AT the ABC’s and Rice School in Siem Reap province it’s looking like a great year ahead with new classrooms and more eager students to fill the swelling ranks.
And it’s all due to a dedicated and enthusiastic Canadian tourist who returned to set up the local village place of kids learning.
The school, little more than a year old, has completed the construction of three new classrooms to house an additional 38 students expected to join the existing 140 strong student body before the start of the new school year on April 18.
Situated in Veal village on the outskirts of Siem Reap, it provides free half-day English and Khmer language classes to children between the ages of four and 16 unable to afford the costs of government schools.
ABC’s and Rice founder Tammy Durand told The Phnom Penh Post fundraising efforts at the school will continue this year to support both the new student intake and a new “Back to School” program which subsidises students wishing to enter the government school system and earn a high-school diploma.
“Government schools can be very expensive here. You have to pay the teachers every day and pay for your exams as well as other incidentals like uniforms. I’d like to see all our students enrolled eventually but we can’t start unless we know we can afford to sustain it.”
Durand is no stranger to fundraising, having completed a 500-kilometre bicycle trip from Toronto to North Bay in Canada to raise the money to start the ABC’s and Rice School in January 2010.
She said the idea of founding a school in Siem Reap first came to her while on a month overseas holiday from her job in the transport industry in Ontario in May 2009.
“I had no expectations for Cambodia whatsoever,” she said. “It was supposed to be three days of temples, but there was a flyer in the hotel where I stayed asking for volunteers at a local orphanage, so I said I’ll skip one morning of temples and go and paint beds or whatever they needed, buy a t-shirt and meet my tour group for lunch.”
She was put to work teaching English and loved it so much she decided to stay.
“For three days I kept meeting my group for dinner and saying I would see the temples in the morning. The night we were due to leave I couldn’t sleep and I met the bus in the morning in my pyjamas with tears in my eyes.
“Everyone thought I’d just overslept and kept telling me it wasn’t a problem and they would wait for me. Finally I told them I just couldn’t go and ended up staying here for the remaining three weeks of my trip.”
After finding accommodation in Veal village she was approached by her landlady who asked whether she was interested in establishing a school in the area.
It was a project she launched into with gusto on her return to Ontario. “We did all sorts of things like staging concerts and selling t-shirts ... it ended with me doing a bike ride from northern to southern Ontario which raised $5000 for the project.”
After returning to Siem Reap in November 2009, she teamed up with United Kingdom teacher Mark Foot to rent land for the school and construct bamboo classrooms ahead of it’s opening in January 2010.
“When we started the school the kids just showed up, and once we had settled in we began to coordinate our approach with the village chief who sets up appointments with the parents of school-age children.”
The $900 per month cost of operating the school is paid by donations and personal contributions made by Durand and Foot from their part-time work as English teachers at local schools and universities.
She and Foot also teach at ABC, along with a staff that includes six Khmer teachers and a rotating series of foreign volunteers who stay from between two weeks and several months.
The ABC and Rice recently signed an agreement with UK volunteer group Globalteer to provide additional staff and financial support for the school.
“Working with Globalteer has been a really big help, they send volunteers who have saved and planned for months, so you get extremely dedicated people, and they back you financially if you need any help.”
Tammy Durand says 60 percent of students at the ABC and Rice School also attend government schools for half a day, a proportion she would like to see increase.
“The Back to School program we run aims to address this for the other 40 percent of our students. It’s very new and very small but arguably our most important project.”
At the moment, four ABC students are subsidised to attend local government schools, with an additional 10 to receive support starting in April.