Letter from the CEO
It has been ten years since my first trip to Cambodia. At the time, there wasn’t a Starbucks at the Heritage Walk. There wasn’t even a Heritage Walk. Tourists weren’t dunking their feet into aquariums so that they could get their skin eaten by “massaging” fish. Pub Street was already blaring out music thanks to the riotous backpacker bars Angkor What and the Temple Club. Children beggars seemed everywhere and even though they could barely speak English, they still wanted us to know that Obama was the President of the United States. And of course, I had no idea that I would start a nonprofit supporting Cambodian youth two years later.
The Savong Foundation is now in its eighth year and what an incredible wild TukTuk ride it has been. I remember all the early challenges; the grainy skype calls that were often dropped, the difficulty of finding regular donors, the banking frustrations, the cultural misunderstandings and even a particularly stressful fundraiser called Comedy for Cambodia which I very nearly missed entirely thanks to the Los Angeles traffic. We were also trying to do too many things in the earlier days. We built water pumps in the countryside, tried our hand at making jewelry and ran the Savong Student Center which was a living/learning center for the students. These projects were later abandoned to focus our efforts on what really mattered; giving our students the best education we could find.
And our students have really flourished! Many of these kids come from the countryside and their parents are farmers, barely bringing in $100/month for their hard labor. Without education, the children were destined to a similar fate but now they are in university studying Marketing, World Affairs, Teaching, Accounting, Information Technology, Law and Pharmacy. Not only are they improving their own lives but they are improving the lives of their families and paving the way for other kids who see the value of a great education. Even though we support a very limited number of students, I firmly believe that our circle of influence is much, much bigger and we’re positively impacting the lives of people we haven’t even met.
I am certainly proud of what we have accomplished but there is no way we could have done it without our generous and loyal donors. Some of our sponsors have been around since the very beginning and have religiously donated every month for years without fail. Others have given us a lump sum at the beginning of each year. We require that the students write letters to their sponsors every three months and relationships have developed over the years, sometimes between people that haven’t even met. It’s a family that reaches across oceans and borders and with so many ways to spend money in todays world, we are truly humbled that our sponsors have chosen our students to support. I would like to make a special mention about iHerb.com which is our corporate donor. They have been unwavering in their generosity and have allowed us to send several students to private high school and university. They have other projects in Cambodia and we have learned so much from their team by comparing stories and laughing about some of the lessons that we have been forced to swallow over the years.
With such support, we owe it to our students and our sponsors to make the Savong Foundation as successful as possible. We have done this in the past by streamlining our mission to find the most underprivileged students who understand the value of advanced education and give them unbroken support. We understand the value of each donated dollar; we have minimal overhead, employing only one paid manager and all our board members are volunteer. We encourage and motivate our students with monthly meetings, bringing in professionals who show them what their future could be like. We offer them a network of help if they have problems with their school or family life. We are as transparent as possible, both in how we operate but also in how much money passes through our hands. And we keep the nonprofit small and manageable. We will never support thousands of students in a generic kind of way. I prefer to know all the students personally and consider them part of my Cambodian family. I want them to succeed just as if they were my own children and I know my other board members feel the same way.
2019 has already descended upon us and the high school students have been busy at their school for months. All of our university students have immersed themselves into their studies, school budgets have been set for another school year and yearly donations have been renewed. I’m just about to label a new binder with another title: Savong Foundation 2019 and add it to my collection. I’m sure there will be more.
Until next year.
Dr. Phil Caldwell