It is 7:00AM in Phnom Penh and I am excited and ready to go when Thida arrives at the hotel.  I have hired a car for the day which will take us to Saly’s village,  northwest of the city. Although it is just 50 kilometers away (30 miles), it will take us more than two hours to get there.  I remember how wonderful my first visit to Tramung Chrum was last May and I am expecting more of the same.  As it turns out, this day is even more amazing than my initial experience!

Around 30 kilometers north of Phnom Penh, past huge garment factories set back from the street, past the ever-present road-side markets, we turn west on a dirt road.  Rice fields, now dry and dormant and interspersed with copse of brush and trees stretch out on either side of the brown rural lane.

Woah! A cow darts out of the brush and nearly hits our car before making an abrupt u-turn back into the brush. Close call.  For the most part, we are alone on the bumpy road but occasionally we have to pull over for traffic.

After another 10 kilometers, we turn south onto a road that is rutted, and our driver, San, must be careful to avoid the frequent pot holes.  Despite the bumpy ride, it is a pleasant and peaceful trip. My mind drifts into low gear and I feel relaxed and calm.

As we approach the village, a small mosque built with support from the Lightman family comes into view where this road ends.  We turn right and head down the  narrow and sandy main road of the village for about 100 yards, to a cluster of homes belonging Saly’s family.   Saly is in front of her house, waiting for us to arrive.  I have a long list of items to cover related to the sewing business, but this is not America. We do not get down to work for at least another hour. After all, what is the rush? We have all day.

Saly’s father and mother welcome us and Thida interprets what they say. Saly’s father expresses his hope that what we are doing will result in jobs for his daughter and the other daughters in the village. He is reserved, yet I feel his sincerity. Saly’s mother gives me a brief hug and smile.  Saly decides we must eat breakfast and begins to prepare noodles and boiled beef.  She cooks in an iron pot over an open fire as we stand around and chat with family members and neighbors who wander over.  The mood is relaxed and unhurried.

Cooking fire used to prepare our breakfast

The women in Saly’s family are busy making a very special bread for the village’s traditional “Charity Celebration” to be held in two days.  Children hang out on the steps of Saly’s grandmother’s house and I recognize their faces from my visit in May. There is a beauty about these kids which is unforgettable.  Like their parents, they appear very reserved and somber-faced when meeting new people. I have noticed that it takes a long time for them to smile at a stranger. Showing them how to use a digital camera turns out to be a good ice breaker.

After our meal, I ask Thida to take a picture of a special occassion: Saly receiving the first actual profit from the business, $134.  This money represents what is left over from revenues after paying back loans to Harpswell for wages of $3/day for Saly and her assistants, and for materials. It is a start!

Saly receiving first profit from the business: $134!

Now it is time to get down to business.  I have samples of purses I took from my closet at home to show Saly the quality of construction she must be able to deliver if we are to grow the business.  No seams showing, high quality lining materials, no cardboard used in assembly. I agree to leave these purses with her for reference.

I also have some Cambodian-made silk purses with me, purchased at a boutique targeted at expats near my hotel.  The owner told me she made these purses herself.  We deconstruct the purses to find out what materials were used by the seamstress-owner.  Saly uses her seam-ripper to open up the handle of one of the items, a gray rough-silk rather large bag.  We are surprised to see that handle has been cleverly constructed of clear rubber tubing, similar to the tubing I used to attach to the air pump on my childhood aquariums. The tubing is wrapped in a thin layer of high-density foam.  Saly says that she can get the tubing at the market, but she has never seen the foam anywhere.  Thida begins making a list of the items we will search for at the markets in Phnom Penh tomorrow.

Another purse from the boutique has a flat, thick handle.  When Saly opens the seams, we find the foam again, this time a double thickness. The purse uses metal rivets as both decor and as part of its structure.  Thida translates that Saly used to apply rivets using a machine when she worked in the garment factory, but she has no way to secure a rivet in her home shop.  Will will ask about this at the market, and rivets goes onto Thida’s list.

On my “to-do” list is to understand what Saly’s trundle sewing machines are capable of. Yes, she can sew through thick interfacing, no problem. She shows me how she uses an iron, filled with hot coals, to fuse the interfacing to the fabric.

Iron used to fuse interfacing

The thick foam of the purse handle might be too much, so Saly does some testing.  I video her as she attempts to sew through the thickness of the foam and silk. She powers the machine using the trundle, and the machine runs smoothly as she pumps with her feet. The first try is disappointing but Saly devises a way to keep her finger on the pressure foot to exert a downward force, and….success!

