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Sep 4, 2018

A New Dance Class Has Begun

Robam Chuon Puor (KCDI students)
Robam Chuon Puor (KCDI students)

Dear friends of our school,

Thank you so much for your wonderful and very kind support. We deeply appreciate your help!

Since I last wrote, we have further developed our Outreach Program and we have now included students from the Samdech Ta Primary School. In coordination with their headteacher, their parents and of course our director Mr Sothy, we have organised that girls aged from eight to ten can now study classical Cambodian dance for free at our school. Many of these girls come from poor and disadvantaged families in Kampot and we specifically invited the head-master to identify those girls from more difficult backgrounds who really wanted to study with us.

They study with our Dance Master Neark Kru An* who is considered one of the greatest dance teachers still alive in Cambodia. She learned classical Cambodian ballet as a child, before the war and the genocide within the walls of the Royal Palace, under the tuition of Her Majesty Queen Kossimak, when dance was a secret held only by the Royal Family and Royal Dance troupe. Madame An's mother is the famed dancer and master Loak Yeay Em Theay who is considered a living national treasure and the last survivor of another era.

I wrote in a previous report how when the genocide was over, Near Kru An painstakingly pieced together different dances and dance-roles relying on her memory alone, after hundreds of dancers and artists had perished.

It's very important for the preservation of Cambodia's traditional cultural heritage that arts teachers are the "real thing" and teach, (using oral tradition) their art form correctly, otherwise it gets damaged by unskilled, less professional artists.  Unfortunately in Cambodia at the moment with the boom in "doing arts" for tourists, or NGOs teaching Cambodian youth dance or music, little attention is being paid as to whether these art forms  are being taught correctly. Cambodian dance and music is considered by UNESCO as "World Intangible Cultural Heritage", but in the flurry of tourists and neglect of the arts, this heritage is being put at risk. Additionally although dance is considered sacred, it is often performed in grand hotels or restuarants whilst tourists eat their meals! This is because many artists are so poor and receive such little support from the government that they have little choice. Although the Ministry of Culture does what it can, it doesn't have nearly enough resources to support the Royal Ballet and National Theatre, as well as other artists.

Since the 1980's and 1990's respect and cultivation of traditional Cambodian arts has gone into severe decline and it is a challenging time for many traditional artists, especially for the Royal Ballet.

We ourselves had direct experience of this lack of knowledge when our beloved dance teacher took long leave for family reasons and we had two young dance teachers in succession who each out-did the other in teaching the wrong movements and dance sequences.   

As our school not only takes care of very vulnerable children some of whom have nowhere else to go, but also focuses on the preservation and revival of Cambodia's Traditional Performing Arts, we take particular care in whom we employ. We are blessed to have Neark Kru An, who not only teaches superbly, but is very kind with our children and lets us borrow the more expensive costumes from her dance company during our official dance performances!

Our folkdance teacher Neark Kru Lida teaches dance to our blind children as well as our sighted children, to help them have lots of fun and a healthy, physical activity. This helps strengthen them especially chest, arm and leg muscles, which for children blind from birth, tend to remain underdeveloped. Some of our children who are blind on one eye and partially sighted in the other, also undertake traditional classical dance performances too.

Your help therefore is multifold. On the surface you support our arts program and our arts teachers who give free tuition to many children in Kampot, but your also support these same teachers who take care of and teach our resident children too. You also play a part in helping keep Cambodia's wonderful, unique cultural heritage alive for future generations.

Thank You.

* To protect her privacy we have not used her full name. 

Photographs kind courtesy of Steve Porte with permission of KCDI students

Dance rehearsal at KCDI
Dance rehearsal at KCDI
Official Dance performance KCDI students
Official Dance performance KCDI students


Aug 20, 2018

A lesson in endurance

Learning the Gong Vong Thom
Learning the Gong Vong Thom


Dear friends,

On behalf of us all I would like to thank you for your loving and kind support to our school.

Some of you are very generously donating each month and we are so grateful to you.

As with all organisations we are continually growing and facing challenges, learning to overcome these challenges and keeping our hearts and minds focused on not only our vision and mission, but remaining internally balanced with integrity.

On my last visit to our school in June and July I spent a long time observing and listening before finally working with our staff and children to create positive changes and to strengthen our school in various areas.

Our Cambodian staff are all doing a wonderful job and each person tries their very best. I am very grateful to them for their loving kindness and devotion to our children and to our school. They are not just doing a job but giving their all.

We are looking for an Assistant director to assist our Director Mr Sothy. He is currently quite overwhelmed with the masses of paperwork and legalities required by the Cambodian government to run a school such as ours. He is also responsible for liasion with the different ministeries and departments because we have a complex program which involves special needs children, orphaned children, abandoned and abused children as well as resident blind students and outreach students. Our program also of course involves academic education and national exams, cultural curriculum and performances, Braille materials and tuition, English and computer studies and vocational training for older students who choose a career outside the arts or academic field.

We felt that a woman (retired) with experience as a teacher could help guide our childcare program and direct our teachers and childcare staff. We are currently looking for the right person who has an understanding and compassion for vulnerable children and who is well educated.

