We wanted to understand the ins and outs of the Cambodian Child And Hope Association (CCAHA), how did it started, what is its mission and vision and most important who is the mind and man behind it.
Interview with Phalla Chheang
Headmaster of Cambodian Child and Hope Association.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your story?
My name is Phalla Chheang and I am 34 years old. I am currently living with my wife and two little children, a 5-year old boy and a 3-year girl, in the Banan village, located in the Province of Battambang, Cambodia.
Originally from Siem Reap, I grew up in a small village in that area and with my entire family, including my seven siblings. At the age of thirteen years old, I had not attended school yet and to escape this trend, I ended up leaving my family temporarily to live in a Buddhist Pagoda with the Buddhist monks. It was the Preah Dak Pagoda outside Siem Reap.
During the next five years, with the monks I had the chance to learn how to read and write Khmer, as well as Mathematics. I also learnt English language, thanks to the help and kindness of an American woman who came to visit Cambodia and ended up sponsoring my education.
In 2005, when I was 22, a family school was established in Preah Dak Village and I starting teaching as a volunteer. During three years this was my role. Three years later I became a Buddhist monk at the Preah Dak Pagoda.
In Cambodia, as in other countries in Southeast Asia, it is quite common for the males to become monks for a period of time in life, even if it is only for a year or two. As a Buddhist monk, I kept teaching at the primary school every afternoon, from 1pm to 5pm, while I dedicated the mornings to collect food donated by the people. During those mornings, I started to realize that there were so many children not going to school, because theirs parents could not afford the public schools uniforms and learning materials. They also had to help their families in the household chores and sometimes in the rice fields work. With this thought in my mind, I decided to open a class in the late afternoon dedicated to these children. Suddenly, I had around 200 kids in my class, some wearing clothes, others not. In other villages, they soon heard about my project, and several people asked me if I could help them to establish a school in their village.
I tried to help them as much as I could. In 2008, still as a Buddhist monk, I founded CCAHA, opening five schools in the area of Siem Reap. One year later, I asked permission at the Pagoda if I could step back to devote all my time to this project. I got their blessing and I could continue to use the rooms at the Pagoda for teaching. In this way, CCAHA was created and kept growing over the years.
So, could you sum up your key reasons to create Cambodian Child Hope and Association?
During my first years of teaching and as a Buddhist monk, I could realize that a lot of people in Cambodia do not have access to education. Even in my case, I could only have access to more education through the help of others. But education is expensive. Uniforms, books, pens, pencils, transportation to school, all of this is expensive. The poorest cannot afford it. I also understood that education is very important for the future of Cambodia. The development of the country needs the an educated new generation that could find better jobs and help the country to fight poverty. These two reasons were the main key drivers that encouraged me to found Cambodian Child and Hope Association.
Could you tell us more about the project?
In 2008, five schools were launched in Siem Reap, receiving a total of 721 kids to teach Khmer and English languages. These children studied during 3 years and finished the curriculum successfully.
In 2011, three more schools were opened in Siem Reap and a total of 1.000 students were helped at the time.
Moreover, in 2016, the first school was opened in the province of Battambang, near to the Banan village, close to my new resident location after marriage. At the time, two schools were still operating in Siem Reap, but, unfortunately, they ended up closing.
This happened as I was not close so frequently, but also because of fundraising problems.
In Battambang, the first school was fundraised by Equal Chance Foundation, supporting the education of 100 children. There are four classes in total: one class in the kindergarten level, one class in level 1 and two classes in level 2. Each student has one of hour of class per day, from Monday to Friday. The subjects are Khmer and English languages.
The second school in the region opened one year after, thanks to the help and generosity of Danish families. Finally, the third and more recent school opened in 2018 with the contribution of people from Australia.
So, at the moment, CCAHA is running three schools in the Province of Battambang, giving a chance to 430 children aged from 6 to 16 years old.
How much money is needed to open a school? In what is the fundraising money used for?
A school sponsorship costs $5.500 and allows to keep a school running for one year helping 100 kids. The fundraising money is used for the teachers’ salary (the teachers are typically originally from Cambodia and they are not volunteers, so they earn a salary), school materials (whiteboards, benches, chairs, among others), student materials (books, pens and pencils). Apart from that, part of the money is also used to cover some management and administrative costs, including the fees paid to the Government to promote the schools within the communities. Please note that normally we do not need to pay the rent for the school buildings, since the places are provided by generous Buddhist monks or they are supported by the hole village.
