MILTON, PA — At 2:45 on the morning of December 4th, 2008, eight students, six teachers and chaperones were climbing aboard a bus to begin an epic journey, the culmination of their yearlong quest to build a school in Cambodia.
By airplane, boat and bus, their trip will take them to a tiny village called Mean in Kampong Cham Province to see the dedication of the Milton School, believed to be the first school in Cambodia built with funds raised by American public school students.
They will see first-hand what their work has meant to the children of the poverty-stricken Southeast Asian country. It was their efforts to raise money that built the school.
Larissa Luu, a Milton senior who is the spark plug of what came to be known as Educate Cambodia, is among the group taking the trip. She became the face of the effort, speaking before church and civic groups, urging her fellow students on, and her work brought her the 2008 Young Heroes Award from the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia.
“I’m really excited that it’s built,” she said. “But I’m nervous about the trip.”
The trip is costing each of the participants about $3,300, a price that includes a deep discount by American Council for International Studies, of Boston, which made all the travel arrangements.
Michael Conn, who teaches history and world cultures at Milton, visited Cambodia during the summer of 2007. He saw the desperate poverty and hunger for knowledge and made the initial pitch to help build the school. Luu and her fellow students took it from there.
Conn and two other teachers, high school Principal Bryan Noaker, a teacher’s sister and a parent, will accompany the students. Conn said there hasn’t been much contact with the people in Mean.
“We got an e-mail last Friday telling us the school was open and kids were attending,” Conn said. “That’s when it really hit us that we had done it.”
The Milton School in Mean has 145 students and 11 teachers, and more pupils are expected as word spreads through the region about the school. A week from today, Luu and her fellow students plan to wear the “Educate Cambodia” T-shirts they sold as fundraisers to the dedication. Community response phenomenal.
William Clark, Milton’s superintendent, said those going on the trip are “ambassadors of educational goodwill.” Clark has been supportive of the trip ever since Conn pitched the idea to him a year ago.
“It’s an opportunity that shows a teacher with a passion for kids can take it to a higher level,” Clark said.
“The outpouring of support from the community has been phenomenal,” Clark said. “You get a broader perspective of the world when you understand what’s outside Milton.”
Milton students — kindergarteners through seniors — raised more than $36,000 since last December to build the school.
They held car washes, spaghetti dinners, penny wars and other fundraisers. They did chores and sold T-shirts. They manned booths at Wal-Mart and at various community events. The Milton community rallied behind them, and service clubs, churches and individuals added to the tally.
In fact, their $30,000 goal was reached in fewer than five months.
They worked through American Assistance for Cambodia, a charity based in Tokyo that has helped to open 366 schools in Cambodia and has 72 others under construction.
Many of the schools in Cambodia were financed by individuals and schools in Japan, Australia and Britain. The Milton School is the first sponsored by a public school in the United States, although two private schools have done so.
During a 20-year period, when the Khmer Rouge ruled the country, schools were razed, teachers were executed and books were burned. The country is still struggling to recover from that period, when more than 2 million citizens were killed by the government.
Sarah Haas, a Milton junior, said she’s feeling emotional about making the trip.
“I think I’ll be overwhelmed when we finally get there,” she said. “It’s a product of what we did here.”
School is in session. When the first $15,000 was raised by Milton students, the school building was constructed and staffed, equipped with textbooks and solar panels to power a computer. The seven-room school will educate children in Khmer, English, math and science. The additional funds raised will go to continue operating the school, provide a well for clean water and plant a garden to help feed the students and their families. No quick trip. The group will fly from New York to Hong Kong today, and after a short layover, will fly on to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, arriving there around 6 p.m. Friday — 6 a.m. Friday, Milton time. The flight to Hong Kong will take more than 17 hours. Because the students will cross the International Date Line, it will be Friday afternoon when they arrive in Hong Kong. Extraordinary field trip. The group will tour Vietnam for a couple of days before traveling by boat along the Mekong River to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, on Tuesday. On Tuesday and Wednesday, they will visit cultural and historic sites, including the infamous “killing fields,” where thousands of Cambodians were slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge. Finally, on Thursday, they will travel several hours by bus from Phnom Penh to the village of Mean for the dedication of the Milton School. Luu will speak during the ceremony.
“I didn’t write anything down,” she said. “I want to be open to say what I feel at that moment.”
Reflecting on the yearlong campaign to raise the money, she praised her fellow students.
“I hoped we’d get to this point, but I never expected it to happen the way it did,” she said. “And I never expected to be going there.”
Thursday, December 4, 2008 | By Wayne Laepple