IT is one thing to give someone a fish to eat, it is quite another to teach them how to fish. Traditionally the role of the pagoda in Cambodian society has been to provide alms to the most needy, not to equip them for life, except in a spiritual way. At Wat Nokor Bachey the philosophy is quite different.
Responding to criticism from within the community, a group of volunteer monks formed the Buddhism and Society Development Association in 2005.
“The locals felt that the monks would preach altruism in theory but hardly ever employ it,” says the Venerable Vandong Thorn.
For the first few years seven volunteer monks financed the programme themselves. Now they have support from USAID and Swiss organisation Eco-Solidar.
However, training in English and computer skills still lacks funding, with the monks providing their time free of charge.
“We believe it is important for the temple to take the lead in the community,” says Vandong Thorn. “We help the poorest of the poor.”
A careful vetting process identifies orphans and those youths who are most vulnerable, such as children who lost their father early in life.
In one programme children are provided with a scholarship of US$15 per month for them to go to school. This helps them buy a bicycle, some clothes or books. It also gives them the incentive to attend school.
Another programme provides youths with life skills, such as sewing, cookery and weaving.
“People in the countryside think that livelihoods are more important than education,” says Vandong Thorn. However, even this scheme includes basic training in English and computer skills.
Phon Srey Mao, 18, is making a pair of trousers as we enter BSDA’s sewing school. Her father died before she was born and she was brought up by her grandmother. She left school in grade 3.
“I want to have a skill for myself,” she says. “When I stayed at home I had nothing to do.”
Phon Srey Mao is one of the fresh crop of eight sewing students taken on this year. She started working on the trousers the day before, but by the time she has completed her training it should only take her two hours to complete a similar pair.
As long as she passes an exam at the end of the course she will receive a sewing machine and an interest-free loan to buy some material so she can work from home.
“I want to open a sewing shop,” she says.
In addition to these practical skills, Phon Srey Mao and her group of seamstresses receive daily English lessons at Smile Kids Village, 800 metres away, where they all sleep.
Inside the village, a group of eight students, aged 16 to 23, are learning cookery skills. After a year’s training they will work at Smile Restaurant on Kampong Cham’s riverfront.
Established in August 2009, the restaurant provides the catering school’s graduates with some practical experience in the restaurant business. The plan is to provide them with jobs in restaurants across Cambodia, although it is too early to assess the effectiveness of this part of the programme, according to Vandong Thorn.
Smile is also one of the best restaurants in town. Its relaxed atmosphere invites customers to stay and the quality of the food rewards those who choose to do so. Now running at a profit, the restaurant helps to fund BSDA programmes.
Like the seamstresses, all the students at the cookery school receive lessons in English and will receive computer skills training in the future. Meas Vichet, 23, is really looking forward to the computer sessions.
“I want to have real knowledge and a real job,” he says. Leaving home to live at the centre could be a wrench for many young people, but Meas Vichet is in no doubt that it is the right decision for him.
“Coming here is better than living with my family,” he says. “We have a better future living here.
“Ultimately I would like to teach poor students like me to give them a better future.”
A visit to the centre concludes with a traditional Apsara dance performance by some of the children. They perform every day after their school lessons.
“The children learn discipline and good behaviour,” says their dancing teacher Pin Sokhon, 57, who used to teach at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. “Especially we educate them to go to school on time and regularly.”
Looking at the smiles on the faces of the boys and girls as they perform, it is hard to see the dance as anything other than fun.
One thing is for sure, BDSA is putting the smile back on the faces of some of the most underprivileged children in Kampong Cham.