Moreover, it is also possible to sponsor a specific child. It costs $250 per a child and per year. The sponsor is to provide the children with all learning materials, transportation to school if necessary (for instance, a bicycle), and also uniforms to allow the child to attend public school.
Finally, small donations can always be done and the purpose of the donations can be discussed between the donor and the association, taking into consideration the most urgent needs. For instance, it could be to buy bicycles or school bags for a group of children to come to school, or to buy uniforms to allow some kids to go to public schools.
Reports to the partners in fundraising are done every six months, including the student list and a register of the accounting budget and effective costs. Additionally, the children progress test results are also shared every three months.
And how do you collect students for the schools you open?
I am the first to do some research and learning about the community in the region and contact with the families. When the research is done, I usually have a meeting with the Authorities to discuss the best way to implement the project and give these children a chance. Finally, the program starts with a 2-week children registration and school launching. The Authorities also play a role in informing families about the project and putting them in contact with the CCAHA.
Why more schools instead of more subjects or better conditions in each school?
Of course more subjects or better conditions would be wonderful. But unfortunately the money we have is limited. We always ask the sponsor if they prefer to open a new school and help more children or prefer to improve the conditions on the existing schools.
For instance, new subjects imply hiring and training more teachers, which tends to be more difficult than starting a new school in another location.
We decided to be focused on English classes, firstly because this subject is not covered in the primary public school and secondly we strongly believe it is extremely important to invest in learning an international language. Cambodia has been growing in the recent years mainly thanks to tourism. Given my first experience in Siem Reap, I could understand that if the kids knew how to speak English they would have more chances to find a better job in the future, most of the times related to tourism, such as working in a hotel, a shop or as an English speaking tourist guide.
English is a powerful source to go beyond the farming life.
How can I help? If I want to be a volunteer, what should I do?
You can always help donating money. You can do it through our partners in different locations in the world, being Equal Chance Foundation one of the them. You can participate in the regular activities Equal Chance develops. Attend their yoga classes, run in their marathons, and part of the money will be given to a good cause. If you prefer, you can give small donations to a specific purpose, as I mentioned before. Finally, if you have the chance to come to Cambodia, I will welcome you to visit our schools and our amazing children.
You can be a volunteer helping our teachers in the classroom. But for that, we prefer you to stay for a longer period of time, from one to two months at least, to be able to connect with the children and create a sustainable impact. If you do not have that time, but you are a professional teacher or an English native speaker, you can help our teachers giving them training workshops for a short period of time.
In case of any interest, just contact me or contact the fundraising partnerships.
What are the main difficulties you have been finding?
The first problem is related to fundraising, as expected. We have been trying to find more sponsorships, but it is not easy. The Government does not give any support to initiatives like this one. For this reason, we need to establish more contacts with foreigner people that can help collect more money.
The second problem concerns the experience of our teachers. They do not have as much experience as we desire. Coaching is necessary. Some time ago, we were lucky enough to have a professional teacher from Singapore helping with some teachers’ coaching and the results were really great. That is why we will welcome everyone interested in helping with training courses focused on our teachers.
Well, you dedicate a lot of time for volunteering work. How do you earn money to sustain your family?
From the association I only earn a small amount that is allocated to me. For this reason, I had to find other ways of earning a living. My wife works as a clothes designer, while I work in the farm business, producing lemongrass, lime, ginger, among others.
If you did not do this, what would you do?
Well, I like to concern not only about the kids, but all the community. Actually, I have been trying to help not only in the thematic of education, but also in helping some families starting business farms to earn more money, or coaching some villagers to help them become tour guides. I also try to be involved in Politics. I want a better future for the people of Cambodia, for the children of Cambodia. For that, education should be a priority. After the period of the Khmer Rouge in the seventies, the most educated people of Cambodia were tragically killed. Hundreds of teachers, doctors, nurses, Buddhist monks died. Now that things are getting better, we should not forget that education and new opportunities to the villagers are the way to go.
What are your plans for the future?
At this moment CCAHA has 3 schools running in Battambang and I am pretty confident about their future. I expect to meet more sponsors or donors that can help me to open more schools and also restore the schools in Siem Reap.
With more funding it will be also possible to invest in the development of new skills for the students. I am thinking about creating an area filled with some computers, where all students from the Province could come during the weekends and learn how to work with a computer.
Finally, I want to be more focused on the orphan children, promoting more the child sponsorship. From my experience, I think $250 per year are enough to make sure the kid has what is necessary (bicycle, uniform, school materials) to attend public school and also our association.