Friends change lives, a school at a time
Last March, Justin LaVigne returned from a trip he describes as "life changing" with his friend, Oak Bluffs harbormaster Todd Alexander. The two visited the Vineyard School in Cambodia, built by funds raised by Mr. Alexander and his wife, Kara Gelinas.
Mr. LaVigne came back to Oak Bluffs so inspired by the Cambodian children he met that he vowed to raise funds to build another school - and Mr. Alexander offered to help. On January 12, less than a year later, the two men attended a joyous opening ceremony at the new secondary school they helped build in Prek Koy, a rural village area.
Photos courtesy of Todd Alexander and Cajsa Collin
"I think it's great, giving someone a school, because you're not imposing how people are supposed to be taught or what they're studying - you're just giving them an opportunity to learn," said Mr. LaVigne.
The school was built with their sponsorship through the American Assistance for Cambodia (AAfC) Rural Schools Project, founded by veteran American journalist Bernie Krisher. Since 1999, AAfC has built 450 schools in rural Cambodia, with matching funds from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. Mr. Krisher also is the publisher of the Cambodia Daily newspaper.
How to buy a school
It costs sponsors about $15,000 to build a basic AAfC school. Between responses from letters they sent to Islanders and people with Vineyard connections, donations from friends and family, and a casino night fundraiser at Nancy's, Mr. Alexander and Mr. LaVigne raised about $24,000.
"Checks were rolling in, much to my surprise," said Mr. LaVigne. "We really didn't start doing anything until last spring, and it really came together over the course of the summer. By August or September, everything was pretty much done."
About 80 people attended a casino night they held at Nancy's last fall, which raised $3,000. Mr. Alexander said Doug Abdelnour, the restaurant's co-owner, and the staff were a huge help in organizing the event.
"Several people gave very generous donations," Mr. Alexander said. "There was a lady in Florida whose daughter visited the Vineyard and brought her home a Martha's Vineyard Times. She read the article about our first school and sent a check for $10,000."
Mr. Alexander took two framed plaques listing all the donors' names to present to the new school when he and Mr. LaVigne left for Cambodia on January 8. Four days later, they were welcomed along with other honored guests by students and villagers who lined up along the dirt road that led to the new school.
The two men received gifts of colorful hand-woven scarves, which they wore during the ceremonies. They, in turn, presented gold-foil wrapped presents to young monks dressed in saffron-colored robes, who chanted blessings for the new school.
Mr. Alexander said the opening ceremony included a lot of speeches, from the district and province governors, the local commune chief, and village leaders. Both he and Mr. LaVigne also gave speeches with the aid of an interpreter, a challenge since they weren't sure how fast to talk or when to pause. "It was hard to get on a roll," Mr. Alexander said with a laugh.
After a ribbon-cutting ceremony, everyone toured the almost-finished, three-classroom school building. Although most of the materials were brought down the river during the rainy season, construction was delayed by flooding, Mr. LaVigne said. The school is built up on stilts, to protect it from flooding during the rainy season and for air circulation during hot, dry weather, Mr. LaVigne explained.
Mr. LaVigne and Mr. Alexander gave notebooks, pencils, and rulers to the school's 109 students, and textbooks to the 11 teachers.
Mr. Alexander also presented a quilt to the school, made by students in Amy Reece's grade 5-6 class at the Charter School when Ms. Gelinas was their student teacher last spring. The students colored its 16 squares with items representing American culture, such as a Chuck All-Star shoe, an iPod, and a pizza.
With the additional funds they raised, Mr. Alexander and Mr. LaVigne donated $3,000 to the Cambodia Daily Rice Crisis Campaign. At the school opening, each of the 106 families with students in the school and the 11 teachers received a 110-pound bag of rice, enough to feed a family of four for a month, Mr. LaVigne said.
It takes a village - or four
The new Prek Koy School is named for the nearest village and also the river that runs through it. The villagers must use a wooden boat and rope system to ferry people and materials across the river to the school site, as the only bridge is half finished. The school is centrally located to serve four villages, about two and a half hours northeast of Phnom Penh, according to Cajsa Collins, a reporter for the Cambodia Daily News who provided information about the school ceremony to The Martha's Vineyard Times by email.
"The school means a lot to the village," Ms. Collins wrote, especially for junior high and high school level students. "No longer do they have to travel a long way to school or squeeze in together with the primary school students."
Some of the older students have been attending the village's primary school, while others walk about 12 miles to a secondary school in another village - or quit going to school altogether.
The AAfC schools 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.
Ms. Collin said teachers earn an average of $28 to $53 a month, which the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association estimates is enough to support a small family for 10 days. Most supplement their income with other work.
The Cambodian government does not pay for maintenance or materials. Students do not pay to attend school, but must buy their own school supplies and uniforms.
Starting with one student at a time
Interest in Cambodia started for Mr. Alexander and his wife, Kara, with a trip there in 2003, when they met 14-year-old Roma Chhon outside Angkor Wat, the 12th-century temple. When they found out she had dropped out of school to work and help support her family, they offered to pay for her education - and still do. After learning about the Rural Schools Project, they raised money to build the Vineyard School in the Siem Reap region, which was added on as a wing to an existing school.
Photographer Alan Brigish of West Tisbury visited the Vineyard School while in Cambodia in mid-November on a trip that also included Burma, Laos, and Thailand. He is working on a book of photography that depicts how Buddhism affects day-to-day life in those four countries.
After touring the school and taking photos, Mr. Brigish told school officials he would like to teach a class. "They gave me a class of teens, and I gave them a lesson in geography for an hour, telling them about places I'd been to and what life was like in different parts of the world." The school has 1,316 students, ages 12 to 18, in 24 classes.
Mr. Alexander and Mr. LaVigne have been talking with Mr. Brigish about teaming up to build schools in Burma. In the meantime, they plan to put the remaining $6,000 they already raised towards building another school. AAfC will start a new school once a sponsor sends $5,000.
The two friends met about 10 years ago when Mr. LaVigne moved to the Vineyard. Mr. LaVigne, age 25, works at Mocha Mott's in Oak Bluffs in the winter and runs a landscaping, floral design and interior gardening business in the summer.
Although Mr. Alexander, 45, grew up in Connecticut, he was a summer Island kid and has been the Oak Bluffs harbormaster for 17 years. He and his wife Kara have a three and a half year old son, Sebastian.