As expatriates in Singapore because of her husband's job, Jamie Amelio and her family enjoyed visiting the many countries that surrounded the island country in Southeast Asia. However, nothing would prepare Amelio when she went to Siem Reap, Cambodia in 2003. While enamored by the magnificence of Angkor Wat, a twelfth-century Buddhist temple, Amelio was caught unaware by a young girl named Srelin, who boldly came up to her asking for money. Curious to find out from Srelin that she would use the money for her education, Amelio decided to visit her school. What she witnessed was nothing short of unconscionable—with around seventy-five children to one uninterested teacher, all crammed into a dilapidated hut!
The school was so crowded that children were literally sitting on top of one another. Every time a child stood the dust from the dirt floor billowed upwards...Looking around further, I realized there wasn't a teacher in front of the class. "Where's the teacher?" I asked Srelin. "I don't know if teacher come today. Sometimes don't come." "Where are the school supplies?" [Srelin] pointed to the front desk, which had small pieces of broken pencils. "We get one pencil," she told me. "We break it. We share it."
For Amelio, the whole Cambodian experience was a culture shock. Accustomed to Singapore's modern society, she couldn't understand how a country only two hours away could be so destitute. She also admits to being terribly naive to Cambodia's history. It wasn't until she began to delve into the country's horrifically tainted past that she began to understand why Cambodia was behind the times and what still lingered in the memory of many of its people.
Between 1975 and 1979, in the name of creating an agrarian utopia, the Khmer Rouge [under the reign of Pol Pot] had killed an estimated two million Cambodians, a quarter of the population, in a wave of murder, torture, and starvation aimed particularly at the educated and intellectual elite...In 1976, a year after taking power, the Khmer Rouge abolished the Cambodian currency, the courts, newspapers, the postal system, and telephone communication—in short, the very concept of urban life.
Determined more than ever to help these children, Amelio shared her school experience with a few of her Singapore friends after she returned from Cambodia. Her fervor was contagious, and thus Care for Cambodia (CFC) was birthed. Its first order of business to get school supplies to the children via a backpack drive. Later that same year (2003), CFC constructed its first school, with the help of volunteers and the townspeople, and since its only agenda was at the time (and still is) to provide the Cambodian educational system with educational aide, CFC receives full support from the Cambodian government and Ministry of Education.
As astonishing as these developments may appear, Amelio acknowledges that there has been much tweaking along the way in order for CFC to run effectively. For example, programs focused on teacher training, on providing nourishing meals for the children, and on basic hygiene needed to be organized.
Going into CFS's eleventh year, Amelio concludes that though the organization has had to face many challenges along the way, if it wasn't for the incredible support of volunteers worldwide, CFC would not be where it is today. Among a stellar list of accomplishments, this one fact clearly stands out for me: there are 6,400 students enrolled in 16 CFC schools. This is absolutely amazing!
Graced with Orange comes from an expression, "being orange," coined by Amelio to describe "peoples' inner light that magically turns this brilliant hue" when they visit a CFC school. Indeed, I am blessed to having an "orange" experience through the reading of this compelling and poignant book.
Jamie C. Amelio is the founder and CEO of Caring for Cambodia, a non-profit organization directed toward educating children and training teachers in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
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