Raksmey is a third year student at the University of Cambodia, and is majoring in Business Management. She is the first in her family to attend university; escaping the money-induced hardships faced by the staggering majority of families in her home village. When recalling her childhood, her parents would often stress about whether or not they had enough money for food, medicine, and education expenses for both Raksmey and her younger sister.
Through their struggles, however, they have continuously encouraged their children to remain in school, as it would eventually prove to be their future wealth. Raksmey remembers her parents’ proverb: “Only knowledge can bring you everything and develop your country.” In high school, it was these words, along with watching upperclassmen receive scholarships and aid through Sustainable Schools International that kept Raksmey motivated to continue studying hard. “I was inspired to study harder in order to apply for an SSI scholarship and chase my dream to go to university, which is too expensive for my family to afford.”
Raksmey's determination and focus has earned her an Outstanding Student Certificate two years in a row from her university, along with a 3.8 GPA. In discussing her village, Raksmey determined that it is a lack of education that causes such grim circumstances in rural Cambodia and hopes to alter the community’s mindset by showing them the true value of education. Raksmey’s dream is to establish a healthier and more profitable market in her village, so that residents will be less likely to migrate and more likely to continue their children’s education. She wants to promote local produce by starting “a restaurant which serves both local and international customers.” Raksmey also has a heart for breaking traditional gender norms; showing exactly what women are capable of if the work is put in. “I want to prove that traditional women’s roles can be broken. I want to show that women aren’t just made to get married and take care of children.”
We are confident in what Raksmey has accomplished so far, and are excited to see how she will continue to impact her peers, young girls who look up to her, and the residents of her village. We stand behind Raksmey and her many dreams, and are proud to be a part of her amazing journey.
Keun recently graduated from the Leadership Academy with a BA in TESOL and now teaches English at the Academy five nights a week. But Keun’s ambitions extend far beyond this; between volunteer teaching at the local Chinese temple where a dozen of his cousins live, he is also working toward his goal of educating those in his village of Sre Chrab by organizing supplemental reading and writing classes seven days a week. He trained two of his cousins to teach literacy and math classes, taught in both Khmer and English, and raised money from villagers to provide them with small stipends. He built wooden tables and benches for the students to sit at. He even uses part of his modest SSI salary to purchase basic supplies for the makeshift classroom.
“Children in my village often cannot read or write, even going into the 5th or 6th grade,” Keun explained.
Very low literacy rates is a pervasive problem in rural Cambodia due to teacher absenteeism and lack of quality instruction.
Growing up, Keun faced extreme poverty and when he wanted to attend school, had to walk several miles alone to do so. Some days the river waters were too high to cross, so he returned home. Keun’s lack of access to education instilled in him the desire to improve the public education system by encouraging community members to take action and by offering quality education to those in his village.
“By getting a scholarship with SSI, I have been able to pursue my dream of having my own learning center in my community so I can help give others the opportunity to access education. I also learned a lot about leadership when I was President of the Rotaract Club at the Leadership Academy.”
Keun is determined, selfless, and inspiring. He is a true change-maker and leader. His dedication to improve his community and the lives of others through education is apparent in his everyday actions.
Through your support, you not only helped educate Keun, but are now helping educate an entire village.
Two years ago, Kel Keun, who is now a SSI scholarship alumni, expressed how access to education changed his life:
“Growing up, my family was very poor. My parents never went to school, they are farmers who cannot earn a lot of money. My parents are getting older and older but they continue to feed pigs, grow bananas and raise cows to save money for me and my siblings to go to school. We faced many problems in our lives because we never had enough money. To help my parents, I spent some time away from school working and farming.
Even with these challenges, in 2010, I passed the 9th grade and received information about the SSI scholarship. Immediately, I told my parents about this program and they were very happy. They told me, “Hurry, apply for this program!”. After I had applied, I eagerly waited for two weeks before I learned the results. I passed and would have the opportunity to study for my BA in Phnom Penh. I was very happy! But before I left my village to study I worried about many things. Where would I live? Who could I live with? How could I get to school? Luckily, SSI provided almost everything I needed to be successful, such as a house, food, school fees, clean water, electricity, access to a computer and much more.