This year has been very painful for us and we have united our strength and respect for each other to be able to resolve our challenges. Last month we agreed for one of our children to live in a different centre far away from the town in order to receive rehabilitation because he had been adversely affected in the years before coming to our school by his late mother using him to beg. With an enormous and unfortunately dysfunctional expatriate presence in Kampot as well as negative changes within Cambodian society, there was a danger to exposure to further begging, drugs and harmful  youth gangs, as well as human trafficking. We felt he would be safer far away from the town centre. We are coordinating with that centre for his well-being and long-term care.

In late May, one of our special needs children passed away, and this was utterly devestating for us. Again we came together in our profound pain and we have come out the other side stronger than before, although at the time it felt as though we would be broken by our loss. In June I did a workshop with all our children to help them express and overcome their bereavement. Of course grief and loss take time and this is an ongoing process for them, but we are hopefully now over the worst and we are walking on the path of healing.

Some of our staff have had their spouses affected by serious illness requiring chemotherapy and so we are trying to be as close and as supportive as possible at this time. We are also praying for the health of our senior advisor, who no longer works at our school but who has continued to impart wisdom and advice whenever we have needed it.

During my visit, we did much needed repairs to the children's bedroom ceilings as roof tiles had slipped through and broken the ceilings during last years replacement of the roof. We then painted their bedrooms, dining room and kitchen. We put in extra wardrobes and clothes racks too. 

I also did more training of our staff in hygiene and teaching our children on how to keep (together with their housemother and our cleaner) their bedrooms, dining room and the rest of the school clean and tidy.

The children's playroom which had had it's walls painted was rather bare and unjoyful, so we re-organised extra book shelves making a proper library, hung lovely ceiling mobiles, stuck wooden letters on the wall, painted a Boddhi tree on the wall with birds and flowers and golden hearts, made a table cover and hung curtains and did hand-prints on the wall. Now the children have a much nicer play room. I also brought lego and board-games as communal activities together with painting and drawing. 

Plastic and waste being a huge problem in Cambodia, we had a workshop with all our staff and children about recycling and which bins can be used for plastic waste and not throwing waste around the school grounds. We also organised a cart to haul off any broken items placed behind the school. This kind of awareness and training is ongoing as our children easily forget and need to be reminded often (as also our staff).

We gave a wonderful concert on the 30th June with Mohori and Yike music performed by both our blind and sighted students our Yike and Mohori masters and myself. We raised nearly $200 for our school in the process. Later on Master Samouen our Mohori master and I made some recordings of Mohori music and a mix of Hildergard von Bingen ancient music for voice and a Cambodian instrument. We had wonderful fun and our children were very taken with it too.

We are now organising vocational training for our oldest blind student who would like to explore the possibility of being a professional masseuse. Our oldest (sighted) girl will also start part-time vocational training this summer holiday, she will continue with her school studies. As often happens with children who have been orphaned or abandoned, they start their schooling much later and find themselves in quite low grades when they are teenagers. In our girl's case, she would like to establish skills and choose a career for herself outside the academic field, although by law she needs to finish her 9th grade at school, hence doing part-time vocational training. She has also some learning difficulties and needs protection and care at our school for some time yet until she is ready to face the world.

Krousar Thmey who used to sponsor our Braille materials have now amalgamated themselves with the Cambodian Government and therefore no longer give this kind of support. We now have to purchase all materials as well as sponsor our Braille teacher. 

We would like to focus later this year on assisting more blind children and we will be meeting with officials from the Department of Social Affairs to this effect. Our current blind students recently spoke with me about the devestating effects of the unkindness and cruelty they received from their families and villagers. Thoughtless and unkind words have greatly affected their confidence and we spent time together trying to get them out of negative thinking and to regain faith in themselves. I reassured them that they would stay with us and would be supported by our school until they could earn a living and be independent. Mr Sothy also helped them and emphasised the importance of continuing with their school studies and music training as well as their other training. 

We have also asked our wonderful dance teacher Mrs Kim An to return to us. She had taken long leave to take care of her elderly mother and we had younger dance teachers replacing her. We felt however that their knowledge was not sufficient and that they might damage dance heritage should they be allowed to continue! We are also starting a training program for local children again with Mrs Kim An so that more children can benefit from this wonderful art form.

Despite all our challenges, we have emerged stronger than before and as with all suffering, we have transmuted our experiences into wisdom and love.

Thank you for staying with us and for helping us so much. Your help provides care for children who have been completely forgotten or rejected by society. Taking care of such children is a very great and sometimes overwhelming responsibility, but it is also one of the most beautiful and rewarding tasks on earth.

Thank you all,

* Photographs made with permission of KCDI students by kind courtesy of Steve Porte

KCDI Outreach shadow puppet making lessons
KCDI Outreach shadow puppet making lessons
Playing in the garden at KCDI
Playing in the garden at KCDI


Jun 6, 2018

Developing a Khmer Network

Painting our wall by CUS
Painting our wall by CUS

Hello dear friends of our school,

Thank you all so much for your kind and much appreciated support of our school.

