After living through the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge – where schools were abolished and many of the Kingdom’s teachers and intellectuals killed – Ly Ponheary understands the importance of education. Her father was one of the teachers who died at the hands of the murderous regime, along with 13 other members of her family. She has dedicated her life to rebuilding education in Cambodia, starting with children.

“We will educate our children. We will do it one by one, step by step,” she once said, when asked how best to address poverty.

The Ponheary Ly Foundation (PLF) is an educational NGO that works with students and their communities in Preah Vihear and Siem Reap provinces. It currently supports over 2,800 students, from kindergarten through to university.

PLF works to create access to education for children and youth in the impoverished rural provinces of northern Cambodia, where schools are severely under-resourced and communities had often forgotten the value of education after decades of war.

The story of how PLF was established was told to The Post by Kate Allen, communications officer for the NGO. She explained that the founder, Ly Ponheary, comes from a long line of educators and is a former teacher and tour guide. She had a passion for education, and knew the struggles that children in rural Cambodia faced when trying to attend school.

“While taking tourists to the temples of Angkor Wat, she came into contact with numerous children who spent their days selling trinkets to tourists rather than attending school. Moved by what she saw, Ponheary began using her tips to support children with the basic supplies they needed to access school, which she distributed with her family.

“She encouraged the tourists she met to sponsor children’s education rather than buying souvenirs from them at the temples, as it only led to them missing school. In 2006, she met an American tourist, Lori Carlson, who was instantly struck by the importance and necessity of Ponheary’s work. Upon returning to the US, Lori set up PLF USA to raise funds and support the work of Ponheary and her family,” Allen said.

In 2008, Lori Carlson, president of PLF USA moved to Cambodia permanently to work closely with Ponheary and broaden her efforts. PLF Cambodia was officially registered in 2013.

PLF is still supported by the American operation, and its sister organisation in Canada, PLF Canada. Funds come largely from private donors in those countries, but they accept donations from anywhere in the world.

How the organisation supports learning

Allen said PLF works from within existing public schools to bolster their teaching capabilities and infrastructure, and provides all the resources, support and encouragement that a student needs to access and remain in education. From uniforms, school supplies and bicycles, to enrichment programmes, libraries, computer classes, workshops and mentorship.

Students live at home with their parents, with the exception of some older high-school students – if they gain a scholarship to PLF college-preparatory dorms, then they move to Siem Reap town, where they can attend the better-resourced urban secondary schools and gain an increased chance of getting the grades needed for university entrance.

“We work from inside public primary schools, adding to and augmenting what is already there and what students need to continue passing their grades. We are not reinventing the wheel by creating our own school. Our programmes start at kindergarten and as our earliest students have moved along their learning journey, we accompany them all the way – to high-school, vocational training or university. We support them with solutions as far as they can go,” Allen added.

Lori Carlson, president of PLF USA shared one of their most defining moments with The Post, when their mission was finally able to expand past primary schools into secondary schools. Through finding the solutions for their students to reach the next milestone, they defined their own mission.

Until that point they weren’t fully clear what sort of organisation they would be – would they have 20 primary schools and lots of students only getting to Grade 6? Or would they have less primary schools – currently 6 – and find pathways for the students to go through to university?

“Those first students who went on to secondary school defined our mission – we were going to go deep, rather than going wide. One of those first students, Sreyneang, also became our first university graduate,” Carlson says.

From farms to universities

Soun Sreyneang comes from Knar village in Siem Reap province. She enrolled in PLF’s programme from Grade Four at Knar Primary School, and PLF supported her all the way through school. After graduating high school, PLF granted her their first university scholarship, and with their help she studied nursing in Phnom Penh and graduated university in 2016.

From the beginning, Sreyneang says PLF helped with all the resources and supplies she needed – bicycle, books, uniforms, and extra classes.

Soun Sreyneang, one of the beneficiaries of Ponheary Ly Foundation, speaks at a workshop in June. PONHEARY LY FOUNDATION

“This really helped since my family was poor and could not buy those things. PLF also counselled me and encouraged me to study. Before PLF I had no dream, no goal – but with their support, I began to see my future and how to make it come true,” said the 30-year-old former student.

She says she has learned a lot from PLF – she is confident, was able to live independently in town without her family and now shares her knowledge with the younger generation, often speaking to them about her achievements.