Nowadays, I live at the Leadership Academy with other students and we are very happy for the opportunity to study and live in a safe place. We are kind to each other, share everything and help each other when someone has a problem. The SSI staff take very good care of us, especially the English teacher. The English teacher is developing Skype classes so we can speak with native English speakers to improve our English skills. SSI staff also help us develop interview and resume skills so we can find a job after graduation. Finally, SSI is the best NGO in Cambodia that I know! I promise I will study hard to help SSI, and go back to develop my community by teaching, encouraging students to study and help them understand the advantage of gaining knowledge.
I’ve had the best opportunity of my life to study in university. Without SSI, there is a good chance that I would not have been able to continue my education past the 9th grade. I thank SSI for everything they have done to help me and I will be back to help my village when I graduate.” -Kel Keun
Keun graduated in 2015 and continues improving education in Cambodia. In our next blog, we will give you an update of Keun’s life and talk more about how he is making his dreams became a reality.
Carolina Westers participated in a service travel trip, "To Cambodia with Love". The travel experience was purchased at a Sustainable Schools International benefit auction. This is what she had to say about her experience...
How did you learn about Sustainable Schools International?
I knew of the founders and was inspired by the work they did in Cambodia to honor their adopted son. I’ve always been drawn to people who adopt or foster children because I used to run a group home benefiting over a hundred children. I learned more about the journey of creating Sustainable Schools International when I joined a book club and read Kari’s book, Bones that Float.
Why did you decide to bid on the “To Cambodia with Love” service travel experience?
Given that I was inspired by SSI’s work in Cambodia and that I had never been to the region, I was moved to visit these projects in person. What’s funny is that when I was bidding on this trip, I did not realize that I was bidding against several of my fellow book club members!
What did you find the most interesting about Cambodia?
While I knew some about the Khmer Rouge and how it affected Cambodians, I did not understand the magnitude until I visited the country. Visiting Cambodia, particularly the Khmer Rouge sites, was emotional and brought me to tears. Almost everyone I met around my age and younger had several family members killed during the regime, and it wasn’t even that long ago! Given the atrocities that occurred, I was also struck and inspired by how lovely and welcoming the people of Cambodia are.
What part of SSI’s programming did you find the most impactful?
That you do not focus simply on traditional education in one life stage but rather provide diverse opportunities throughout a student's educational journey. Leadership training is what makes SSI unique. The leadership in Cambodia must be replaced, but the human resources are limited. It’s one thing to improve literacy skills but what will have long-term impact is building fair leaders of tomorrow.
What inspired you to become a monthly donor?
After my visit to Cambodia I wanted to help cultivate the next generation of leaders and improve education. I love that my money can be stretched so far in Cambodia. Lastly, I like how convenient it is to make my monthly donation.
Are you looking for a real estate agent? To make an even BIGGER impact, Carolina Westers will donate 10% of all commission proceeds made through her real estate business. Just tell Carolina SSI sent you her way and she’ll send us a check after the closing! Carolina averages a home sale every 6 days and in the top 2% of RE/MAX agents worldwide! Learn more about Carolina here.
"The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future." -Theodore Roosevelt
To bring us closer to sustainability it is essential we appreciate the history of international aid and how SSI has developed. To understand where international development started, the course it’s taken, and where it is headed, Rita Mahoney, SSI’s Executive Director, conducted a powerful training for all staff and board members.
While international development is certainly not an easy subject to study, learn or teach, there is a clear progression of how aid is delivered and distinct categories that can be identified. Development is often talked about in the following terms; To the people, For the people, With the people, Through the people, and Investing in the Empowerment of the people. Let’s look at the definitions and specific examples:
To the people -
The best known example is perhaps the Marshall Plan post WWII. Priority was on capital and technical investments to get countries back on their feet. European countries that were devastated by the war had an educated population that lacked infrastructure. The awareness that Marshall plan was appropriate for a specific time and place gave way to more participatory methods of working with other countries. In Cambodia we see the To model used after the fall of the Pol Pot regime when the UN came in and ran the government. Again, there were specific historic reasons why this model, at this time made sense.
For the people -
Here, I’m providing the resources for you, you can choose to take them or leave them. An example of the for model might include food programs to provide rice, supplements, and other nutritional staples. While this model is necessary in certain situation, such as disaster response, local sustainable agriculture may not have the opportunity to flourish if this model is continued.
