Thursday, 7 February 2008

Book collection benefits Vineyard School in Cambodia

Photo courtesy of Todd Alexander
Dressed in their school uniforms, students gather outside the five-room Vineyard School in the Siem Reap Region of Cambodia. Photos courtesy of Todd Alexander. Click photo for larger version.
By Janet Hefler - February 7, 2008

When Oak Bluffs harbormaster Todd Alexander visits the Vineyard School in Cambodia at the end of February, he is hoping to bring a little bit of the Island with him, in the form of books and monetary donations from the community.

About 600 students attend the Vineyard School in a five-room schoolhouse in the Siem Reap Region of Cambodia. Mr. Alexander said he would appreciate donations of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade level books for the children, who are learning English at school. Collection boxes are set up at the Oak Bluffs School, West Tisbury School, the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School, ArtCliff Diner, and Mocha Mott's in Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs.

Mr. Alexander plans to pack the donated books into some suitcases and pay to check as extra luggage on his flight, which he learned would cost much less than shipping them. He also would appreciate monetary donations, which he will use to purchase school supplies and books written in the Khmer language when he gets to Cambodia, where he can buy more for his money.

"I bought pens, rulers, erasers, and small notebooks for every single kid in the school when I was there in 2005, for more than 500 kids, and it was about $350," Mr. Alexander said. "Some people ask, so what's a couple thousand dollars going to do? And I say, are you kidding me? Twenty dollars will probably buy 30 books over there."

Checks should be made out to Todd Alexander and mailed to him at P.O. Box 2225, Oak Bluffs, MA 02557. The deadline for books and monetary donations is February 21.

This will be Mr. Alexander's first visit back to the school since it opened in 2005, built with funds raised by him and his wife, Kara Gelinas. Their involvement in such an ambitious and generous project started with an act of kindness towards a teenage Cambodian girl in need of an education.
In 2003 Mr. Alexander and his wife took a trip to Southeast Asia, visiting Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Outside Angkor Wat, a Buddhist temple in Cambodia, they met Roma, a 14-year-old girl selling postcards and books while her mother sold water and sodas.

"What struck us about her is an unexplained thing," Mr. Alexander said. "I think it was one of our first experiences facing the reality of such poverty. She was the sweetest thing in the whole world."

The couple asked her why she wasn't in school. "I have to work - if I don't work, we don't eat," Roma told them. She had dropped out of school after second grade to start earning money for her family.

At that time Roma lived in a bamboo lean-to in the woods with three younger siblings. Two older siblings lived elsewhere. "We said, what do you mean, you can't go to school? How much does it cost?" Mr. Alexander recalled. "It was $80 a semester - it ended up being $10 a week.

Determined to break the cycle of poverty for at least one young girl, Mr. Alexander said, "The next day we went back and found her, and offered to send her to school."

On the couple's return home, a teacher at Oak Bluffs School, where Ms. Gelinas worked as a student teacher, mentioned she had heard about a non-profit organization called American Assistance for Cambodia (AAfC) and its Rural Schools Project.

Since 1999, AAfC, founded by American journalist Bernie Krisher, the former head of Newsweek and Fortune magazines' Tokyo bureaus, has built over 400 schools in rural Cambodia with matching funds from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, according to the organization's web site. Many of them are equipped with computers and have Internet access.

The schools include three to six classrooms, with desks and chairs, and are built on land donated by a village or added to an existing school site. Once a school is built, it is given to the village. All of the schools are recognized by the Cambodian government as state schools and are staffed by official state teachers who follow the Ministry of Education curriculum, the AAfC web site explains.

Mr. Alexander said when he found out it would cost $13,000 to construct a rural school in Cambodia, he told his wife he could raise that much. "So we did - I asked a bunch of people I know for donations, and we had a benefit concert at the Atlantic Connection, and six months later, it was done," he said.

When Mr. Alexander attended the Vineyard School's opening, he said he was overwhelmed at the sight of 1,000 parents and students lining the street and the sound of monks chanting as he walked in a procession towards the schoolhouse to take part in a ceremony attended by the provincial governor. "There were so many kids that enrolled, they do two sessions of school a day," Mr. Alexander said.

Each AAfC school is named after the donor or given a name selected by the donor. Mr. Alexander said he and his wife wanted to name the school the Vineyard School, not the Oak Bluffs School, because people all over the Island had donated money, as well as visitors to Oak Bluffs harbor.

"Calling it the Vineyard School gives everyone a connection," he said. To show his appreciation to those who donated, he had their names inscribed on a laminated plaque, which hangs in the school. Mr. Alexander said he plans to do something similar for donors who contribute this time around.

After schools are constructed, sponsors such as Mr. Alexander are encouraged to contribute towards other improvements, such as Internet access, solar panels to power a donated computer, or funds to pay a school nurse. He said he hopes to be able to add some "extras" at the Vineyard School, starting with hooking the school up to the Internet during his upcoming visit, if possible. Eventually, he would like to buy some inexpensive computers that students could share and use at school.

Another "extra" that donors can fund is a vegetable garden, Mr. Alexander said. "I'd love to get a garden there, because a lot of those kids don't eat very well."

Last summer children at the Sense of Wonder Creations summer day camp in Vineyard Haven painted a 4- x 8-foot canvas mural to send to the Vineyard School, which is due to arrive any day now. Since the school's walls are bare, Mr. Alexander said he would also like to buy some additional posters and artwork.

In the meantime, he and his wife keep in touch with Roma, who is almost 19. "She has an e-mail address, so we talk every week," Mr. Alexander said. Although Roma visited the Island a few summers ago, he said it has become more difficult since then to arrange for another visit.

Roma still lives in the area near the Buddhist temple, where there are jobs available in the hotels and restaurants that cater to the tourist traffic. "She has a job as a hostess at one of the restaurants, so the family is not as bad off as they were - they're eating now," Mr. Alexander said.

Although a friend is going with him to Cambodia, Mr. Alexander is disappointed his wife won't be able to go, as well. Ms. Gelinas is a grade 5/6 student teacher at the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School. They planned his trip for her February school vacation so she would be home to care for their two-and-a-half-year-old son Sebastian.

"Maybe in two more years, we'll all go," Mr. Alexander said. "The school will keep itself going no matter what I do, but just because it's so much fun, every once in awhile or every few years, I'm going to do whatever I can do to give extra."

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