Zanny Merullo Steffgen
Update and A&Z Foundation
Since my last post was written January 4th, please check out my blog posts filling in the gap until now here.
The past month has been a crazy whirlwind of changes for me as I briefly switched houses, quit my teaching and waitressing jobs, dealt with a slew of health problems, took on some copywriting and marketing gigs, and finally made a trip to Svay Reang province with materials purchased using donations to the GoFundMe page I started with a friend of mine.
Let me tell you the story of how I came to raise money for the Sangke School in the remote Cambodian province of Svay Reang. When I first arrived in Siem Reap in late January to volunteer in a hostel, I met Alex Kütt, a German expat who had called Cambodia home for the past 4 years. He had come to the country to play soccer, and had ended up settled with a Cambodian wife and two children while simultaneously playing soccer and managing several businesses. Alex’s wife was born in the small town of Chrung Popel in the province of Svay Reang and attended Sangke School from 1st-9th grade. Alex, on trips to see the in-laws, fell in love with the slow pace of life in the countryside, and was astonished to find the school to be in need of some serious upgrades. Not only does the town not have electricity, but the classrooms in the two long buildings that house 500 students a year are extremely basic and get incredibly hot, with dirt floors, simple wooden desks, and broken and tarnished blackboards. The school grounds flood in the rainy season each year and the only “playground” for the 500 children is a couple of seesaws that haven’t worked in years and the remnants of a metal swing set with no swings. Kids buy snacks from a small shack surrounded by grazing cows in the middle of the flooded grounds, sit and eat on broken benches, have to take turns using two “bathrooms” (holes in the ground with a door), and have only one working water pump. If all that weren’t bad enough, the kids only have access to two subjects: math and Khmer (the Cambodian language). With no access to science, social studies, and English, the kids have a hard time furthering their education beyond the 9th grade, and many end up farming or working in the rice fields without any opportunity for a life beyond Chrung Popel.
Alex was so struck by these conditions that he enlisted my help to start a fundraising campaign to reach out across the ocean to the US and Germany for assistance. After lots of research, a partnership with Angkor Tiger Football Club, social media promoting, book sales, newspaper articles, and the generosity of hundreds of wonderful people, we finally raised more than $5,000 to aid the Sangke School. With the holiday of Pchum Ben and a visit to the in-laws approaching, Alex and I decided to buy the first round of supplies and make a trip out to Svay Reang. With the money we raised (and knowledge from the research we had done about how to best spend the money), Alex and I purchased computers and a printer for the teachers to have access to more resources and be able to print exams and worksheets (there is now one line of electricity in the teachers lounge), sets of Khmer books for each student in each grade (including Khmer, math, science, and social studies), and one set of English books for each level to slowly introduce the subject. We also paid off a plumbing bill that provided the school with a pump, and bought two soccer goals to accompany the fifty soccer balls Angkor Tiger Football Club had given us to bring to the kids.
A few days before our trip to Svay Reang, Alex and I made a stop by the bookshop to pick up the school books we had ordered. Because we had been expecting only a few large boxes of books we were surprised to find 27 (yes, you read that right, TWENTY SEVEN) large cardboard boxes of books waiting for us outside the shop. Due to this surprise and my schedule of medical treatments, we decided that Alex would head to Svay Reang in a van with ten of the boxes of books and I would join him by bus with the remaining 17 boxes a few days later. Bus travel rarely goes smoothly in this country, however, so we spent a stressful day running between bus companies with a huge cart piled high with 17 boxes of books trying to find a company that would allow me to stop in Svay Reang on the way to Ho Chi Minh aaaaand bring the books with me. Finally the day of my journey arrived, and I made my way to the station. After a six hour overnight bus ride during which I slept on a mat next to a stranger, I arrived in Phnom Penh at 4 am with my 17 boxes and was instructed to wait until 6:30 when the bus station opened and I could book my ticket onwards to Ho Chi Minh. As tempted as I was to get a hotel room or take a nap on the bench outside of the bus station, I felt my duty was to stay with the boxes of books, especially in the middle of a big international city at 4 o’clock in the morning. If only there had been a coffee shop open at that time!
After purchasing my ticket and two cups of Khmer coffee with way too much sweetened condensed milk in it, I hitched my ride to Ho Chi Minh and somehow managed to communicate in the basic Khmer I know that I needed the books to come with me and I needed to stop in Svay Reang before the Vietnam border. I will admit that I myself was shocked to make it to Svay Reang, find Alex, and have all 17 boxes of books with me! The rest of that day was a blur of eating rice (the way to say “eat a meal” in Khmer is nyam bai or “eat rice,” but most of the time the meals are made up of rice anyway!), drinking beer, and making my way with Alex on a scooter through the rice paddies to parties at various houses in the countryside for some Khmer music, more beer drinking, and impromptu photo shoots with all of the locals. The evening was spent playing Khmer card games with the neighbors before I passed out on a mat upstairs in Alex’s sister in law’s house.
