The Savong Foundation Cambodia is now in its tenth year. It’s a little difficult to believe if only because Cambodia can seem so far away at times. As I was planning a trip to the Kingdom of Wonder with a fellow board member, he mused over the 32 hours it would take to get there and asked, “Why couldn’t you have started a nonprofit in Hawaii?”
When I first travelled to Cambodia in 2008, the thought of starting a nonprofit was probably the furthest thing from my mind. I had decided to take a sabbatical from work and I had always wanted to photograph the temples of Siem Reap. My brother provided me with some airmiles, I did my research on where to go while I was there and my flight was booked. It seemed easy enough but then the problems started; my passport renewal was taking longer than expected, the flight was unexpectedly cancelled due to using airmiles and everyone I talked to didn’t seem to care that I had a very narrow window of travel before my job started up again. In the middle of my frustration, my mother asked calmly if this was a sign that I wasn’t meant to go to Cambodia. I answered that this was just a way of testing me to see how badly I wanted to go to Cambodia. And I really wanted to go! Looking back, I really think that I was meant to take that trip. The country was calling to me like a Siren and I answered it (ignoring the fact that sailors who answered Siren calls normally crashed and died on the rocks). A week after I put my feet on its ground, I was already thinking about how I could come back, start a nonprofit and help.
Help was such a vague uncertain term back then. I knew that I had skills to share but not certain if they would be useful. Coming off a sabbatical, I didn’t have a lot of money and I absolutely hated asking people (especially friends and family) for donations. Where was the money for a nonprofit going to come from? But help starts with caring and I did care a lot so I figured I had a starting point. The next thing I asked myself was just how long was I going to do this for? I’m not the type of person who starts a project and then gives it up a year later. Case in point, I had just tried for ten years to break into Hollywood as a screenwriter so my resiliency and determination can be quite high but a nonprofit to help people is of course a completely different type of project. I definitely couldn’t start something and give it up after a year or so, no matter how difficult it was. I was dealing with people’s lives. It had to be a long-term commitment and I had to promise myself that at the very beginning.
Ten years after becoming a 501c3 nonprofit, I’m very proud to say that we are still going strong. With the passage of that much time since our beginning, we are finally seeing the fruits of our labor. Scholarship students who started with us in Grade 5 are now in university. Students that started with us in high school have now graduated from university and are now in the workforce. A few of our students that I knew as “kids” have now grown up and have families of their own. One of our students, Boramy, is now doing post-graduate study in Singapore. Every student has a story and maybe one day, I’ll write a book about them. In the meantime, please read about Cheat’s story later in the report. Even at a young age in the countryside, he believed in the power of education to transform lives and he sought our support to get a scholarship. He approached one of the donors of the NGO and eventually, we supported him as well as four of his friends from the village where he had lived. Now he is a graduate from the University of Cambodia with a degree in Business Marketing and his transformation has been truly incredible.
Of course, there have been hurdles and the obvious one recently has been the COVID pandemic. Looking on the bright side (and certainly not to diminish the seriousness of the virus), the pandemic came at a good time when technology could be utilized to mitigate the challenges of getting an education while practicing social distancing. Our students transitioned to online classes and we provided them with smart phones if needed and a monthly stipend to pay for internet if they didn’t have free access. The virus has also upended my travel plans (since I normally make the trip annually) but telegram, Messenger and Zoom have all been my friends to keep in touch not only with my manager, Rathana, but also with the students. I can remember ten years ago when I tried to have phone calls to Cambodia on Skype and it was an exercise in frustration. Poor connections and dropped calls were the norm. Even board meetings were challenging back then due to “technical difficulties”. There is no substitute for showing up in person, however, and I’m optimistic that I can make the trip this year, make sure our projects are running well and catch up with our Cambodian family.
Even though I started the initial concept of the Savong Foundation Cambodia, I was mindful of the African saying that reminds us “It takes a village to raise a child.” That is especially true for our nonprofit. There is an extended group of people who make the magic happen and I’m very thankful for their help, guidance and donations. We have four other board members in the United States who each bring a different skillset to our organization as well as a Rathana who runs all of our operations on site. Over the years, I have relied on volunteers from all over the world to give me insights on nonprofit work in general and when needed, our individual students specifically. The Savong Foundation Cambodia also falls under the umbrella of a larger NGO and I have worked with the other branches to make sure our students are well supported, especially if they are coming from the countryside and need a place to live. I’m especially grateful to our donors who quite literally keep this organization going. Most of our income comes from private donations and some of our donors have been with us for years. With so many ways to donate money these days, this is quite an honor and we work very hard to respect every dollar, whether it comes in the form of a twenty or a thousand. We truly believe in transparency and we have the Guidestar Platinum Seal of Approval to prove it.
Our corporate donor, iHerb has also been a huge part of our success. They have supported many of our students through sponsorships but I’m also thankful for the guidance and wisdom from Nika who looks after their charitable arm of their corporation. She knows first-hand the challenges that come along with any work in Cambodia and I have appreciated all the advice she has given me. We look forward to continued collaboration in the future.
I’m really looking forward to what 2022 will bring. I have three young women, recently graduated from High School, who are interested in medical school. There is an entrance exam in March which they must pass to in order to choose which school they would like to attend. We will have another student graduate from the University of Cambodia with a major in Marketing. We have two students who are going to enter the University of South-East Asia, one will study History and the other will be study Hospitality and Tourism. Most of our students are back in their classrooms and from the photos and videos I’ve seen of Siem Reap, it looks like the whole place got a makeover which will hopefully bring the tourist dollars back – tourism is the driving force for employment in the Siem Reap area.
Beyond the hard work of our students, the generosity of our donors, the guidance from our board members and other supporters, I think the other big reason why we’ve made it to ten years is by learning to keep everything simple. We support a small number of students, we know them individually, we find the best schools and we cover tuition and in some cases, living expenses. We have one manager so our overhead is quite low and we carefully base our number of students on how much money we bring in. We pick the best students who want to pursue professional careers who need our financial help and we treat them like family which they are. Gone are the days when we tried to build water pumps, run a student dormitory, buy mosquito nets, support students who were terrible at school and who took a lot of energy to make them better. Simplicity is the key that has worked for us. With this principle in mind and the people who have surrounded us, I hope we’re around to celebrate with another anniversary cake ten years from now.
Dr. Phil Caldwell