With the people -
How can I work with you? We’ll use my ideas and training to work together. Let’s look into schools for the with model, head teachers who are teaching with assistants could be an example. This is a great way for teaching assistants to learn teaching techniques and gain new skills but they do not have power over what is being taught in the classroom.
Through the people -
This program will be run through you. I am providing the the framework, training and resources you need, now please go deliver these services. The train the trainer model of delivering health education programs such as behavior change practices for hand washing can be seen as a through the people model of development.
Investing in Empowerment of the people -
Increasing capabilities, enabling people to provide for themselves. How can we provide opportunities for you to gain the skills and knowledge you desire. Now you can take these skills to provide for yourself and help your community in the best way you see fit. Providing opportunities for continuing education and livelihood training with a focus on creating power and action among participants is how we invest in empowerment.
Given this information, do you think there is a right, wrong and mediocre model? Perhaps it depends on the development objective. To us, because our mission is based on creating sustainable impact and training the future generation of leaders, our team believes that we should consistently strive to utilize the empowerment model, even when this is the more difficult option.
Thank you for your continuous support as we empower individuals and communities. With your help, we ARE empowering rural Cambodians to make sustainable change in their communities. Please stay tuned, our next blog will outline our model and how it is moving our programming closer to sustainability.
As the collaboration between SSI and the Colorado School of Public Health continues, I conducted a handwashing and food safety workshop at the Leadership Academy. The workshop addressed hand hygiene, food safety concerns and foodborne illness; topics students’ face every day. This workshop empowered SSI students, encouraging them to teach this valuable information to the community. Leadership Academy students and alumni who attended the workshop ranged from 18-23 years of age with varying fields of study, including nursing, law, electricity, mechanics, English, finance and banking, informatics and technology, and sales and marketing. A total of 31 students and alumni attended this skill building workshop!
While Cambodian food security is based mainly on agricultural production and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is responsible for overseeing the agricultural products as they enter the food chain, the ministry provides limited monitoring and surveillance activities. Lack of food safety oversight could lead to illness caused by food poisoning, affecting students’ educational experience and overall achievement. To help participants understand their role in food safety, the objectives of the workshop were:
The World Health Organization’s Five Keys to Safer Food were used as the educational framework for this workshop. The five keys include 1) Keep clean, 2) Separate raw and cooked, 3) Cook thoroughly, 4) Keep food at safe temperatures, 5) Use safe water and raw materials. As a part of the training a poster with this information was downloaded from the World Health Organization and provided to each participant.
We used several additional materials to effectively deliver the messaging and to enhance participant engagement, some included; visual aids such as a powerpoint presentation, videos on the five keys core message and proper hand washing, Glow Germ gel, a giant plush E. coli bacteria, and disinfectant liquid. The Glow Germ gel was used to help participants understand the importance of thoroughly washing their hands and apply the skills of proper hand washing. Glow Germ is pretty neat stuff, if any gel is present after hand washing, a UV light will show the areas on the hands or wrists that were not washed properly. The UV light was also used to look for surface cleanliness, and overall hygiene practices. These demonstrations gave participants a more practical understanding of germs and what it means to have good hygiene practices.
To help students understand how to teach the information and skills acquired, they were separated into 5 groups and assigned a food safety key for which they would give a presentation on to the rest of the group. These presentations were given in English so they could practice English skills at the same time. Also, to evaluate food safety knowledge, attitude, and behavior for each of the “Five Keys to Safer Food”, an evaluation form from the World Health Organization’s Five Keys to Safer Food was used. Students reported back on this form in the second half of the training one week later.
In the second half of the workshop, the students disused the evaluation form and actively participated in preparing a snack to eat while watching a movie. Every student had a role in safe food preparation whether it was to wash, cut and/or serve the snacks. This activity was done to reinforce core information, demonstrate skills and discuss rationale behind these practices. Considering the barriers and limitations of the workshop, the knowledge gained from this workshop was high impact, as it was intended.
It was a privilege for be the facilitator this event. I want to thank Mr. Chomnan and Mrs. Susan for engaging the students and for assistance at the workshop. All the students are inquisitive and persistent humans with great potential. I strongly believe the support that the academy provides to each one of these students is invaluable because this does not only have a positive impact in their life, but it also translates in unimaginable ways to their community. All of this is just a reflection of the years of hard work SSI has done and their involvement with the community. This would not have been possible without them!
