Monday, December 12, 2011

A Room to Read in Cambodia

And now for something completely different. This one's going out to my dear friend Andrew, whose devotion to his own heritage kindled my fascination with Cambodia a few years ago.

If you're feeling generous this holiday season, you might consider donating a few bucks to Room to Read to help kids in Cambodia who desperately need an opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty. Room to Read is an top-rated non-profit organization devoted to providing access to literacy for kids in impoverished countries.

Over the past 11 years, Room to Read has built more than 12,500 libraries that offer the world's least privileged children the opportunity to learn the vital skills that lead to literacy. Where there are few books for children in the local language, Room to Read publishes and distributes picture books in collaboration with local writers and artists.

They also focus on gender equality in education, allowing thousands of deserving girls who would otherwise be kept at home to stay in school. Girls who complete their secondary education grow up to have smaller, healthier families, earn more money and teach their own children to read and write, breaking the cycle of illiteracy in a single generation.

Although there are many needy countries — given that almost 800 million people in the world are illiterate — Cambodia is a special case. Because the anti-intellectual focus of the Khmer Rouge genocide resulted in the decimation of Cambodia's entire educated class between 1975 and 1979, there were few left alive who could teach the youth of the next generation, who grew up largely illiterate, unable to show their own children how to read and write. As a result, Cambodia is still wallowing in a mire of ignorance, corruption and dire poverty, more than 30 years after the horrors that set the country back so profoundly.

Today, the leaders of Cambodia take a laissez-faire attitude toward their people, looking out only for themselves and providing absolutely no support to their millions of impoverished, starving citizens, most of whom are illiterate. But perhaps their excuse could be that they don't know any better — for even the prime minister is said to have achieved only a third grade education. Not long ago, the Ministry of Education announced that 55% of Cambodian primary schools had libraries, neglecting to mention that many of these "libraries" contained no books at all. Some schools only have two or three books to share amongst all of their students.

What Cambodia needs more than anything is the resources to raise a new generation of young people with the intellectual skills to lead themselves out of the darkness. To grow crops more efficiently, to manage resources more wisely, to design better systems of governance, to raise children with a sense of hope. Knowledge is power, after all.

The most empowering thing we could do to help is give these kids the opportunity to lift themselves up. So through Room to Read this holiday season, I will sponsor a Cambodian girl's secondary education for a year, and the company I work for will sponsor the establishment of a library that will allow hundreds of kids starved for knowledge to change their lives for the better. When I was a kid, reading was as integral to my happiness as eating and sleeping, and having unfettered access to books made me the person I am today. You could change someone's life, too — maybe even your own. Happy holidays from Erratic Phenomena!

All photographs are courtesy of Room to Read, aside from the first one, which was taken by Andrew Hem.

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