Letter from the CEO

Dr. Phil Caldwell, CEO

What could go wrong?

2020 started off great; our students were doing well at school, we were able to pay all our school fees and we were looking forward to a smooth year of providing high school and university scholarships and finally launching our music education program.  For the most recent nine years, I had travelled to Cambodia in the fall and I didn’t think that this past year was going to be anything different.  October was always a great time to go.  The weather is perfect at that time and my trip always coincided with the start of the school year.  I was looking forward to another visit even though it was several months away.

And then the COVID hit.

As of this writing, Cambodia has thankfully been spared widespread deaths although it’s difficult to really know how widespread the virus is in the Kingdom.  Despite the low mortality rate, the effect on Siem Reap’s economy has been devastating.   The town is very dependent on the international tourist trade thanks to the incredibly beautiful Angkor temples nearby, so the lack of visitors has completely collapsed its hospitality businesses.  There were some countries that made it easier for tourists to travel safely but not Cambodia.  In the summer, the government started requiring a deposit of $3000 to enter the country and if one visitor on a plane tested positive for the virus, then the whole plane would be quarantined with the expenses taken out of this deposit.  With no jobs and lack of such “luxuries” as unemployment insurance, residents of Siem Reap were forced to go back to their hometowns and rely on each other for support.  Nobody knows when life will return to normal but economically and socially, the effects could last for years.

The Savong Foundation has taught me a lot of lessons but one of the most important is that life is unpredictable and unforeseen obstacles can arise at any time.  If we are going to survive, then we must come up with creative ways to overcome.  I’m happy to say that our students have done very well during these turbulent times and have adapted very well.  Thankfully, this global menace has come at a time when online learning was practical and private high schools and universities incorporated this tool into their programs.  All our students have access to computers (or their phones) so their education has continued.  No, it’s not quite the social atmosphere that a classroom can provide but the goal is to learn, get through another school year and stay as safe as possible.  I think our students have managed to do all of that and do it well.  

We had two big graduations this year.  Kimsan is a well-known student who we have been supporting all through university.  She made a big impression on me during my early trips to Cambodia.  She came from such a poor background and had such a big desire to learn that she became the standard for all the students we want to help to this day.  She is now engaged and has returned to her hometown at the Thai border and works with an NGO teaching English. Boramy has always been an exceptional student whom we started supporting in high school. She recently completed a scholarship in the United States to study for a semester and now is on a scholarship to study Global Affairs in Singapore.  Both these students are now Savong Foundation alumni and are great examples of how money and hard work can dramatically improve not only a student’s life but also the lives of people around them.

Of course, we’ve had our disappointments, too. One of our promising university students has decided to take a sabbatical and work full time.  We try to make sure our students are motivated to complete a university education but ultimately, they are adults who can make their own choices. We had another student who seemed perfectly happy with her studies at the beginning of the year but decided life in the “big city” wasn’t for her and is now becoming a nun at a temple. We’re not sure at this time whether this will be a temporary or permanent position, but we hope that she will return to her studies and realize her potential.  We’ve assured her that we will continue to support her even if she chooses not to continue with the law degree that she was pursuing.  And perhaps on a somewhat happier note, we discontinued the scholarship of a young pharmacy student because she got married. Our student contract stipulates that students cannot get married while they are on our scholarship but in this student’s case, she married a dentist who can support her studies. We’re very happy for them and she promised to support one of our students after she graduates.

Besides supporting high school and university students, we finally launched our collaboration with the Nirmita Composers Institute. This is a group of music composers who are interested in teaching a new generation of Cambodian musicians how to write traditional style music.  Because the Savong Foundation is focused on education, supporting arts education is another avenue which we are happy to pursue. This year we helped sponsor two workshops in Phnom Penh which involved musicians, dancers and choreographers. More about these workshops will be found later in the annual report.

The Savong Foundation Cambodia is entering its 10-year anniversary of being a 501c3 nonprofit in the United States.  There is only one way we could have come this far and that is with the generosity of our donors.  iHerb.com is our corporate sponsor who has stood by us for several years and we are honored that they trust us to use their money to support underprivileged Khmer students who want to pursue university degrees.  We are equally honored that our private donors have stuck with us during these difficult times.  We realize that there are plenty of other organizations that ask for money and by choosing us, we respect those donations by choosing only the most eligible students who want to improve their lives.  Moreover, we strive to be as financially transparent as possible while keeping overhead fees to an absolute minimum.  We look forward to all this support for years to come.

Looking into 2021, we are still optimistic.  We have added five new students to our scholarship program this year, four of whom are in high school and one in university.  We feel that there is an urgent need to support education in Cambodia since even more families can’t afford to send their children to good schools.  We will continue to fight for them and treat them like family.  We will continue to motivate them to finish their studies.  We will continue to find ways to make our scholarship and music programs more successful.  And I look forward to another trip to Cambodia in the fall of this year if anyone would like to join me.

Stay safe everyone.  

Dr. Phil Caldwell

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