Helping to educate Cambodia's poor

Foundation: A visit to the country sparked an Ellicott City woman's effort to raise money.

December 23, 2003|By Carole W. McShane | Carole W. McShane,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Sun-colored mangoes and papayas, golden-brown pineapples and small bags of shrimp chips and peanuts were heaped on wicker trays balanced on the heads of the children who formed a crowd following Ann von Lossberg along the water's edge of Ocheuteal Beach in Kompong Som, Cambodia. This encounter in 2001 was the first time von Lossberg, an Ellicott City resident for six years, met the "beach children."

Most of the children are young teen-agers, and the money they earn helps support their families. For many of them there is no school, no clubs, no trips, no childhood. Life is work.

One girl, who once sold snacks on the beach, told von Lossberg how much she wanted to go to school. But she has a job earning $50 a month working in one of Cambodia's 200 garment factories, and her income means too much to her family.

Cambodia is one of the poorest countries. Yet von Lossberg found the Cambodian children remarkable for their consistent openness and trust.

Von Lossberg, who was raised in Baltimore County, was so moved by the plight of those she met on her trip that she started the Cambodian Children's Education Foundation, which was registered last year as a tax-exempt foundation. Through the foundation, von Lossberg hopes to provide enough money so the poorest of Cambodia's children can go to school to get a basic education.

Von Lossberg is visiting Cambodia this month with her husband, Jim Hudock, to deliver this year's foundation contributions and receive updates on each sponsored child.

"I wish people could experience the lovely company and affection of these children, not to mention the beauty of Cambodia," she said.

Although the Cambodian government takes care of most school costs, she said, it does not pay for teachers' salaries. Their jobs are funded by each student who attends school. For each day they attend, the child must pay 2000 riel, or about 50 cents.

Most poor parents in Cambodia cannot afford the fee or the cost of the uniforms schoolchildren must wear, she said. Some enroll their kids in school but often withdraw them after a few months so the children can work.

The Cambodian Children's Education Foundation supports seven children at a Khmer facility called the Psauleu Primary School and 20 at a school that teaches English and Chinese to the community, as well as giving basic instruction. It is run by the Singaporean Presbyterian Church.

The foundation also supports the Roman Catholic charitable organization Don Bosco, which provides vocational education and shelter for orphaned children, she said. All of these schools are in Kompong Som, today called Sihanoukville.

"The Cambodian Children's Education Foundation is one of the few charities you will encounter where a very small amount of money goes so far ... and you can rest assured that every cent of your contribution goes toward the child's education," von Lossberg said.

For example, $30 supports a child for a year at the school that teaches English; $48 supports one child at the Khmer school for a year; and $120 provides education and other services for one orphaned child at Don Bosco. None of the money contributed goes toward overhead costs, she said.

Von Lossberg's path to philanthropy was sparked by her love of travel. She and her husband have seen many children in many countries - more than 40 countries in all.

In 1979, they quit their jobs, sold most of their belongings and left determined to circle the globe. They traveled in their microbus, a Volkswagen Kombi, throughout Europe. However, closed borders because of the Iran hostage situation forced them to abandon their trip in the comfort of their Kombi.

They continued through the Middle East and into Africa by hitching rides, riding local buses and trains, and even riding on the tops of United Nations trucks that were transporting wheat to the countries of central and eastern Africa. In all, they visited 11 countries in Africa and stayed there 11 months. They returned to the United States in 1981.

Three more trips took place from 1984 to 1993 to India, Thailand, Nepal and Vietnam, among others.

Hudock's job with Catholic Relief Services took them to Cambodia in 2001. At that time, visiting Cambodia meant only one thing for von Lossberg - seeing Angkor Wat, the stunning temple in Angkor.

Angkor is a complex of temples built between the ninth and 15th centuries by the kings of Cambodia's Khmer Empire.

Their goal was to create heaven on Earth with this megacomplex of ancient temples, man-made lakes and winding walkways.

It is reputed to be the largest religious structure in the world, and it is an attraction that has helped Cambodia to become a destination for world travelers.

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