In February 2014, Randi Delano left her stable New York City life to travel the world. In Part 2 of this ongoing AWT diary, she finds an inspiring story in a remote corner of the world, in the form of a young American expat and a group of children who defy the odds each day they go to school.
In the months leading up to my arrival in Cambodia last fall I felt something akin to a magnetic pull. Once I got there, a strange feeling of familiarity washed over me. For one thing, the climate was similar to the one I grew up in: brutally hot and humid. But it was really the nature of the people in this foreign country that made me feel so at home. I was welcomed with open arms by people who had a surprising zest for life, despite the fact that much of the population exists in poverty and is still recovering from a horrific recent history.
I boarded a van early one hot morning in Kampot with a multicultural band of expats and travelers: a Brit and his Puerto Rican-American wife, their young daughter, a Dutch man, a Sheik from the United Arab Emirates, my Polish-American travel and business partner from Brooklyn, and me, born in Louisiana and raised in Texas. I had no idea at the time, but what I was about to see would forever change my perspective on just how possible it is for one person to make a huge impact in the lives of others.
Our destination, the Sala Monkey English School in Kep, would not be my introduction to the realities of rural Cambodian life. I had already visited the community and homes of rural farmers supported by the Mad Monkey Clean Water Project, a run-down, government-operated rural public school, and a rice farm, where I spent a day working the fields with the owner, a man aged beyond his years from the ever-present sunrays that beat down on him daily. That evening I ate with his family underneath the stilts of his palafitte house in the open-air space outfitted with a propane burner and a table that served as their kitchen. These experiences served as a primer for my visit to the tiny little rural school in Cambodia that was founded and is run by an American expat named Tracy Stettler.
As we turned off the pothole-pocked highway and onto the dusty red dirt road that led to Sala Monkey we were enveloped by palm trees and dry grassy fields. Chickens and cows walked about and defecated freely. We passed small tin structures, people’s homes, outside of which faded clothes on clotheslines blew gently in the wind. The local villagers, mostly rice farmers, watched us curiously and welcomed us to their community with waves and wide smiles.
When we arrived Tracy was teaching a class of fifteen children of all ages, from preschoolers to preteens. She introduced us to the students, who greeted us with a shy but friendly “hello.” They returned to their lesson, the English alphabet, which they proudly belted out—the same song I had learned so many years ago as a child. Next, a lesson in numbers turned into a competition of who could count the highest. Its victor was a young boy who nearly reached one hundred as we cheered him on.
I knew that these children would not have the opportunity to learn English if it weren’t for Tracy’s commitment to keeping her school running. In fact, most of them have very little opportunity for a basic education at all. The school system in Cambodia is broken, to say the least. Teachers are paid dismal salaries and their attendance is unreliable. The Cambodian government’s education budget per child is less than $2.00 annually. A mere 18% of students in public schools reach upper secondary school. Most drop out prior to that level in order to work and help support their families. Since most of the rural Cambodian workforce are rice farmers, agriculture is almost always their only option. These children at Sala Monkey School were being given a chance for a better future.
The final lesson ended and the children were released for the day. They ran out to the front yard of the school and played games with each other. Our group followed, and I sat on the ground next to Tracy and asked her how a young American woman like herself ended up with a school in Cambodia.
She told me about her first night in Cambodia, when she stepped off of a plane, got in a taxi in Phnom Penh, got a glimpse of Cambodian poverty and nearly told the driver to turn around and bring her back. Her convictions, however, won out and she began a journey that has lasted three years so far. She went from life as a marketing manager with Disney in California to experiencing firsthand the realities of rural Cambodia. Her first year in Kep included challenges like not having access to clean water for drinking or bathing, sleeping on the tile floor of the schoolhouse where she also lives, and going without food for days at a time because her money went towards her students’ basic necessities.
A few months after leaving Cambodia I couldn’t get Tracy and her children off my mind. We decided to interview her for our website, Just a Pack, so we could share her story and hopefully bring as much support to Sala Monkey English School as possible—especially now that Tracy is relying on a crowdfunding campaign to relocate their school, having lost the lease for their building. Her work in Cambodia proved to me that we all possess the ability to positively impact the lives of others if we are willing to try.
Photos courtesy: Tracy Stettler