Wednesday, January 27, 2010

140 Rotary Bicycles Distributed - Rotary Repairs 19 Sewing Machines!

Another few weeks have gone by quickly here in Cambodia. Many days were filled with the smiles of countless rural children as they proudly accepted their very first bicycle!

Since the ‘Cambodia World Family - Krong Kep’ school distribution, my friend Pauline Johns from Australia and I had traveled to Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, where we met with my dear Khmer friend, Un Vanthon and his family.

For the month previous to our arrival in Phnom Penh, Vanthon and his family were busy preparing for 2 bicycle distributions amounting to 56 bicycles which were donated by the Bracebridge-Muskoka Lakes Rotary Club in Ontario, Canada. These bicycles were destined for rural villages in Takeo province, and some for students on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Vanthon earns his living as a tuk-tuk taxi driver in Phnom Penh, and when he’s not busy working to support his wife and four children, he and his family get involved in volunteer humanitarian efforts that help out those less fortunate than themselves. Vanthon lived through the horrors of the Pol Pot regime and he literally has the scars to show for it. Now, this determined man living on a meager salary is making a difference in the lives of many. Whether it’s giving out some cheaply-bought clothes to those in need, or providing a room and a meal in their house to a hungry person, Vanthon and family demonstrate the true spirit of compassion.

During the Khmer Rouge years, Vanthon and his family had spent time in the rural villages in Takeo province, and have since then revisited the area many times. These rural villages are similar to those in Kep province where one rarely sees any NGO (non-governmental organization) activity. Even government schools are far and few between and sadly lacking in classroom space and supplies.

On January 16th, we went to Vanthon’s house in Kampong Saming, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh and distributed 11 bicycles to students that had come from the surrounding area to receive a bike. One boy came from quite a distance away. His hands were scarred and blistered from his strenuous occupation of foresting wood in the jungles. His small salary is all that his very ill mother and himself live on in the jungle. We sent him away with his precious bicycle, and few clothes and a pair of shoes that Vanthon’s family donated.

Each bicycle recipient has a story of challenge and hardship, but their overwhelming desire to attain an education gives them their hope for the future.

January 17th, saw us all heading by mini-van to Takem village in Takeo province. We arrived in the morning to the school there were children and parents had congregated to await the arrival of our van and the truckload of 45 bikes in tow. This small school has 400 students with 70 to a class. Grades one to six are taught there. We were warmly greeted by the school director and village chief. A small ceremony with speeches was held, where Vanthon announced to all that these bicycles were donated by Rotary for their education. Each bicycle has a Rotary decal on the frame. Vanthon and his family all proudly bore the Rotary emblem on their shirts for the day! I think that Vanthon has now put the Rotary decal on his tuk-tuk in Phnom Penh - so look for him next time you are there!

There was a great need for bikes at this school. Children came from three surrounding villages to get their bikes. Many rose early in the morning, and walked for miles to get this first bike.

One boy arrived obviously very ill. His father supported him as he slowly staggered forward to sign the bike form and then accept his bike. Some of the younger children, who never had had much interaction with foreigners, came forward quite apprehensively to sign the form. But in each instance, it is more than evident that receiving a bicycle is one of the most momentous experiences in their young lives.

It was a grand occasion which was followed by a home-cooked meal in a nearby rural village. We sat on the eating platform and enjoyed an afternoon of wonderful Khmer country-side cooking and some good laughs as we tried to communicate to each other despite the language barrier. I love getting out to the rural homes and visiting with the Khmer folk in the countryside. These warm and welcoming people have left me with precious memories of pleasant times spent together in their humble homes.

We spent the night in Takeo - a lovely, peaceful town by a small lake - surprisingly not much visited by tourists. Then, it was back to Phnom Penh for a few rainy days there, and now we’re in Siem Reap, where last night we gave out a few more bicycles to some of the children living in a deplorable shanty town hidden in the heart of the city.

My friend Pauline Johns, has made an impact in the lives of these 53 families living in this cramped little shanty town. Earlier this week, with the help of our dear friend Sokha, who is manager of Indochina Explorer here in Siem Reap, Pauline funded bikes, rice, mosquito nets, shoes and school uniforms to many of the families in this shanty town. Last night, I gave out a few ‘A Mine Free World Foundation’ sponsored bikes for students there.

There are always children in need of a bike, that don’t get one. There are many more children who desperately need this valuable ’transportation for education’.

A donation of $50 to ’A Mine Free World Foundation’, will provide a child with a bike equipped with a carrier, basket, lamp, lock and key. Your welcomed donation can be sent to: 906 Fung Place, Kitchener, ON, Canada, N2A 4M3.

