Teach this triple truth to all: A generous heart, kind speech, a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.
– Buddhist saying, provided to me by the Venerable Sockrath Hour, buddhist monk and executive director at Green Umbrella
This post is part 1 (out of my planned 3 posts about KKS primary school).
Last week, we spent three days at at Karina Kumar School (KKS), a primary school for rural, impoverished Cambodian students. I am tempted to describe our experience as “volunteering,” but that makes it sound as though we swooped in with our team America shirts and delivered ready-made MREs of American education. Closer to the truth would be “we served and received, not in that order.”
This experience has been the most important and impactful one of the trip for our family. I wish to thank the teachers, students and staff of KKS for welcoming us, involving us, learning our stories, and sharing theirs.
In this post, “Service and compassion,” I will focus on the school, community, and how Green Umbrella is trying to engage social issues. Quick warnings: I am a teacher, I am interested in educational structures and philosophies, AND this blog is my reflective journal/toilet/puke bucket. Thus, this post may drift into the hows and whys of school. For all those who want to tell teachers at dinner parties to shut their mouths, (I am talking to you Gil Laas), you are warned.
First, a little background:
The Putsor community
Putsor is a rural community, about 35 km outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It has a dusty main road, shops, a big factory, and open-air plastic tabled restaurants. It is part of a larger district of several small villages similarly composed. The main industry is farming and factories. There are about 4,500 families living in the area, about 35% are classified “poor” by the Cambodian government (meaning at least one person lives on less than $1/day). Here are a few images of the village, countryside, and kids:
Sokrath, a buddhist monk, is the executive director of Green Umbrella, the Non-Governmental Organization that supports KKS. His mission (and that of Green Umbrella) is to break the cycle of poverty in Putsor. The primary project of Green Umbrella is the school, KKS. Sokrath generously spent many hours introducing us to the village, its people, and answering our questions about running a school for change. He was patient with our questions, and forthright about his challenges, successes and roadblocks. I was struck by how similar the challenges in combating poverty are in the US and Cambodia. A “culture of poverty” may indeed be exactly that, a culture.
There are many issues with poverty that we spoke about. I will describe a few that I am familiar with, but highlighting issues is never as interesting as a story. So, storytime!
Chanda is thirteen years old and in the 4th grade at KKS. School policy is to not publish personal student information onto public websites, so I won’t post a picture or use her real name. She is tall with long black hair, with a big, bright smile. She is self-assured, the first student in class to put a new concept into action, and very active in classroom discussion.
On the day we arrived, Chanda had a cut-up leg from a bicycling accident, so could not participate in physical activities or games. Duck, duck goose was particularly funny: picture Porter being chased by a 12 year old monk in training. Bare-feet skittering across tiles, a blur of black shirt and silky pants followed by a tempest of flowy, bright orange fabric. A blue-eyed, blonde with chased by a brown-eyed, clean shaven head. Their dimpled smiles matched. The other kids shrieked in delight at the Tom and Jerry chase scene. While the class got to play games with Mia and Porter, Chanda sat on the side and cried. Amy sat with her, and consoled her tears.
When we heard her backstory from Sokrath, she captured out hearts. Chanda has three other siblings, but she is the only one accepted to KKS (intentionally, the school only accepts one student per family, in order to spread opportunity). She is older than the average 4th grader because a couple years ago, Chanda had been a student at KKS when her family decided to move to Thailand for job opportunities. The move did not work out, and they moved back to Putsor. She missed some academic work.
Shortly after moving back, her father left the family. Chanda’s mother was left as a single parent, with four kids, and no job. She could no longer afford her house, so lost it. The family was homeless. Chanda re-enrolled in school (a little behind now due to the move away). Sokrath heard their situation, and sought out some funding and volunteers to help build the family a new house. Their home is pictured to the right.
Chanda’s story illustrates many of the challenges facing the poor: few skills to make a better life in their current circumstance, a lack of access to basic human needs like shelter, a lack of permanence, a single parent, and obviously very low income.
A culture of poverty
Sokrath spoke to us about many of the issues facing poor families in Putsor. If you have worked with kids, families or communities from low socio-economic circumstances, I think you will recognize many of these issues:
- There is significant economic stress on families – when the next meal is questionable, schooling is secondary. Sokrath told us that many of the impoverished kids pictured above do not go to school, but spend the day hunting snails and frogs for food.
- There is a problem with domestic violence.
- There is some problem with alcohol and drugs, although the cost made it less of a problem in Putsor.
- Many adults in poverty do not have jobs, and appear to have lost their motivation. They sit in the shade and wait. Their kids lack role models, or positive pressure to work hard.
- Health care is challenging, and has led many families to get over their heads in debt. I don’t really understand the system, but I think the Cambodian government will pay for acute treatments for the poor, but not chronic ones. For example, a child in need of surgery for an eye infection could get the surgery paid for, but not any antibiotic care. As a result, parents are leery of entering government health care, and health problems can spin out of control.
- Banks and micro-financiers will loan people more money than they can afford to re-pay. Sokrath warns people to beware the “man with the briefcase,” he may earn commissions off of every micro-loan he makes. Many families have lost their land and homes as a result of taking out too much debt, often as a result of trying to cover health-care or housing costs.
- Post-secondary school may be prohibitively expensive. I think it costs around $600/year for tuition at a local school in Phnom Pehn. Most university classes are delivered in English, so students must be proficient readers and writers. There are scholarships, but they are few.