I thought it would be nice to write a report on a lesser known part of our program, which is our Outreach and Networking program with other fellow Cambodian students and foundations, as well as other lesser known activities our school does.

As you might perhaps know, our school has in the past performed abroad on numerous occasions, including festivals for  the development of friendship between Vietnam and Cambodia, but also in Europe and in Qatar. We have also welcomed foreign foundations such as the Finnish Sibelius Academy, the US Marine Band and high schools from Qatar. In special workshops we have learned about each other's cultures and performing arts and we have shared our knowledge, giving joint performances to celebrate both our diversity and our Oneness.

We have also used our main hall to house exhibitions looking into painful topics such as the U.S. carpet bombing of Cambodia, or inviting the Documentation Centre of Cambodia to come and talk about the Cambodian genocide and show documentary films. We have shown award winning films and opened our doors to the Cambodian public, so that they can have free access to learn about their history and hopefully find some relief from painful memories. For political reasons the Cambodian government has not allowed much information about the Cambodian genocide by the Khmer Rouge (1975-79) to be given to the public. Many Cambodians also suffered dreadfully under the secret mass bombings ordered by President Nixon, but have not had much information or closure on this part of their past. Our aim is to share our resources and invite specialists to come to our school, so that Cambodian people can learn about and begin healing from their past.

As perhaps the only centre focusing in the revivial and preservation of traditional Khmer culture in Kampot Province and Southwest Cambodia in general, we also attract attention from Cambodian universities and groups. We are extremely pleased at this quite recent development, because it means that young, educated Cambodians are interested and respectful about their own cultural heritage. Many are also compassionate and responsible young people, who demonstrate a genuine interest in our school and our children's well-being. 

Each month we have one or two University or Cambodian foundations visit our school. For example we recently had a visit by the University of Economics with links to France. The university students came for a cultural exchange. Our students performed traditional Pin Peat and Mohori music, classical Cambodian dance and Yike. The university students spoke about their studies and interests. They donated rice, noodles, cooking oil and made monetry donations.

We also had a visit from former Cambodian university students who had studied in Japan and a further university group with many young women students who spoke with our children and emphasised the importance of education as a way out of poverty and as the key to a good future. We are particularly grateful to these young people for their encouragement and the positive role-model they give. In rural Cambodia especially, we face an uphill battle where once girls reach adolescence, they are considered as a bargaining chip to be used in marriage or sent to factories. In very dysfunctional families, they are sold into prostiution. We have direct experience where extended families are neglectful and unloving, even cruel to orphaned girls when they are little and are only too glad to put them in a school such as ours, but once the girls are bigger, they develop a sudden, avid interest and want them back again. Then we are faced with the dilemna of a young girl who is progressing well with her school education, who has dreams about becoming a doctor or a professional artist and who is free. Suddenly she feels opressed by age-old family duties expected of a young girl and feels torn whether to be obedient, or to live out her own life.

Visits by young university students really help us by reinforcing the ethics of fulfilling one's deepest dreams, of becoming all that one can be and of not being afraid to be different. Our children receive many positive benefits from these role-models.

Some universities like the Cambodian University of Specialities have been incredibly helpful. Last weekend they came, a whole class of them from Phnom Penh and wonderfully painted our school wall. Given that our school grounds are large, that was a lot of wall to paint. We are so very grateful to them.  Our school has four buildings in large gardens and given the tropical climate, everything is constantly needing a lick of paint, or repairs.

We welcome Cambodian student groups rather than expatriate volunteers, because we share the same cultural understanding and sensitivity. We speak the same language and understand socio-cultural traditions and protocol in the same way.  We are also able to do background checks on the universities and students are under supervision from their tutors. We have a strict Child Protection Policy which does not allow foreign volunteers, this also includes tourism-volunteering which we consider harmful. Our policy is in place in order to safe-guard and protect the well-being of our children and the harmony and peace of our school as a whole. 

We have also been witness to some well-meaning foreigners, perhaps unconsiously escaping personal grievances, or those who have come to Cambodia with unclear ethics and in these cases they create more harm than good. There are some expatriate volunteers alas who come to Cambodia with the idea that because they are Western, that they "know better", and they can be quite heavy- footed and insensitive. Of course most of this is unconsious behaviour and the majority of people only mean well, but.......

On International Children's Day on the 1st of June our children enjoyed games and fun and a Cambodian delegation came from Phnom Penh and through our staff gave gifts to each of our children.

Looking across the two and more decades that our school has been running, the involvement of Cambodians themselves in caring for and participating in activities that support disadvantaged children and in taking an interest in their own culture, is a very positive step. It is a step towards a country becoming more responsible for it's own citizens and looking out for those less fortunate than themselves. There is still a long way to go, especially in rural Cambodia where there is still much prejudice and isolation towards the disabled, people with HIV and orphaned children, however we are very happy at this positive step from young, educated Cambodians. 

Lovely painted wall at our school!
Lovely painted wall at our school!
CUS student painting our wall
CUS student painting our wall
Former Cambodian students from Japanese university
Former Cambodian students from Japanese university


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