S.C.A.O Save Poor Children in Asia Organisation

Trip Start Jun 12, 2011
Trip End Oct 22, 2012

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Monday, August 1, 2011

We returned to Phnom Penh refreshed and ready for the next challenge. First though, a catch up with friends after their jaunt through Vietnam, some western treats... ice cream and Mexican food, and more delicious Khmer cooking chicken amok and beef lok lak with kampot pepper.

Our next stop was S.C.A.O (Save Poor Children in Asia Organisation) which is a non-profit NGO that provides homecare facilities and English education to orphans and disadvantaged children in Cambodia.  The organisation was set up by Sath Samith and is now run by him and his wife.  Mr Samith grew up in poverty himself and both him and his wife look after the 20 children who live at SCAO Centre with them.  The Centre is in a village called Boeng Chhouk 7km from Phnom Penh.  Around 180 children from Boeng Chhouk attend English classes at the Centre each day which are taught mostly by volunteers. 

We arrived at SCAO Centre on Wednesday 4th August to a warm welcome from Mr Samith who immediately pulled up some chairs and gave us a cup of cold water.  To call it a Centre doesn't really portray the homely character of it, always full of delightful and curious children playing or practicing their English studies. Mr Samith goes out of his way to care for the safety and needs of his volunteers and was very clear that we should treat our experience as our home and our family. We sat with Mr Samith while he gave us an information booklet to take and read and he told us some history about the Centre. 

The Centre has been open for 4 years and has captured the heart of many volunteers who have been there.  A couple of whom have even set up separate charities to raise funds to help support SCAO.  One such charity set up by an Irish chap has enabled Samith to build a new school in Somrong Cherng Village some 22 km out of Phnom Penh.  The new school opened 2 weeks before our arrival and caters for over 450 children from a very impoverished area where the opportunity to learn English has never before been available.  The new school was to be our home as they had no volunteers to stay there since the opening. 

We went off in our tuk-tuk with Mr Samith to the market as we wanted to donate some books, pens, rice, oil and fish sauce. Samith asks if you want to buy donations that you go with him as he knows the local market and they know about his project so he can get better prices.  For instance, one volunteer went to a market with their tuk tuk driver and paid $60 for a 50kg bag of rice, we paid $31, so it’s a no brainer really as your money goes further this way and Samith can tell you what they need.  At the Centre they need 4 x 50kg bags of rice per month to feed all the children there.  We then headed off back to Phnom Penh agreeing to return at 7am with our luggage so we could be taken to the new school in time for the first class at 8am.

Somrong Cherng Village is a rural area surrounded by fisheries and rice fields.  At this time of year though the rice fields are flooded and fishing boats meander up and down and children splash about in the shallows cooling off after a long hot day. As we arrived at gone 8am the children were crowded outside of the school gates waiting for class.  We were ushered past them and shown to our room, put our bags down and then asked who was teaching which class!  So after a brief panic and pause we agreed that Will would remain upstairs with the slightly older more advanced kids learning grammar (such as the difference between he, she, we, they, it) and I went downstairs to teach ABCs.  So we stepped out of our room straight into the classroom and were each confronted with classes of around 65 faces staring at us expectantly.

Som Hom taught the classes upstairs since the school had opened and so Will observed his class in the morning and I was downstairs with Servandred.  After observing the first class in the morning we taught the afternoon classes ourselves (a repeat of the morning class as different students but this time class sizes of 88 downstairs with me (aged 5-13) and 92 (aged 10-22) upstairs with Will 4 kids to a bench).  Hom had to go into town that afternoon and so Will taught the class on his own.  It was most certainly a baptism of fire for both of us but we rose to the challenge.  From then on we planned and taught the lessons ourselves teaching for 2 hours a day 8-9am and 2-3pm and planning the next days lessons in between.  Sevandred and Hom helped to translate instructions to the students as their English was quite limited. 