The next morning I woke up early to eat rice and bathe (no shower, just a bucket and a basin of water) before our visit to the school. Carrying the boxes from the van into the teachers lounge with an audience of thirty children, I was again struck by how rundown and depressing the place was. I thought back to the public elementary school I attended for six years that at the time had seemed old and shabby. At least there we had electricity, plenty of bathroom stalls, a huge playground with playing fields, computer class, an array of interesting subjects, art projects, theater and music, gardening, and access to so many resources, field trips, and guest speakers. That place had formulated a large part of who I was and inspired me to go on to private middle school and the best high school in the US. If I had attended a school like Sangke, where would I be? Why was I given access to such an education and these kids weren’t? What was I supposed to do with all the tools I had been given? At the same time I asked these questions, I looked over at the smiling faces of the young children who seemed so much more joyful than children in the US. Unlike in my home country, where pressure for success, competition, and cynicism appear at a young age, these kids were given the gift of the opportunity to fully live out their childhood. They didn’t seem upset that they had no playground, they had each other. Was I really helping these kids at all?
More doubts and questions arose during the meeting with the teachers in which we presented them with the computers and books. I was embarrassed to be a 20 year old American girl coming into this little village and making a big deal of presenting these Khmer teachers who were all at least twice my age with things I had bought for them. Alex and I requested that in thanks for the donations the teachers organize a whole-school clean up and encourage the kids to pick up the trash littering the ground outside, sweep up the cobwebs, and take more pride in their school. I also made a point of telling them (through the van driver who graciously agreed to translate for us) that these donations hadn’t come directly from us, but that we had been the channel to friends, family, and strangers from abroad who had come together and each given a little bit in order to raise all of the funds. Who knows if the message got across, but I couldn’t stand feeling like a rich, white savior.
For the next hour we gathered outside with the children to take pictures and videos before we presented them with the soccer balls and the beautiful chaos of fun ensued. Young kids dressed in pajamas or soccer jerseys ran around barefoot on the strip of grass in front of the middle school where we had placed the goals, each kicking, throwing, dribbling, or bouncing a bright orange soccer ball. I ran around in the melee and passed a ball back and forth with a little girl, then pretended to grab a ball out of a boy’s hands, then scored on another kid standing in the goal. Although we could only exchange a few basic words in Khmer and English, that morning we all spoke the language of laughter fluently, and simply had fun.
The next couple of days I spent in Svay Reang playing cards, eating rice, and exploring the rice paddies. There is something beautiful about the rural life here, the constant coming and going of the neighbors, the lack of pressure to go anywhere or do anything because there is nowhere to go and nothing to do. I was struck by the contrast between this life and my own, but mostly I was surprised by the realization that I recognized all of the interactions I saw. If I changed the scenery and the language, I could almost have been sitting in my aunt and uncle’s living room during Christmastime eating food while the kids played and adults talked. There are certain ways daily life is affected by culture or socio-economic status, but at their core, human beings are all the same. Although I had known it intellectually before, this epiphany was a wonderful product of my time in Chrung Popel, as were the questions that arose during my visit to the school.
Now that I have returned to the slightly faster pace of life in Siem Reap, I wonder what to do next for the kids of Sangke School. There is the bathroom situation, the need for fans in the classrooms that bake the students within when the sun is at its peak. There is the difficulty of introducing English to a group of students who have had very little contact with the language before, the challenge of dealing with the flooding fields, the desire to build a playground for the kids to enjoy during breaks. I would like to provide the school with new blackboards, books to read for fun, and tons of basic school supplies. Although I don’t believe that the children need a school just like the one I attended in the US or the wonderful ones all around the world, I do believe that educating the next generation is the key to a country’s success. Therefore, by providing these children with a more inspiring and enjoyable learning experience, perhaps more will go on to high school and beyond. Who knows, maybe the next prime minister of Cambodia will come from Chrung Popel, or someone who does good in the world and was inspired by the donations they saw coming from strangers around the globe through a GoFundMe page, or maybe some child will discover a passion thanks to the additional subjects offered in school. Even if I wish I could do so much more for these children, I know that if our donations help even just one child, I will have done my job.
How can you help? If you can spare even a few dollars, donate to My School My Education, or share the link with your friends. It has been incredible for me to see the generosity of people I know and people I’ve never met, and the impact it has had on the kids of Sangke School. Let’s keep it up.