Each donor receives a photo of their sponsored student with their bicycle and some short biographical info on their recipient.

My deepest gratitude to fellow Rotarians from the following clubs who donated a total of 160 bicycles here in Cambodia:

The Rotary Club of Bracebridge-Muskoka Lakes, Ontario Canada - 118 bicycles
The Rotary Club of Orillia, Ontario, Canada - 42 bicycles

I am happy to coordinate any Rotary Club bicycle distribution donations here on the ground in Cambodia. I will be here another 2 months and back again in October for another winter of volunteer work.

Rotary in action is seen in many places throughout Cambodia! Many water filters, wells and even schools can be seen with the familiar blue and yellow Rotary wheel emblem.

Now, thanks to the generosity of the Rotary Club of Gravenhurst, Ontario, Canada (my home club), there are 19 sewing machines at remote ‘Cambodia World Family-Krong Kep’ school ablaze with this emblem.

Thanks to Gravenhurst Rotarians for funding the repairs to these 19 sewing machines and tables - the first important step to reviving their sewing class program for impoverished rural women.

Pauline and I are committed to helping those in the rural areas where education is sadly lacking.

As reported in the ‘Cambodian Daily’ - Cambodia is amongst the lowest educated countries in the world. Among 129 countries, Cambodia ranked 104 on UNESCO’s Education Development Index. Out of a score of 1-10, Cambodia ranks 0-1 in adult literacy, school enrolment and quality of education. There is a desperate need for more schools and teachers in the rural areas. Out of every 100 students entering primary school, 60 leave before graduating. This is mainly due to the fact that most families live below the poverty level and once children are old enough to work, they enter the work field to help support the family income.

Most children come from large families, and parents cannot afford the few cents it costs to send all their children to school. Teachers in Cambodia are paid a very low salary, hence the extra cost to the children. ‘Free Education’ Schools sponsored by NGOs are a solution to this problem, but very few are found in the provinces of Kep or Takeo.
With all these facts in mind, Pauline and I have teamed up to open a small ‘free education’ school in Kep province. It will be the fourth such school in this province, which has an extremely high rate of illiteracy. It will provide Khmer and English literacy education to children and adults. We are in the process of registering it here with the Ministry of the Interior in Cambodia.

We’ll be heading back down to Kep in a few days to get plans underway for this school. I'll spend those two months helping out at Cambodia World Family-Krong Kep School.

Many thanks to all the generous ‘A Mine Free World Foundation’ donors who have contributed towards bicycles and to all our projects and programs.

A special thanks to all the musicians and performers who contributed their talents to the fundraising ‘Muskoka Talent Festival’, which raised funds for the commencement of construction of a bike bank building at the rural Bakong Technical College site in Siem Reap province.

Another special belated thanks to a very special musician and Khmer friend in Weimar, Germany - Dan McCoy and Bonita No, who held a fundraising concert there for ‘A Mine Free World Foundation’ bicycles. The following is a press release of their concert:

Art for Cambodia in Germany

On Monday, June 8th, 19-year-old Bonita No (recent prize-winner of the "Young Women in Public Affairs Award" from the Zonta Foundation) spoke about her country, Cambodia, at a benefit concert in Weimar, Germany. The young student described her numerous experiences with various projects by non-profit organisations, such as the Thuringian-Cambodian Association, in order to help her struggling country, which was destroyed economically and culturally during the Pol Pot regime in the 1970s.

A silent auction was also held with art donated by local Weimar artists and galleries. The proceeds of the benefit went to The Bike Bank Project, an initiative helping young Cambodian girls receive an education. Poor, rural families in Cambodia cannot often afford to send their kids to school, let alone provide transportation. A student must walk up to 2 hours each way to get to class, if they can afford to attend school at all; a bike will cut this travel time from 2 hours to 20 minutes. Financial contributions provide a student with a refurbished and sturdy bike equipped with a basket, carrier, and lamp to help improve not only the student’s life but also their family’s economic situation.

The evening was accompanied by music performed by Erik Warkenthin, theorbo, Johanna Kr├╝ger, recorder, Anne Schneider, soprano, and Mikhail Yarzhembovskiy, Gothic harp and the event was organised by Gravenhurst resident, Dan McCoy, now living in Germany.

Dan found out about the present situation in Cambodia through the work of his cousin, Lisa McCoy, who helped build the recently finished Muskoka School in the Siem Reap district. By coincidence, Dan met Cambodian-born Bonita in an elevator in Weimar, and they eventually decided to work together to raise awareness for her country. Bonita has just graduated from the International Baccalaureate Programme in Weimar and will soon be returning to Cambodia to volunteer for one year; she plans to pursue a business degree in Florida in 2010.