We did our best to try to keep all the kids interested which is quite hard when faced with such a large class of kids and at all different levels.  Creating interactive ways to teach and a few games to play. We both have a new found respect for teachers after that!  Hopefully some of what we did stuck and they learnt something.  One thing that struck me was their desire and enthusiasm to learn.  These kids do sometimes attend the public school although often their parents put them to work to earn money instead of going to school.  SCAO gives them an opportunity to learn English for one hour a day which gives them opportunities in the future and hopefully keeps them from begging or selling books on the streets.

In between classes we played with the kids in the village outside the school, planned or hung out with the Khmer staff.  We really felt like part of a team and it was great to finally be doing something constructive.  Hom lived at the Centre and so he would arrive in the morning to help Will.  Servandred and his wife Da (who did all the cooking),  Dean and Pon lived at the school with us.  Our meals were mainly rice (3 x a day takes a bit of getting used to) with vegetables and broth and small bits of pork. We would snack on sweet potatoes from the stall outside the school or sweet sticky rice with beans. The team were all lovely and really made us feel at home, we will miss them all.  Servandred took us to his favourite spot in the village where you can sit and watch the sun set over the fields with the mountains in the background while the kids splash around in the waters in front of you and cows chew on piles of hay.

The kids from the village are adoreable, keen to learn, fun and a delight.  A few of them would hang around outside the school in their dusty clothes and bare feet playing with what little they had to entertain themselves.  They were playing catch with a dirty dolls head one day and so we went and bought some bamboo balls for them to play with.  There was one cheeky little girl called Rotan who always wanted to play with me but was really quiet in class.  Even when we went up on the roof of the school for some time out and to look at the amazing view from up there you would hear shouts of little voices from below 'hello’ and if you look down little hand would wave at you.

On Saturday and Sunday there were no classes at the new school so on Saturday we helped at the old school with the conversation classes which are really there to help the kids there practice their English (which is quite good by now as they have been attending SCAO for some time). After class we went back into Phnom Penh for the night.  Sitting eating dinner you are always reminded of the surrounding poverty as kids that look as young as 5 or 6 wander the streets late at night selling trinkets or books or begging on the street. 

We taught at the new school for over a week and really enjoyed the remote rural setting and total immersion into village life.  We felt like part of the community, especially when a couple of the parents (who you don’t normally see) came into the school bowing with hands together to say thank you to us.  It felt amazing and has inspired us to seek out more projects like this on our journey and endeavour to come back to see how the school is progressing in the future.

Towards the end of our stay three girls from Hong Kong came to volunteer so they assisted our classes.  Also two girls from England came to the new school for a couple of days which enabled us to split some of the classes so they taught a third lesson and the classes were reduced in size to make them slightly more manageable.  I believe that Samith has plans to split the classes further so there will be 4 classes a day of different abilities which will be more manageable for future volunteers.  The new school is still very much in its infancy and I will definately be following their progress and wish them all the best for the future and their misson.

What you can do to help:


SCAO rely on volunteers to teach the kids.  The only qualification you need is to be an English speaker.  They especially need long term volunteers but stays of any length are possible if there is room.  The children are very enthusiastic and willing to learn. If you know anyone who might be thinking about volunteering then I would absolutely recommend this as a project.  The work that Mr Samith does is admirable and he needs all the help he can get.

Bring essential products:

Rice, fruit and other foods (but not sweets), hygiene products, English teaching books, notebooks, writing and painting equipment, games, toys, children’s clothing, shoes and bags are just some of things that are needed.

Financial donations:

Donations are the main source of income for SCAO and are imperative to its survival.  From my first hand experience there I can assure you that your money is well spent and going to a great cause.

Helping out around the centre:

Playing with the kids, help on various building projects, design displays, fundraise etc.  Anything that benefits the centre is a great help.

For more information please check out www.savechildreninasia.org or find them on facebook.

If you are interested in volunteering please contact Sath Samith samith33@gmail.com

p.s. the children really enjoyed taking our camera and taking pictures of themselves and looking at them so many of the pics were taken on 'kid cam'

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