She added that when she was young and growing up on the farm, no one encouraged her to pursue her education. She remembered going to the PLF office and asking for a scholarship to go to university. Some of her family said it wasn’t right for a young woman to go to the city by herself, but her father was really supportive and excited that she had earned the scholarship.

“Now I have graduated and have a good job, achieving two of my dreams – to work for a community health NGO and to help the younger generation. Now all of my family see what a good thing it was that I kept studying,” she added.

“I owe a massive thank you to PLF for their unwavering love and support, which helped me to make my dreams come true. Thank you to Lori and Ponheary especially. They were with me on every step of my journey, and I am still a part of the PLF family. I’m proud of myself and PLF,” she said.

Pann Ry also shared her story. She knew of PLF through their work at Koh Ker primary school – the school in her village. All of her children participate in PLF’s programmes.

Her oldest daughter, Roem, is studying at university in Phnom Penh on a PLF scholarship. Her two youngest are still in school, one goes to high school in Srayang and the youngest is in kindergarten at Koh Ker primary.

She is grateful for the support of the organisation as she wants the best education for all of her children, but does not have the funds to support them.

“I only make a small amount of money collecting cassava and bamboo, so I have to use my money to buy food. I was really happy to get help from PLF. They provide all the things children need to go to school, and give them breakfast too,” the 48-year-old said.

When Roem was first in primary school, her mother didn’t understand a lot about education, or what PLF was trying to do. But she met Ponheary and her team at community meetings, and they explained their work. When Roem left home and moved to PLF’s Srayang dormitory to go to secondary school, it was really hard at first.

Roem was only 13 at the time. She was very young and it was unusual for a girl to leave home at that age. But because she’d met Ponheary so many times, she felt confident leaving her daughter at the dorm.

“Now my daughter is at university in Phnom Penh and is so grown up, independent and capable of looking after herself. The way she talks is so different to people living in the village. I’m so happy with all the things that PLF has made possible. Although it was hard to let her go in the first place, now I realise that it was all for the good. I am ready to send all my kids the same way,” she says.

She says now, her whole way of thinking is different – instead of worrying about money, her mind is more open. She realised that with education, her children have better futures and lives, and that makes her happy less stressed.

Allen says there are no expectations at all, but many of their older students choose to take part in their mentorship programme, sharing their knowledge and advice to the generation of students coming up behind them.

Sreyneang is currently volunteering as a mentor, speaking to university and high school students about leadership.

“I’m happy to do it, because I know that the younger generation benefit from seeing role models. It is not a requirement by PLF – it is voluntary. I was one of the first PLF students to go to university – the same year I went there was just one other student. Now, PLF has 113 students at university! So I am so happy to be a part of this growing programme,” she says.

Overcoming the challenges of Covid-19

Carlson told The Post that the programme is currently facing one of its toughest ever challenges. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, students have been out of school for two years. They are drastically behind in their learning, especially primary students. There was no programme at all for primary schools in remote areas, and the kids became completely disenfranchised.

Carlson said their solution so far has been to drop their previous programmes for the time being and participate in the government’s remedial training in Khmer and math, in an effort to get them back on track.

“We would like to be able to scale up our programming for students living with no access to education beyond primary school and reach yet more students within Preah Vihear and Siem Reap provinces. We’ve spent 15 years building a model that works and once we’re fully over the Covid crisis, with all our students back on track, we’re ready to scale that up,” Carlson added.

Despite the negative impact of Covid-19, there was a silver lining. It forced a strong focus on raising the bar with digital literacy. This meant students can benefit from self-study, she added.

“Something transformational has occurred with our high-school and university students. The students have assumed responsibility for their own education. With study groups and zoom meetings, they have seen how to take control of their own learning experience. They’ve realised the limitations of the ‘chalk and talk’, learning-by-rote method of teaching and have taken matters into their own hands.

“They’ve become researchers, collaborators, self-study warriors. And while they’re still behind academically, they’ve found creative ways to ride that momentum and sustain it. That’s something so new and different that we’ve never seen before,” she said.

“We’re going to be getting more and more students looped into this evolution by expanding our tech programmes further across the grades – down into middle school with a new tech pilot programme, and also reaching the primary levels with eReaders in our libraries. We’ve realised it’s never too young to learn to navigate digital pathways, and set the pace for your own learning and discovery,” Carlson added.