Next on my list is to understand why some items in the order I received in January were very different that what I had described in my e-mail order and had carefully reviewed, over Skype, with the young man who was acting as our translator at the time. Saly simply says:  I thought that is what you said you wanted.

Some tenets of business are the same, no matter where you are in the world: communication is key!  Thida’s involvement is going to make a huge difference, as she understands the  subtilties  of the designs and the importance of fabric selection in terms of weight, drape and the overall “feeling” of the look. This is something that was impossible to describe to the male assistant, in English, over Skype!

Before leaving on this trip, my friend Nancy Barker introduced me to two women associated with Northwood University with expertise in textiles.  Mia Dvornic has a PhD in textiles and runs the Northwood Gallery in downtown Midland, and Jill Ouellette is associate professor and chair of the Fashion Marketing Program.  In the back room of Mia’s gallery, they showed me how to burn a fiber to tell if it is natural or synthetic, how to look for small hairs on cotton fibers, and pointed out the smooth mono-filament of a strand of silk.  After that meeting, I went home and burned fibers in the flame of a candle set on my kitchen counter for several hours. The house stunk, but I got the hang of it.  Mark and Kevin were happy when I was finished with THAT experiment!

I pull out the candle I brought with me and show Saly and Thida the technique. Natural fibers tend to self-extinguish and smell like burning hair, synthetic will sustain a flame as it melts.  We have some fun burning fibers as a few villagers and Saly’s mother and aunt look on.

We talk about the need to use high quality materials, even if they cost more, for one group of customers we refer to as the “sophisticated buyers.”  They will pay for quality and will not buy something if it looks like it will only last for a season.   But there is another group of customers who will buy interesting, unique items at lower prices, and don’t expect them to last a long time.  Thida translates and we make it simple on paper:  high ($$$ ), medium ($$), and low ($) customers.  Saly gets it. She is very perceptive and has a great memory, which helps to compensate for the fact that her reading skills are elementary and she never learned how to write. The school built by The Harpswell Foundation in the village was built in 2005 and Saly is 28 years old.  All her notes are in her head!

It is time for lunch, and we stand and stretch. We have been sitting on the floor for more than three hours and the time has flown by. Saly starts to cook over the fire again, this time we will have rice with pieces of boiled beef, carrots, and onions.   As we sit down to eat,  Saly’s mother appears with a section of a cow, slaughtered last night,  she has just purchased from a neighbor.  The hoof is still attached to the leg and and she sets it down on the platform used to prepare food.

Beef from cow slaughtered last evening

During the meal we compare ages of those in attendance. Saly’s mother is 53, I am 55, so I am her elder. We laugh. Although we cannot speak the same language, I feel a bond of trust developing between us.  After lunch we take time for some fun with the cow leg, and I video Saly’s mother making the cow jump.

We get back to business and for two more hours we work with the fabrics, discuss possible designs, and agree on some pieces Saly will make in the interim while I go back to the U.S. and gather forces to define the spring and summer product line.  We need  a designer but we won’t have one for this season, we are already very late in the fashion cycle.  The plan is for me to send designs and instructions within a month to Thida, who will work with Saly to understand the details of the plan and go to the markets with her to help choose the fabrics.  Laura Wolak, volunteer Apsara Creative Director: HELP!

It is time to depart for the two hour drive back to Phnom Penh.  Saly joins Thida and me in the car.  The three of us will go to the markets again tomorrow to look for items on the list Thida has been assembling. It has been a long day, but I feel good about what we have accomplished.  We are starting to feel like a team! We say our goodbyes and agree to come back to the village on Thursday to join in the  Cham “Charity Celebration,” which takes place once per year and apparently is a very special holiday.  It will no doubt be a very interesting experience!

Saly's grandmother's house where Saly sleeps

Saly's workshop at the front of her parent's home

Saly and her father

Marie with new friend, Saly's mother


Young women from the rural provinces in Cambodia often leave home to work in the garment factories in Phnom Penh, providing income to help their families survive.  Some will leave home when they are just 13 or 14 years old, and many have little or no education. One-third of all females in Cambodia between the ages of 17 and 22 work in the factories, under very difficult conditions.  Often they burn out after a few years, and return to their villages with little hope for the future.