My name is Adriana Romero. I am currently studying for my Master in Public Health at the Colorado School of Public Health at Colorado State University. Over the past 6 months I have been collaborating with Sustainable Schools International (SSI) to develop a School, Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (SWaSH) pilot program at Lngoem primary School (LM) in the rural commune of Tro Pang Cho. This rural community is located in Aoral District, Kampong Speu Province. The SWASH intervention aims to reduce disease burden and absenteeism among students, empower the community and improve the overall quality of life of the community. The end goal of this project is to identify local SWaSH best practices that can be used for future SWaSH interventions in the area.
In the first phase of this project, led by
Tavia Mirassou-Wolf, 8 government schools were assessed with respect to SWaSH
infrastructure and community preparedness. After analysis of the data and
considering the capacity and readiness of these schools, LM was chosen for this
pilot intervention. I was pleased to see the active engagement and continuous
support of the students and for this project from the principal, vice-principal,
and teachers. Three teachers at Lngoem primary school are SSI alumni; Rim who
earned his bachelors in education serves as a full time teacher and two high
school graduates serve as teacher assistants. Placing leaders back into their communities,
specifically at local schools, contributes to the development of a stronger
community and provides a solid foundation for intervention sustainability.
To make this SWASH project possible, we partnered with Clear Cambodia, a local Cambodian NGO that specializes in SWASH infrastructure and practices. Clear Cambodia will provide WaSH education for all teachers and students at LM. Additionally, Clear Cambodia has provided the technical support for a deep water well and is in the process of building necessary infrastructure, including; four latrines, a handwashing station, and a biosand filter (BSF) for clean drinking water. The staff training includes how to maintain the infrastructure as well as a training on hygiene education. Finally, all students at Lngoem primary school will receive materials and training on topics including handwashing, menstrual hygiene, consumption of safe water and safe sanitation.
This SWASH intervention will benefit 416 children who attend Lngoem, their families, and teachers. To understand the efficacy of the project, SSI alumni are collecting data on a variety of health indicators, utilizing survey CTO on smartphones. This information will also assist in the development of systematic baseline data for SWASH in the area, allowing for future interventions which are specific to the needs of this ever-evolving community.
I am honored to be part of this ongoing project and want to thank Sustainable Schools International and Clear Cambodia for making this intervention a reality. Likewise, I want to thank the staff and the students at the Lngoem primary school for giving us the opportunity to implement it in their school. It’s exciting to see what the future holds for this resilient and dedicated community, I am sure their future will be full of wonderful achievements and steady progress!
-Adriana Romero, Public Health Graduate Research Assistant and Adviser
Rural economic development is no easy task. A lack of training, infrastructure, access to capital and markets are all barriers to business growth for rural entrepreneurs. The Project Community Prosper Bank (PCP) was created out of this specific need to provide services to the small - but thriving - Aoral province where most households survive off micro-enterprise activity. Through PCP, community members can receive micro loans to help grow their businesses. In addition, a percentage of interest earned on loans is donated back to rural schools to facilitate community development through a social enterprise model. In 2016, 20% of interest generated was donated to local schools.
In 2016, PCP provided loans to 171 customers. As PCP has grown over the years, SSI began taking a deeper look at how this program was making a difference in the Aoral community. In June 2016, an impact study was conducted by PCP Adviser, Jeanne Crump. Through the study, a sample of PCP customers were interviewed to collect both demographic household information and to gauge the impact the loans were having on their businesses. We found some very positive insights. Most notably, 100% of respondents who used the loan for business purposes reported that they felt their businesses had grown since receiving a loan. Because it is often difficult to measure business growth through annual profits in the informal sector, we used several proxy indicators to gauge this impact. Business growth was reported through an increase in household income, the ability to purchase more inventory, or through an increase of direct sales. Some customers even reported growth in more than one area.
Additional notable insights include:
During this study, the globally-recognized Progress Out of Poverty Index (PPI) was also implemented. The PPI is a standardized country-specific tool that aims to measure changes in poverty levels over time. A sample of households were surveyed using the PPI, and this same group will be surveyed again in 2017, after which the first results will be available. Our goal for PCP is to alleviate poverty in Aoral and foster sustainable development through community-led programs.
