Ponheary grew up in a family where education was important. Her father was a teacher, and she and her siblings knew the value of education. Early in life she took advantage of opportunities to learn and expand her knowledge, but all of that changed when the Khmer Rouge took power. The Khmer Rouge abolished education and killed many of the intellectuals and educators in Cambodia during its rule of the country, including Ponheary’s father and thirteen of her family members. In the aftermath of the regime, Ponheary and her surviving family members were thrown into abject poverty and worked hard to rebuild their lives. With only a 7th grade education, Ponheary became a teacher. It was during her teaching years that she began supporting students and extra programs at the schools where she worked.
As the country began to stabilize and again opened to western visitors, Ponheary became a tour guide. It was here that she began to secure funding for poor children to attend school. At the Temples of Angkor Wat where she took tourists, Ponheary came into contact with numerous children who spent their days selling trinkets to tourists rather than attending school. Moved by what she saw, Ponheary decided to use her tips to support a better education system for Cambodia’s children. She encouraged the tourists she met to sponsor children’s education programs rather than buying from the children at the temples, which only encouraged them to continue missing school.
Ponheary eventually formalized her support for children’s education through the Ponheary Ly Foundation, which is dedicated to holistically providing for children’s education.
The Khmer Rouge killed 3 million educated people in Cambodia and abolished education during their reign. In the aftermath of this devastatingly brutal regime, the country’s education system had to be built again from the ground up. Most of the parents of school aged children currently living in Cambodia grew up during the Khmer Rouge’s reign and did not go to school. They are a generation who lost a sense of the value of education, so are less likely to send their children to school.
Additionally, many rural families are very poor and rely on the work of all family members, including the children, just to earn enough to survive. It is almost unthinkable that their children should attend school, which not only means they won’t earn for that day but also means paying school fees – money that won’t go to food or other basic necessities. It is hard to see the benefit of investing in the future through education when it’s a struggle just to put food on the table every night.
The Ponheary Ly Foundation recognizes the interconnectedness of many issues that affect children’s ability to pursue education. Their response is a holistic one that focuses on everything from providing uniforms and supplies that enable children to attend local schools to ensuring children have access to nutritious food, clean water, and basic wellness programs.
Even children whose families see the advantage of education may not have the means to attend school past the middle school level. In grades 10 and above, students must pay additional fees or private tuition to participate in classes that will equip them to pass the national exams. Because of this practice, less than 5% of the rural population in Cambodia graduates high school. The Ponheary Ly Foundation provides scholarships for their most promising students to continue their educations in high school and even to the university level.
To combat the inherent inequalities in a school system which pays teachers so little that they must charge students extra fees just to make a living, the Ponheary Ly Foundation pays teachers stipends to subsidize what they would otherwise be earning through fees. This levels the playing field for students from poor, rural families and gives them the same access to education available to their richer peers.
As a teacher and tour guide, Ponheary was able to help 200 children attend school. Since she formalized her programs through the Ponheary Ly Foundation, she and the organization have helped almost 8,000 children access quality education.
Ponheary Ly will use World of Children funding to provide access to primary school to thousands of children who live in remote Cambodian villages where there is no government support for education.