Since elephants can’t read, why did we build a library in rural Cambodia?
When you want to help elephants have a better life, particularly in countries that have known tremendous hardship and suffering, lending hand and heart to the primary schools that resides in dwindling elephant habitat is a sound way to shift a past filled with conflict toward a future of coexistence. Although people from around the world help change the future for wild and captive elephants, in the end it will be up to the people who live among them to chart their future, and as anywhere, education is key.
Phase Two of our first Library is complete! Watch the good news here!
The story of Putrom 2 Primary School
In rural Cambodia, most people still grow up without access to ongoing education. Those who can afford to go to school attend only for a few hours in the morning, in classrooms that usually have very few resources. As we began our support of Mondulkiri’s Elephant Valley Project (supplying equipment for removing snares from sanctuary land and the surrounding forest), we met the local ethnic minority population of the Bunong, longtime “elephant people” of eastern Cambodia, living in the forests less than 30km from the border of Vietnam.
We spent time with the impoverished children from the area, quickly recognizing that immediate, and sustainable, action was imperative for shifting their future, and thus the future of Mondulkiri’s elephants. Putrom 2 is severely lacking even the most basic supplies and support, and yet the Bunong children who attend are the ones who will one day either deplete or conserve the last remaining forests comprising Cambodia’s elephant habitat.
Phase one was completed in November 2017, supplying all 127 children and their teachers with satchels stuffed to the brim with school necessities. Each satchel also contained a story book, and THAT is when our originally smallish project turned into an extended and diverse large project! The wonder and awe we witnessed as the children opened their very own books (for almost all of them, it was the first story book of their own they ever had) inspired us to go right back to the Fundraising Drawing Board and create a proper space for MANY books, and the very first Lending Library of its kind in the entire commune, and finally, a full-time teacher too.
The buildout began with taking a falling-down room filled with rubbish littering the dirt floor and topped with half a leaking roof and figuring out how to turn the sad space into a child-friendly Inspiration Station! We began by removing all the rubbish (with the old tires becoming playground equipment), then shored up the walls, installed a brand new roof, open-air windows, built-shelving/tables, and a clean cement floor with a surrounding sidewalk.
Then several bright coats of paint inside and out, with many volunteers from EVP lending their hands and hearts. After several trips to visit publishers in Phnom Penh (5 hours each way by bus), we were set, with almost 800 books for all ages! Opening Day was simply a joy in every way, with the entire village showing up to bless the space, enjoy arts, crafts, snacks, and of course, checking out that first book!
Any sustainable project in rural Cambodia is fraught with unforeseen challenges, but what drove us forward were the unforeseen miracles! And here’s one—Meet Savoun! Savoun was a teacher in Putrom for 7 years before falling out of a tree harvesting honey and breaking his back in 2015. Thanks to the consistent and steadfast efforts of ELIE, Savoun was able to receive the surgery and extensive health care that saved his life. Now Savoun is back in the classroom once again, teaching in the new wheelchair-accessible library, the only one of its kind in the entire commune! Savoun’s life, and that of his family as well as the the lives of all the students at Putrom 2, have changed for the good in ways that were unfathomable a few short months ago.
Before opening day, however, one tremendous hurdle remained before we could create a new future for Savouen and the children of Putrom 2: the funding and building of a very long path! With the months of intense rainy season making pushing his chair through the thick clay mud an impossibility, a path needed to connect his small home all of the way to the school. We brought in truckloads of cement and sand , and the building of a rather extraordinary path ensued! From the the front door of his home, across the street, through the easement of 2 farms, traversing the broad school field, and finally ending at the door of his classroom and library, this was no small feat! But the only way forward is through, so through we went! The first day Mr. Savouen wheeled his chair to his new library (and his new life), we were all in tears, and the blessing ceremony with the village chief afterwards sealed the deal: Miracles happen when you don’t give up.
We returned in November of 2018, and after helping ELIE spread the word, ended up with 137 students registered for the new school year—success! Whew, 137 bags of school supplies stretched our budget to be sure, but we’re thrilled that registration is up in an area where the value of education is not always recognized, and the challenges of simply getting to school cannot be underestimated.
These are a few of the kids who are now heading to school, and you can see in their eyes that they are ready for a new world to be opened up, one where there are options and choices available to them and the possibility to write a different future for themselves, their village, and the land they share with ELIE’s elephants!
This tiny school has no water, no electricity, and no usable toilet. 39 Bunong children study here, with a committed school director who implored us to help his children have books like we brought in for the school above. How can we say no?