Today I had the opportunity to check out the Spitler School, a fully donation-funded elementary school for the children of the very poor village of Ang Chagn Chass. Before this school opened in 2005, the children of these subsistence farmers couldn’t go to school because the only free government school was too far away. But that all changed when an American couple, Danny and Pam Spitler, successful businesspeople from Arizona, came to Cambodia on vacation. Their tour guide, Mr. Chea Sarin, was involved with trying to help this desolate village, and together they formulated a plan to open an elementary school.
They now get a first class education, a huge advantage compared to most of their parents and villagers who have no schooling at all because of the civil war and the need to work in the fields. The school provides them with one new uniform, school supplies, books, and a new backpack. I saw plenty of photos of the children holding those gifts on their first day, the backpacks adorned by the Arizona Diamondbacks logo because it was the baseball team who donated them. Brand new bicycles have also been donated by a corporation and each child who graduates 6th grade receives one of their own. This is crucial because the only chance to continue their schooling is a middle school 9 km away. Without a bike to ride there, almost all of the children would drop out and go to working the fields – or be recruited into the sex trade.
They teach the kids the usual subjects here but with a special emphasis on foreign history and English, topics that will help them get jobs in tourism – the only opportunity that gives them a chance of escaping poverty. The school also instills in them lessons about being a responsible community leader in their village.
Indeed, when the kids were released from class and filed out the front gate, they were ecstatic to say "hello" and "How are you" and "goodbye" to me in English, huge smiles on their faces. A few peace signs were mixed in and one little boy even ran back just to slap me a high five. These kids are friggin' Golden, I'm telling you, and to be able to do one very small thing to help them out and feel the glow of their appreciation was one of the best feelings I've ever had.
They also get involved with rebuilding local dirt roads because during the rainy season everything floods and the roads get washed away, prohibiting everyone’s access to town. While I was there I made a humble donation to the school, which Sarin explained could be used to finish building the playground, which was just a bumpy dirt lot because they’d ran out of money to continue construction.The kids only attend school half days so there are no meal programs (and not enough money to fund them, anyway) but they do enlist the local children’s hospital from Siem Reap, the next big town, to come give checkups to the kids once a year. It costs them $1 per child but for most of them it’s the only medical care they’ll ever get.
Many of the kids need pills and medicine because they have parasites. He explained that most of the villagers had only simple one-room huts without even outhouses. So people just went to the bathroom in the bush. The problem is that during the rainy season everything floods and the sanitation of the rivers and creeks is compromised, which all mixes in with bathing water and even drinking water if they don’t have a well. The children are barefoot so they end up walking in the water and get ringworm and other parasites often. It costs only $300 to dig a new well, but most families will never see that much money on hand in a lifetime.
So the school isn’t just about giving these kids a basic education but the only lifeline most of them have to the outside world. It gives them hope, laughter, joy, self esteem that they can have dreams and accomplish something in their lives. It’s all at once the center of the village, a sanctuary for their youth, and a chance to heal the community who’s scars run deep, but who’s future will be better because of the warmth of the Cambodian people and the generosity of strangers.
If you'd like to get involved or help out, visit their website at: http://www.spitlerschool.org/
Or drop my an email any time hi@NormSchriever.com
Thanks so much everyone - this means a lot to me.