When parents in the village of Tramung Chrum asked Alan Lightman, founder of The Harpswell Foundation, to help them find alternatives for income generation by their young daughters which would enable them to remain at home, he supported the formation of a sewing school in the village. The plan was for the women to make clothes and sell them at the markets in and around Phnom Penh. The foundation purchased four trundle sewing machines and paid for 6 months of intensive sewing lessons in Phnom Penh for the school’s leader, Hab Saly, a former garment factory worker. Saly has since taught about twelve women how to sew.

Saly and her assistants, May 2011

As a result of a visit with Alan to Tramung Chrum last May (see June 2, 2011  post), I committed to creating a business plan for exporting and selling creations by Saly in the U.S. Although sales have begun,  progress has been slow.  A key goal for me on this trip is to expedite progress toward getting this business off the ground and, to put it in the words of my former business colleague Ron Fillmore, “see if this dog can hunt!”

It is the morning after my arrival in Cambodia, and plans are for Thida Kong and Saly to meet me in the lobby of my hotel at 10:00AM.  We are going to visit the various markets in the city where Saly has been buying her fabrics. I want to gain an understanding of the all the raw materials Saly has available to purchase locally. We will worry about direct sourcing later.

Thida Kong working at the Goldiana Hotel last May

Thilda is a 25 year old university student who Alan and I first met last May when she was working behind the reception desk at the Goldiana Hotel. Her English language skills are very good, and she asked many questions about the Harpswell Dormitory and Leadership Program for Women. While she was not eligible to enter the program, she was hired as a Harpswell employee last December to assist with the sewing business, while continuing her full-time university schedule.

Hab Saly in Phnom Penh

Thida is waiting for me in the lobby, and as I approach her phone rings. It is Saly, who has just arrived and asks Thida to come outside and walk with her into the hotel. She is uncomfortable entering the building on her own and I wonder if she has been inside a hotel before today. We greet each other warmly with smiles and brief hugs and sit down together on the large, ornate chairs in the lobby. I notice that Saly is dressed quite stylishly. The last time I saw her, she was wearing the traditional sarong skirt and Kroma head scarf of her Cham village.

Apsara dancing has been a component of Cambodian culture since the Ankor empire.  Apsaras were believed to be celestial beings, and represent feminine strength and beauty—which is why the image of an Apsara is the logo of The Harpswell Foundation. I explain that the marketing plan for the sewing business includes use of “Apsara” as the brand name, and a simplified image of an Apsara dancer’s curved hand as the brand logo.  Is there any reason why we should not use Apsara? Thida translates into Khmer for Saly and they both agree it is a good idea. Thida surprises me with her ability to curve her hand into the position of the Apsara dancer, which she learned as a child.  Note to Laura Wolak, volunteer Apsara Creative Director:  here is the hand image we have been looking for!

Thida's Apsara Hand

I explain to Saly that all profits from the business will go to her and her assistants, and eventually a portion will go to the village. There are many women and some men in the U.S. who want to help her be successful, and are volunteering their time and expertise to get the business started.  We women must stick together, the world over! Thida translates and we all laugh.  Time to hit the markets.

We visit the Phnom Penh’s Central market first, which has booth upon booth of silk fabrics. I cannot distinguish one vendor’s goods from the next. And after “negotiating” the best price, the vendors all seem to end up at the same place. We head to Saly’s trusted vendor and search through the stacks of silk. We have some tentative designs of purses in mind, and compare silk colors to the print-offs of the latest color trends I brought from home. We purchase samples of many different colors and types of silk. Three females shopping together—this is fun! I imagine trying to do this with my husband or three sons. No way.

We walk through the very narrow aisles to see what is offered in the rest of the tightly packed booths, each stacked to the ceiling with fabric. Saly knows the market well, and has an amazing memory for detail. She can point out the exact fabrics she purchased last October for one of our orders.  We see many possibilities for use in our spring and summer product line of purses, scarves, and headbands and I take lots of pictures for future reference.

There are vendors selling food cooked over open flames inside the market. Wow. I hope no sparks reach all that fabric!


We finish up at the Central market and call our trusted tuk-tuk driver, Mr. Key, and continue on to the Russian Market.  By the time we are done with our third market, I am exhausted. It is time to end our shopping. Thida needs to get to her three hours of classes in the evening.  Saly leaves on her two hour trip to Tramung Chrum, taking a combination of motorbike taxis and a bus to reach her home.  I have it
easy—I get to relax at the hotel.

Fox News in Memphis program on Harpswell

Mearl Purvis, the anchor of Fox News in Memphis,  just returned from a trip to Cambodia with other Memphians and has produced a wonderful, 6 minute television program about Harpswell and Cambodia that aired on February 2nd. Check it out!