As PCP grows, we have several initiatives in mind to make this program even more impactful, such as developing a community savings group, providing financial literacy education, and offering an agricultural loan product to encourage the diversification of crops among farmers. PCP is an excellent example of the types of socially minded projects we hope to see our Leadership Academy students develop as they contribute back to their communities. We look forward to sharing more insights and impacts with our supporters in the coming year.
This article was originally published on Kari Grady-Grossman's blog on 08/31/2015
The votes have been cast and the verdict is in!! Community members, health professionals, and organizations agree on the public health needs of the Tra Paing Chor Commune. The top four include: the need for more trained medical professionals, access to medications, and relief from reoccurring digestive disorders and respiratory infections.
After conducting community focus groups, I was shocked that only 2 out of approximately 30 people had ever utilized the local health center, built two years ago. As I probed deeper in my quest to identify reasons behind this lack of utilization, majority of people express the same concerns, “I went to the health center but no one was present during the afternoon hours of operation”, “I heard from my neighbor that there are no medications for treatment”, “the health center is too far and I do not always have access to transportation”. These concerns are valid. Upon discussion with health center staff, I learned that they run out of medications 1-2 times per month. In addition, even though there are over 22 services the health center is supposed to provide, lack of a doctor and enough midwives severely limits the services related to sexual and reproductive health. At the time the health center cannot preform deliveries due to lack of midwives. This forces pregnant women to travel to the regional health center, 20 Kilometers away, creating a significant strain on women’s ability to give birth in the presence of a skilled birth attendant, as transportation is a common barrier in seeking services.
Last on the list, but certainly not least is the provision of education and structural changes that will support the elimination of reoccurring digestive disorders and respiratory infections. Water, sanitation, and hygiene (WaSH) are still a problem in Cambodia despite the on going efforts to improve access and quality of these resources. Several community members still do not have access to the use of a latrine or proper facilities to wash their hands correctly. In addition to the need of improving WaSH, USAID and other organizations are conducting research with the intention of learning how to effectively integrate WaSH into multiple sectors. The innovations and implementation of these programs are much needed, especially in the rural area of the Tra Paing Chor Commune.
As I look at the public health landscape with a critical eye it is extremely important to be culturally aware and not cease to remember the countless assets this community has to offer. From what I have observed, the Cambodian culture is one of collectivism and respect. I have observed an innate since humanity amongst the people I have worked with and there is a beauty that shines through from their souls. In addition to individuals’ strengths, the community as a whole offers resourcefulness through the collection of rainwater and growing their own food, ability to adapt to change, and willingness to work together.
If WE can build upon what this great community already has to offer, I am positive we can work together to create a sustainable difference. The difference I am referring to is substantial. It is the difference between health and disease, access to clean water and drinking dirty water, privacy and open defecation, and in some cases the difference between life and death.
I will leave you with this thought… Solutions are not created overnight, while there are certainly many needs in the Tra Paing Chor Commune, let’s address the most dire needs, while we work to build upon the strengths of the community.
Thank you for your involvement of this project (even if your involvement is reading my posts and creating awareness) and I look forward to working with you in the future!
This article was originally published on Kari Grady-Grossman's blog on 08/18/2015
Meet our nursing students Chanthou, Sokhom, and Srey Pom! These motivated individuals attend International University and are 3 out of the 34 individuals who live at the Leadership Academy in Phnom Penh. All of these students hail from Tra Paing Chor Commune in the Aoral District of the Kampong Speu Province. This is a rural area where students often do not attend school beyond the 6th grade due to other responsibilities. I feel extremely honored and privileged to be a part of their journey.
Chanthou: Chanthou was the Leadership Academy’s first female high school graduate to continue onto college. She continues to shine as she approaches graduation where she will receive her associates in nursing. Chanthou will graduate in December and take the International exam in January. When I asked Chanthou what her top three goals are she reported: teaching community members information on proper dietary habits, getting a job with a good salary, and going back to school to become a doctor. When Chanthou is at home during a holiday she enjoys helping her mother with her private practice and volunteering at the local primary school where she delivers books and teaches children proper sanitation practices.
