Australian couple Andrew and Janine Judd came to Cambodia on holiday in 2006. Knowing the long history of violence and poverty the country had experienced, the couple did not expect to be greeted with an outpouring of hospitality and kindness. Yet that was exactly what they received.
“We came here in 2006 for a holiday. We stayed in a village in Kampong Cham. Of course, before coming here, we read a lot about the country. We saw how willingly people shared their belongings even when they had almost nothing for themselves.
“The difference from the materialistic country where we came from was jarring. We wanted to do something to help them,” says Janine.
Seeing many Cambodian children in the countryside missing the opportunity for a proper education, the couple finally found their calling. They gave up their previous life, settled in Kep, and made it their life’s mission to provide free education for the rural youths in need.
The Judds established the Kep Gardens Association, a community development project located in a rural village 10km from Kep town.
“Everyone should have an opportunity [to learn]. You know, one of them could be the future Prime Minister of the Kingdom and we wouldn’t know. We should give them the chance to reach their full potential,” says Janine.
Thuok Navy, 28, a former student of the school’s English class, now sends her two children to the association’s nursery class.
“The difference has been great. Before entering school, they stayed at home with their eyes glued to their smartphones. Now, they no longer dare hold their phones when the teacher comes in,” says Navy, who enrolled her daughters, aged three and four, at the school two months ago.
“In 2008, Sothea [a teacher] started teaching English here [in Kep]. So we thought it was the right time to start our project. When we opened, we had 87 students. Now, we’ve got over 300,” recalls Janine, who sold their own home in Australia to fund the school’s establishment.
While waiting for her four-year-old daughter to be dismissed from class, Uy Sopheap says she trusts the school.
“This school is a very good place for learning. They ease the responsibilities of parents like me. I trust the teachers here because they care for our children well,” says Sopheap.
For more than a decade, Kep Gardens has focused on teaching English literacy.
“We focus on improving their English listening and conversational skills because most of the students here aspire to land jobs that require a mastery of the English language. Learning to speak the language is also important for tourist hubs as Kep and Kampot,” she says.
Asked about the school’s regulations, Janine says, “The students must come in regularly. They must be here on time especially because they’re only here for a brief amount of time every day. They need to maximise that time.”
Janine adds: “Because we live in the village, we have a pretty good grasp of what’s going on in the locality. We have parents’ workshops as well.
“We’ve been here 12 years now. It’s funny because one of the girls who attended the school years ago came here with her children. We realised how much we must have aged while doing this. Now, we’ve got our students’ children coming in.”
The school staff is now comprised of 21 members.
Ngov Kim Heang, a full-time teacher of four years at Kep Gardens, says: “I gained more knowledge in my time here. I studied English and was even sent to train in Phnom Penh with other volunteers from other countries. I love the kids here and I want to impart my knowledge to them.”
In the 12 years of its establishment, Kep Gardens has stood tall – planting seeds of knowledge in the young minds of Kep’s rural villages and watching them grow into informed and learned individuals.
“I think students can speak English very well. They have a good shot at being admitted to good universities because all the lessons here are taught in English.
“Some people told me that they had encountered waiters and tuk-tuk drivers with very good English speaking skills. When they ask where they learned to speak so fluently, they said ‘at Kep Garden’,” she says.
Despite the goodwill and knowledge the school has propagated, Janine says maintaining the school has proved toilsome.
“One big challenge we face is the lack of learning materials. Many of the learning tools were made by us. Internet connection wasn’t that great either though it has significantly improved now.
“Seeking funds is another challenge. It’s a nightmare actually. It’s become a pressing concern now that our money has run out. We have a very small budget of $75,000 a year.
“The Buddhist Library helps us and donates to us every month but that is not enough,” she says, adding that the library’s sponsorship had ended last year.
Watching the kids running around with their toys, Janine says she plans to keep on searching for ways to keep the Kep Gardens open.
“Hopefully the [Buddhist Library] continues to sponsor us for another three years. Otherwise, we would have to shut the school. This would be a tragic end indeed as a lot of children and parents rely on us.
“Some people say we should start charging our students. But how much can we charge? If we start charging the students a fee, some of them will stop coming to school.
“We started this institution with the goal of providing free education because we wanted to give everyone an opportunity to learn,” Janine says.