Saturday, January 7, 2012

Visiting the So O Choam School

Over two years ago, we got a bonus at Google, and some coworkers and I decided that we wanted to donate it. So we met a couple times, picked an organization, and sent them about $14000, which after Google matched it, became $28000. That organization was American Assistance for Cambodia, and that $28000 was more than enough to build a school in rural Cambodia.

Yesterday, Raph and I, along with Chamroeurn from AAfC, got to visit that school. Wow! There are 138 students who now have a place to study.

They had an opening ceremony with local officials and all the students. As one of the donors, I was asked to give a short speech. This was all a bit weird, but I guess for every school that AAfC opens, they hold an opening ceremony. This was the kind of thing I hated as a kid. I can't imagine it was fun for anyone. Well, at least it was kinda short.

But then we got to visit the classrooms and talk with the students. This was kind of awkward too (what do you ask a group of 40 9th-graders that you share no languages with?) but it was fun to just hang out with the students for a while. They seemed pretty enthusiastic. A lot friendlier and more eager than my friends and I in middle school. I got a sense that they saw this school as an opportunity, not just some dumb place they had to go.

9th grade

8th grade

7th grade

Some info about the school: it's a 7th-9th grade school, AKA "secondary." After the students finish, they can go to the high school, which is 30km away- a 40 minute drive, if you have a ride. They learn a bunch of subjects- Khmer, English, math, physics, chemistry, biology, history, and more I guess. Our money paid for the school's construction, while the teachers are paid by the Ministry of Education. (which means that the school won't stop running if the money we donated runs out.)

It's awesome that this school is here. It's way out in the sticks, 2 hours off the main road; if these students didn't have this school, I don't know how they'd get to another school. It's in the Samlot district, in the Battambang province. This was an area with a lot of fighting. When Chamroeurn asked the 8th grade class how many of their parents were (conscripted) Khmer Rouge soldiers, about 80% of the class raised their hands. This is a place that needed a school.

Some downsides: it's just 3 rooms. Few improvements, no electricity. When they asked what we should do with the extra money, we said "whatever you think is best for the school." Apparently, our lack of decision has led to the money sitting in the bank. But it's clear that the one thing that students and teachers both want most is computers, so I can ask AAfC to spend the money on computers and solar panels.

After visiting the classrooms, we took pictures and played games, as classes were over for the day. I only got about 2 hours total to spend there before we had to head back- it was about a 6-hour drive from Siem Reap, where we were staying and where Jay was recovering. But still, great to see that our money's gone to a great cause, and that they seem to be doing well.

Towards the end, the English teacher, even though he's the one doing the hard work and we just wrote some checks, approached me and said: "Thank you for giving me a school."

Lots more photos here (thanks to Raph!)


  1. This is amazing.
    What did you say in your speech?
    I'd love to hear details.
    What kinds of questions did the kids ask you?

  2. I said:
    - here are the names of the other donors: (list of names)
    - we found out about you (Cambodia schools) because a 13-year-old American girl visited Cambodia with her family once, she started raising money, friends told friends, my friend Tim at Google heard about it, and so he offered the suggestion when we were deciding where to donate our bonuses. Good deeds, even small ones by young people, can have big effects.

    (this is kind of trite, but it's a nice story, and seems at least not a harmful thing to speech about.)

  3. Inspiring.
    I enjoyed your observation about the perspective of the kids on their school, i.e. a way out or to a better life. They looked like your kids; I imagine many of them wanted to be just like you.
    I loved your speech; the fact that it was short means they loved it too. Some things are universal.
    Congratulations to you and your google friends. I don't know many 20 somethings who wouldn't just use their bonus for a big flat screen TV. You must be so proud; we are. Thanks Dan

  4. Yeah! Most people would just blow their bonuses on a TV. Or on a long vacation to exotic locales. Wait a minute... :D

  5. Yesterday, I met Nick for lunch at Bananna Blossom on W.27th. I had Panang Curry with tofu. It was great. Returning to the office, I stopped in Au Bon Pain to buy a cookie in an effort to alleviate my secretary's post-Holiday funk (to no apparent avail) and I run into Mr. T himself. Mr. T advises me that Jill and daughter have seen Margaret at BW that morning. During the afternoon we finalize plans to have dinner with Mr. T and Cat at Cafe Tandoor tonight. I may stray from my favorite Biryani w/ Paneer because I am inspired by your enthusiasm for Indian food. Will you teach me how to make a decent curry when you visit Cleveland? This afternoon, thanks to you, I am on a digital tour of India and Cambodia. It is wonderful how much information and commmunication can happen over thousands of miles, mountains, oceans and cultures. Your gift of a school is amazing. Will you stay in contact? I wonder if we will talk about anything else at dinner tonight. Thanks for the adventure. You are so far from home in such a small world. Thanks for making it better. Be safe. Happy trails. M.Riley

  6. Hey Cousin Dan! I enjoy reading your blog. It's nice to share on your blog and in speeches how important it is to give back and help others. I think education is always a good investment. The payoff is way better and lasts so much longer than using that bonus for other things. Very inspiring. Keep up the safe and fruitful travels. Wendy

  7. I'm so proud of you! Wow what a story. The pics are so cool, and I'm glad you got to see where the money went. You must have changed some lives.

  8. Hey Mr. Riley- good deal. Hope you enjoyed Cafe Tandoor. I'm always up for cooking some Indian food- whether I can make anything decent is open for debate. Not sure how much I'll stay in touch with the school, but it's good to at least meet them once anyway.

    Wendy- well put. That's one reason I like to donate to education-oriented places: it's a good investment. If this school has 138 students, and some of them become teachers and teach more students, etc, that's going to help people more than any one-time thing.

    Cheryl- thanks!

  9. It was my daugher Christina mentioned to Dan by Tim who at age 13 raised the money for a secondary school in Cambodia--much like the one in your lovely photos. Christina herself was inspired to do this by the story of yet another girl doing the same thing. Its becomes a chain of kindness which draws in many good-hearted people (adults & children, Americans & Cambodians) who pitch in together to make great things happen. For us personally, the direct connection to those kids & teachers in Cambodia was the best part.

    American Assistance for Cambodia is an amazing organiztion, doing incredible things in the areas of eduction & rural developement. They work on a shoestring and collaborate with their donors, authorities in Cambodia, and the local communities in Cambodia to make sure the projects are focused and successful.

  10. Hi David! Great to hear from you. Then it must have been you who took her to Cambodia in the first place, so you're a part of this chain too. Thanks for that!

    AAfC does seem like a great organization, for all the reasons you mentioned. I do like particularly how the government works with them to pay the teachers, as a one-time donation can't do that for long.

    Of course, send our thanks to Christina as well. Sorry I didn't know who she was, or I'd have thanked her by name as well.