Sokhom: With only one more year to go, Sokhom finds herself passionate about maternal and child health. With this passion her top three goals are to return to her village to serve her community, learn more about the health needs of her commune by interviewing expecting mothers, and pursue her bachelors of nursing with a focus in midwifery. When Sokhom receives a break, it’s likely you will find her in her village relaxing down by the stream with her family.
Srey Pom: Srey Pom is the youngest out of the nursing students but that doesn’t make her any less ambitious. She is excited to learn about how health practices affect her community and even more excited to put these practices into play. Srey Pom is also interested in providing health education related to nutrition and going back to school to become a doctor. After she receives her doctorate degree she wants to start her own practice.
While these amazing women may have different interests they all have one thing in common ... Their enthusiasm to serve fellow community members in their home villages.
Stay tuned for the next step of this project.
This article was originally published on Kari Grady-Grossman's blog on 08/16/2015
My name is Tavia Mirassou- Wolf and I am a Graduate Research Assistant at the Colorado School of Public Health studying for my Master’s of Public Health. I will be working with Colorado State University and Sustainable Schools International over the course of the next year.
The project I am humbly apart of aims to improve the health of communities, specifically in the Aoral District of the Kampong Speu Providence. My involvement during this trip includes international collaboration which encompasses a rapid village needs assessment, resource identification, and the public health mentorship of new health professionals. I would like to begin this blog by encouraging you to be apart of my journey while I lead you through my three week Cambodian travel experience. During this experience I will spend two weeks in the capital, Phnom Penh, and one week in a rural village. I would absolutely love to hear your reactions, thoughts, comments, and ideas!
This article was originally published on Kari Grady-Grossman's blog on 09/02/2014
Last summer I worked as volunteer at the SSI Leadership Academy outside Phnom Penh and had a very good experience. School starts up again in a few days and for the first time in many years I kind of dread going back to the same old routine. So, inspired by my experience last summer and to give my students a flavor of daily life in an emerging nation in Southeast Asia I have decided to implement a section on Cambodia in all of my courses.
My language students at St. Norbert College will be given an opportunity to volunteer as language partners of SSI students back in Phnom Penh, Skyping once a week or so. In my advanced French civilization class a section on French colonialism will focus on the transition of Cambodia from the relative calm of the colonial world to the chaos following in the wake of the French departure. In addition, I am in the beginning stages of planning a three-week immersion trip to Cambodia next summer. It remains to be seen if I can secure permission from College administration. Parents are awfully squeamish these days (not without reason) and, not knowing much about the outside world, naturally assume the worst. And who can blame them, which is precisely why their children need to travel but stay safe and out of harm's way.
Still, Cambodia today is a far cry from what it was and exercising normal caution should be enough to ensure personal safety. Of course, I must also recruit enough students to make this trip economically feasible. But I remain guardedly optimistic provided I can include some kind of service component. Service Learning (SL) is all the rage today and inspires a number of student trips both domestic and international. Student participants will have an opportunity to visit tourist sites, such as Angkor Wat and follow in Indiana Jones' footsteps. On a more sinister note, they also have a chance to follow the rampage of the Khmer Rouge. In addition, they will have a chance to do some teaching and to interact with SSI Leadership Academy students, who might well be able to accompany them on some field trips and create lasting bonds of friendship. My students are more or less the same age so who knows, some of my students may want to return as volunteers on their own one day in the near future after they see for themselves how much they can learn even during a short stay. Ideally I would also like to incorporate other service opportunities, but the trick will be to find something worthwhile that is both beneficial to my students and easy to arrange for my local counterparts in SSI.
I returned from Cambodia about a month ago but left almost immediately for France. I teach French and need to stay in touch with my culture even though I feel very much at home in Asia. But the main purpose of my trip to France was to continue my research on French intellectuals. My last book on the Dreyfus Affair appeared in April. My forthcoming book is about French intellectuals and what I call the totalitarian temptation, a Faustian bargain to gain power and magically achieve paradise on earth. This is a topic well in line with the national tragedy Cambodia suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in the second half of the 1970s and might well become the subject of my next book.
I am excited about these new projects and will keep you all posted on my progress.
Stay safe and always keep a book going!