When Bill and Nancy Bamberger from San Diego first visited Cambodia as tourists in 2002, they were struck by its long history, the warmth of its people, and the devastation that was still evident from long years of violence and neglect. A whole generation of educated people had been killed or fled the violence of the Khmer Rouge, holding back the growth of Cambodia today. To help reverse that trend, the Bambergers created the Cambodian Village Fund, supporting education in the rural village of Kaun Khlong.
The Bambergers’ 40th anniversary was approaching soon after they returned to San Diego, when Nancy talked with her new hairdresser Chanra Chheum, who was born in Cambodia and had come to the U.S. as a teenager to escape the violence. Chanra had recently visited Kaun Khlong, where she still had family, and had bought a bike for the village for $40. There was little transportation there other than walking, and a simple measure like a bike could make a difference for many. "People in the village could share it. Kids could go to school and people could do little errands," said Bill when I talked with him. Forty dollars, 40th anniversary; it was a sign. For their anniversary, Bill and Nancy decided to buy the village a second bike.
A single bike may not sound like a big deal, but soon word spread with their friends in San Diego who wanted to buy a bike for the village as well. One thing lead to another and they had an anniversary party with their friends. People bringing money for the fund rather than bringing a gift, and the party collected $2,500 for the village. "It was really a shock," said Bill.
This was more than they had expected and the money went far in Cambodia, buying bedding, blankets, food, mosquito nets, and bikes, and uniforms for students, with another round of fundraising. When they went to the village to help deliver the supplies, it was the first time they had been there, and they thought at the time it would be the last. "We thought it would be the end of it," said Bill. It wasn’t.
"It was an amazing experience, a big celebration, and the kids are so appreciative," said Bill. "The mayor was there. There were speeches, and when the kids went home, a school administrator walked with us to a plot of land, and asked if we could help to fill the land, leveling it. It would cost $4,500. We got home, talked to friends, and after eight months or so had money to do the fill." When the fill was done the next step for the fund was a big one. "As soon as the fill was done, then they asked if we could help build a school. We said we’d see what we could do."
This was the biggest project yet, but they managed to raise $20,000 and an interest-free $25,000 loan from a friend gave them enough to get started on a five-room school in February 2011, finishing by October in time for the kids coming back to school from summer.
As well as providing a good facility and a way for the students to get there, Bill and Nancy found they needed to ensure the students could keep going to school, so they created a scholarship program they called Reach for the Sky. "We got started with a scholarship program, focused on girls, because they are discriminated against," said Bill. "A lot of the girls aren’t able to go after 6th grade, because they work in the fields or take care of families, just a little money keeps them in school." They’ve found that it takes a modest amount of money to keep students in school, and that the students in the program serve as an example for other children, encouraging them to stick with their education as well. The scholarship program has expanded to include 17 girls now, including a few that have gone on to college, paid for by their program. And still their work in the area continues to grow.
Education in rural areas like this is an important cause, but unfortunately one that has been through controversy. Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea, was a major figure in the cause of helping education around the world, until his claims about building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan were discredited.
This failure doesn’t reduce the importance of education though, or the opportunity to make a difference. To avoid such problems, the Bambergers have posted all of their financials for anyone to see on their website, and pay themselves nothing, taking great care to ensure that every dollar is spent well, getting where it belongs, and going as far as possible. The project is not about them, but the people they are helping. They might not be able to change a whole country, but they can make a difference one student, one school, and one village at a time.