- There are not many jobs that require post-secondary education in Putsor. Students can work in a factory or on a farm. Thus, parents and students do not see an obvious path to a better life. A leader of NGO development, Irene, who stayed with us for a day put it well (I’ve tried to capture her thought): “It may be that families are doing a smart risk/reward calculation. They see an obvious reward for their child to work in a factory or in the field. However, with the prohibitive cost of post-secondary school, and few visible careers needing such training, the risk of excess time studying over supporting the family is high. With little chance of reward (few future opportunities), and a high risk of wasting all that time, families may push their kids to work rather than study. The rationale, unfortunately, makes sense, even if it puts a harsh cap to the child’s future prospects.
- Many adults support their kids going to school, but do not support (i.e. require) their kids to do academic work at home. There are many possible explanations: parents may not understand how repeated practice reading/mathing/writing is important, parents may feel shame at not being able to read/do math themselves, parents may lack the discipline, parents may perceive that time spent working on school is a waste when college/university is prohibitively expensive. This is a deep psychological issue that challenges the US educational system as well.
- Parents do not expect their kids to attain high levels of academic achievement. There may be many reasons (similar to those above), but also there are very few Cambodian role models of rural kids making their way to higher levels of education and making a better life.
- Most students are willing to work at school, but do not naturally push themselves to higher academic achievement without a structure in place to support them. I think this is natural for nearly all kids, and is why school exists!
There are local public schools that are free for kids to attend. However, they are not structured to promote rich learning experiences. I was able to speak to Samrong, a grade 7 public school teacher, at length. He also worked at the boarding house where we stayed and had good familiarity with KKS. Samrong told me that student behavior in public schools is a real impediment to learning. With 50 or 60 students in a 3rd or 7th grade classroom, I can imagine. Samrong thought that students attending public school were not going to get the kind of preparation needed to pursue higher levels of education.
Karina Kumar School (KKS) and the Green Umbrella project
KKS has only 82 students in grades K-4. The aim of the school is to provide a high quality education for Putsor students. It was a treat to play, read and speak with KKS kids. They are happy, enthusiastic, sporty, and loving. I have observed many classrooms and schools; I believe I can tell when the “bones” of a school are strong. Within an hour of stepping foot in KKS, I knew it was such a place. As I learned about the students’ backgrounds, I decided it had more than good bones, and I became enchanted.
The school accepts only 16 new kindergarten students per year due to budget and space constraints. Students are not charged school fees, all costs are covered by Green Umbrella, which is funded through donation. You may imagine student selection is a contentious issue. Very true. Enrollment is highly selective, with students selected based upon their economic background (family must be impoverished), physical health and mental ability.
I asked Sokrath is the acceptance process was controversial. He wasn’t sure what I meant.
Amy clarified, “Are people angry with you?”
He laughed and nodded. “Yes, people are very angry with me. They ask ‘Why do you not love me? How can you be a monk and love some people more than others?’ I try to explain, but they don’t understand.”
Sokrath was not visibly moved by this conversation, but I was. Of course, he trains to be unmoved (at least visually) – he is a Buddhist monk! I can imagine the parent protest. When it’s your own kids, rationality and equity takes a back seat to self-interest.
Wider impacts of Green Umbrella and the future
Sokrath started the Green Umbrella organization in 2013, with an aim of breaking the culture of poverty. He recognizes that he will need to reach the entire community in order to accomplish his mission. Green Umbrella is currently managing other projects, and has plans for more. Other projects include:
- An evening English language school for any school-aged kid from the community. To keep costs low, they hire the best high school students as teachers, then train them. We checked it out, probably 100-150 students were in class.
- Two girls and boys football (soccer) teams, with kids from the entire community, coached by qualified coaches. The boys team won their first match 15-4, much to the thrill of the community.
- Sustainable industry. There is an arts and crafts shop that hires community members to create products for sale.
Over time, Sokrath wishes to grow the school. Green Umbrella has bought land to build a bigger building (did you notice the 4th grade had class outside?), and add one new grade every year. The vision is for students to attend to KKS in the mornings, then public school in the afternoon, hopefully spreading the culture and learning of KKS further. Eventually, they are hoping that KKS students will go to university or trade schools, and bring their skills back to Putsor, helping to bring better economics and a broader mindset back.
For more information about Green Umbrella and its mission, you can follow this link:
Service and compassion
I started this post out with one of the Buddhist sayings Sokrath introduced me to. I’ve repeated it to myself many times, so I will repeat it here:
“Teach this triple truth to all, a generous heart, kind speech, a lifetime of service and compassion, are the things that renew humanity.”
One of Amy and my goals for this trip was to connect with people from many walks of life, from many different cultures. Service at KKS allowed us a wonderful opportunity to connect. I’m not sure I would have articulated a side effect as broadening our, and our kids’, capacity for compassion. But, as I think about connecting with people, learning their stories, forming relationships, and I am struck by the connection to compassion. It is easy to judge and rate cardboard cutout characters, people who seem only one- or two-dimensional. But once you know their story, their complex lives, it is difficult to not have compassion.
The amazing staff and volunteers at Green Umbrella are living service and compassion. Once again, I am thankful that our family was invited to be a part of this effort, it was truly inspiring.
A few more photos: