dialogues in class. Listen and repeat by all means, correcting students along the way to reinforce correct pronunciation, but then students must be prepared to implement what they have learned in real life situations. Phearith does some of that at the Academy in Phnom Penh, I am glad to report.  Unless students can use what they learn they don’t really know it, do they? Moreover, teachers should use the target language in class as much as possible and use Khmer only to explain difficult concepts of grammar. Give me just a month with these kids and I could make them proficient, I remember thinking to myself. I was very much impressed by the energy of students and by their positive attitude, which energizes and inspires me. Moreover, everyone seems to be having fun; the kids are smiling and eager to participate even though most are terribly shy. Before taking leave of the youngsters I try and impress upon them the need to master English and math. In any other country they would learn enough about computers on their own but not here, so I will add IT to that laundry list of must-study subjects.

Nothing I saw really surprised me that much. As I tried to explain to my travel companions, I have criss-crossed Cambodia many times and seen a lot, including a couple of schools in the countryside. And I have some perspective, my first visit dating back fifty years this year. But, thanks to my stay in Aural, I am able to better visualize what an average school day looks like for kids of very modest means whose parents make enormous sacrifices for their child to get an education. Instead of keeping their children  at home to help out on the family farm, for example, they send them to school to give them a better shot at a decent future. I am unclear of the graduation rate and how many continue on to junior and senior high school. A lucky few are recruited by SSI to continue high school or even university in PhnomPenh, where they are housed at the Leadership Academy.

The last night we are invited to have dinner at the home of Leadership Academy student’s parents. They have prepared a sumptuous meal for us: three courses and home grown rice. A real treat,  washed down with the local brew, the omnipresent Angkor beer. We sit in the dark outside on a table, the only light provided by a small lamp powered by an ancient-looking  generator. At the end of the evening, the father of another student, who has also been invited by our hosts, thanked us for coming and went on to say how much he appreciated the commitment of SSI and vowed to support his child until she graduated. “We insist that she do no work at home in order to give her the necessary time to do her homework and thereby get a head start in life, “ he revealed to us. This is the kind of commitment that is needed on the part of parents in this impoverished nation and contrasts with the ruthless stories we hear of parents who sell their young daughters to brothels. I was much moved and vowed then and there to make a real effort myself to improve the chances of these kids to have a shot at a decent life. There is a lot that someone like myself, a college professor of modest means, can do. More about that in my next and final blog.

Tom Conner

st. norbert college, de pere, wi