SIEM REAP, Cambodia — During the mid to late 1970’s, the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 1.7 million people in Cambodia –roughly 21 percent of the country’s population. It was one of the worst genocides of the 20th century, yet it never gained the notoriety of the Holocaust and is little known by people living outside of Southeast Asia.
Along with first wiping out Cambodia’s educated class, the regime under Pol Pot destroyed Cambodia's infrastructure and drove the education system into ruins. In fact, Tuol Seng High School in the capital Phnom Penh, was converted into one of the world’s most infamous torture centers, where brutal acts of inhumanity took place on the grounds of the usually serene campus where Cambodia’s children once learned.
Due to the massive demographic shift, a large percentage of the population is now under the age of 14, often without familial support and little access to a good education. Even thirty-years after the unthinkable events that took place, the country still struggles to get out from under the weight of mass genocide and help its people better themselves and provide the tools to help them attain a better future.
It was on a trip to Siem Reap in the summer of 2008 that myself, along with three volunteers witnessed first-hand this problem in desperate need of a solution. We were there for a few months teaching English at local orphanages and schools in this incredibly beautiful trocpical country when we encountered a very different side of Siem Reap than those seen by tourists visiting the area to see the magnificent ruins of Angkor Wat.
On the very same streets lined with tourist populated bars and restaurants, we came across children with tattered clothes and no shoes, left without food for days; scores of children living in garbage dumpsters, unprotected from the risk of human trafficking so widespread in Cambodia.
The children eagerly line up to go to school.
According to humantrafficking.org, “Cambodia is a source, transit, and destination country for human trafficking,” where uncounted numbers of children are picked up off the street and shipped abroad for cheap labor and often sexual slavery.
We taught there, in filthy orphanage rooms, for several weeks, doing our best to help those children so much in need. Yet, despite the bare living conditions and a lack of anything even remotely comfortable, the children shone with enthusiasm through it all. That passion that I witnessed in those children is something that I will never forget.
While the right intentions were there, it quickly became apparent that the children of Siem Reap needed a more stable education environment than that of transient and inexperienced teaching volunteers, if they were going to beat the odds that are heavily stacked against them. The fact that children were taught in a single classroom, with ages ranging from five to nineteen years old, suitable learning with such a huge age disparity was simply not feasible.
Mayra Barragan (far left) and Heide Conahan (top, third from right) with some sprouting scholars
We soon realized how great the need was for these children to have a proper education, and how little of various charitable organization’s money was actually directed to supporting the children. Of the money paid to the other non-profit organizations for the benefit of liaising volunteers with orphanages, approximately $100 made it to the actual children. The rest of the funds were used to cover administration expenses.
This was incredibly frustrating to us because it was clear that these children needed the money in so many more ways than covering the non-profit’s overhead and administrative expense.
The idea of Sprouting Scholars was born at that moment with the goal of maintaining minimal administrative expenses so that the majority of funds raised would be used directly to enroll children into formalized educational institutions. No salaries, no office rental fees – strictly the bare necessities to effectively run a non-profit organization to fund education for these children.
Friend and family support poured in once we told them our story, however we, the current founders of the company, wanted to legitimize the endeavor, and we subsequently applied for a formal status with the IRS, which was approved in 2011. The organization was established as a non-profit organization for the purpose of funding education, and all aspects necessary to obtain one, for children who cannot afford to go to school.
The organization is an education fund, currently initiating their efforts in Cambodia, being able to support underprivileged children and young adults throughout the world in obtaining a meaningful education.
With the majority of expats in Korea being English teachers, we’re not only exposed to, but living within the tremendous advantage our students here have: access to a first-class education. It’s easy to forget that just a short plane ride away, there are children who push and shove just to get a seat in a ghastly orphanage “classroom” full of children and teenagers – just for an hour with inexperienced volunteer teachers and no basic supplies, like paper and pencils. These children become the forgotten children. The ones so easily ignored when we’re on vacation in Cambodia.
It is these exact children, the ones with no one standing in their corner, who are the beneficiaries of Sprouting Scholars.
Sprouting Scholars will get these children to school by selecting eligible candidates based on their application and need. The activities to be funded by the Sprouting Scholars will include payment of tuition directly to school on behalf of the child, contribution of books, school supplies, uniforms and all school-related needs for eligible children. The cost of one child’s tuition is approximately USD100 for the year – a minimal fee for a chance at a better life.
Sprouting Scholars has been fortunate enough to have garnered the support of global law firm, White & Case, LLP, who have provided pro bono guidance and direction through the ocean of paperwork necessary to obtain a charity status. Further, we are currently in discussions with the Cambodian Children’s Fund, a multi-million dollar NGO, to determine how we can gain from synergies from working together.
You can get more information on Sprouting Scholars on their website www.sproutingscholars.org
***Fundraising Event in Busan – Costumes and Cocktails for Cambodia on January 14th at Sharky's
Sprouting Scholars will be hosting its first Busan fundraiser on Saturday, January 14th, 2012 at Sharky’s Bar and Grill in Haeundae. What better way to chase away the winter blues than an 80’s theme night, live band and drink specials – all for only a 5,000 won donation – and for a great cause.***
You can check out the event page for more info.