I am here in Phnom Penh on my second visit to Cambodia.  I am excited about the opportunity to reconnect with the young women living in the Harpswell Dormitories and Leadership Centers, and also meet the new “first year” students. And, I am anxious to make progress on a sewing business project with women in the remote village of Tramung Chrum, which I became involved with last May during my initial visit.

I visited the two Harpswell dormitories over the weekend and bought pizza for the girls. Pizza is a magnet for college age students the world over. A pizza party is a great way to ensure I get to see everyone!


Oxen-drawn cart of produce on main road in Phnom Penh

On Saturday evening, I travel to the Teuk Thla (TT) dormitory,  the newer of the two Harpswell dorms  which opened in 2009 and houses about 45 students.  I am riding alone in Mr. Key’s tuk-tuk. Mr. Key is the trusted driver Alan Lightman and I used last May, and I feel safe hiring him to get around the city. It is a 20 minute ride from the hotel and I am reminded how much I love this mode of travel. The cacophony of sounds, smells and sites feels familiar as we travel west through Phnom Penh.

Street vendors selling anything from fresh produce to furniture to tires exist side-by-side. Motos are everywhere, and there seem to be more shiny SUVs on the road than I remember from my last trip.  I spot an unusual site: a man washing a low-slung Italian sports car in a stall on the side of the road.


Hand-pulled cart on streets of Phnom Penh

The contrast of the late model, expensive cars with the hand-pulled carts, motos carrying entire families, tuk-tuks, and old flat-bed trucks is reflective of the gap between the few wealthy and vast majority of poor Cambodians here in Phnom Penh.

When I arrive at the TT dormitory, the girls seem excited to see me. Ah, the pizza did the trick.  There are hugs to go around, and I shamelessly refer to the class rosters I brought along, which include their pictures,  when I cannot recall a name.

Sreypov has a new hairstyle, and looks nothing like her picture, so we decide to take a new photo.  Panha’s eyes are closed in her picture on the roster, so she is next. Here is an absolute truth: Harpswell girls have fun whenever a camera appears!


Rous Sreypov, Economic Development major

I meet the first-year students, who are now in the second semester of their freshman year.  They appear to have adjusted well to life in the dorm, most having grown up in rural villages with no electricity or indoor plumbing.  It is clear  from the affectionate manner in which they are treated by the older students that they have been fully accepted into The Harpswell family, a sisterhood of life-long support and deep friendship.  What lucky girls!

There are three Resident Leaders at the dormitory.  Their role is to serve as mentors to the students, organize the evening discussions on current events, and help with English lessons.  Darcy and Kathleen are in their 40’s and have left their homes in Maine to be here for two months. Genevieve is a recent university graduate, closer to the girl’s ages. Darcy and Kathleen are the quintessential mother figures, and there is a warmth and familiarity between them and each of the girls.  The girls tell me that they have “movie nights” on Sunday evenings. Last week they saw “Soul Searcher” about a surfer girl who lost an arm to a shark but makes a come-back. “It was very inspiring to see her overcome all her challenges to be successful!”  Great film choice for this group.

The pizza arrives, and the girls all help to organize it along with Coke and packages of cookies which look something like Oreos. Oh dear, have we imported U.S. poor nutrition habits? Only for special occasions, the girls assure me. We finish our pizza and it is now dark outside. Time to leave the girls to their studies!


Harpswell TT dorm students after our pizza party

On Saturday afternoon, I visit the Boeng Trabaek (BT) dormitory for another pizza party.  Opened in 2006, this was the first Harpswell dormitory and houses about 35 girls. As I approach the gates to the dormitory, I can hear loud laughter and the screaming of young ladies coming from inside the high metal security fence. It sounds like a sporting event is underway. The laughter is a welcome change from the scenes along the alley approaching the dormitory.  This dorm is down a narrow road in a tightly packed neighborhood, with structures made out of corrugated metal, loosely stacked bricks or other recycled materials used to make what appear to be both workshops and homes. Garbage is strewn everywhere, and little children are quick to jump up on the tuk-tuk to catch a ride.

Upon passing through the dormitory gates, however, the world changes. The three story dormitory is freshly painted and looks neat and well-kept. Recently washed clothes hang on racks in the narrow courtyard, and motos and bicycles are neatly parked in the back.

In the 15 foot wide courtyard space, a game is underway. The resident leader here is Stephanie Price, a 31 year old women from Brooklyn who is taking time out of her advertising career to travel and volunteer in third world countries. Wow! She is leading the girls in physical exercise and they are enjoying the camaraderie.  After greetings and hugs, Stephanie challenges them to a run up and down the stairs while singing “Baby, Baby.” OK! These girls are earning their pizza.


Harpswell students at the BT dorm after Stephanie's exercise session

On this visit, I concentrate on meeting each first-year student, and my camera is a catalyst for conversation. I am missing the roster for first year students,  so I record each girl’s name and major, and then take her picture. Everyone gathers around and heckles each girl until she smiles.  I meet eleven freshmen. Their majors are quite varied: mathematics, 3 in engineering, law, accounting, economics, English, pharmacy, medicine and midwifery.

First year students at BT dorm with Stephanie and third year student Sivgech

The pizza arrives and everyone digs in. This pizza has a new feature: hot dogs embedded in the crust.   It is gone in a flash.

I sit for a while and Stephanie and I talk with Kunthea and Bormey  about potential jobs after graduation. Starting a business of their own is a dream the girls share. I ask how they feel about working for a company after graduation, to learn about the business world and to build a network of contacts. They are enthusiastic and eager learners who are open to many possibilities.  These young women, with their brains, confidence, and initiative will be a competitive advantage for any company fortunate enough to hire them.

I have been home from Cambodia for six days.  I still have many stories I want to share about this country of contrasts: of huge mansions owned by a small number of the elite amid a city of extreme poverty; of garbage strewn in piles along every road in Phnom Penh and beautiful, lush landscapes just outside of the city; of shiny late model SUVs parked on narrow, broken roads alongside rickshaw bicycle taxis whose drivers consider it a good day if they earn five US dollars.  I loved the easy eye-contact and friendly smiles of vendors and people on the street, while having to remember to keep my purse clasped close to my body to avoid losing it to thieves.

Phnom Penh street

I find myself missing the chaos, the tuk-tuk taxi rides, the vendors lining every inch of every street selling produce, newspapers, moto parts and anything a person may need to survive on a given day.  There are no big-box stores in this country, and one must know where to go among the thousands of small store-fronts if looking for something specific.  Our tuk-tuk driver, Mr. Key, has a thorough knowledge of vendors in the city. One day we were in search of beach toys to bring on a trip with the Harpswell students to the seaside town of Sihnoukville.  No problem! He took us through the confusing maze of streets and vendors to a tiny store we would not have found on our own where we purchased two soccer balls and three badminton sets.

What I miss most about Cambodia are the young women university students who live at the Harpswell dormitories I came to know over the course of the two short weeks I was there. I think of them every day, about our conversations that were typical of college girls anywhere—“I am not sure I like my computer science major anymore, what should I do?” and of conversations showing maturity far beyond the university-aged girls I know as friends of my sons—“How can we develop Cambodia economically without hurting poor farmers and without destroying the environment?”  Both are important questions, and I want to continue to have these conversations with these remarkable young women. When I said good-bye to them on my last visit to the two dormitories before my departure, we blew kisses back and forth. The girls taught me to “catch” the kisses with my hands and hold them close to my heart, as is their custom. I feel like I left pieces of my heart back there at the gates to the dormitories.

Saying goodbye...with a promise to return

I am sitting here at my cherry desk, in my nicely decorated home office in Midland, Michigan, and I worry that I will not be able to weave the details of my experiences into the rich tapestry that is my memory of Cambodia.  I want to share these memories with others because the more people who know about the Harpswell Foundation and its programs, the more ideas are generated about how to help empower women in Cambodia.  I have received creative and valuable input about potential business and job opportunities for the Harpswell graduates, how to market the beautiful clothes from the women in the remote village of Tramung Chrum (June 2nd  blog), as well as leads on how to obtain the laptop computers requested by the village school director in Tramung Chrum. I am uplifted by the many people who are expressing an interest in participating in some way toward helping Cambodian people help themselves.  The possibilities are infinite!

I am so very grateful to Alan Lightman, founder of the Harpswell Foundation, for allowing me to “shadow” him for two weeks during one of his twice-yearly visits to Phnom Penh. Seeing the Harpswell Foundation’s work up-front and in-person, and meeting the many people Alan interacted with during the course of his visit was an amazing introduction to Cambodia. It was a gift I will never forget. As a bonus, I came to know about Alan’s family back home: his wife, Jean, who the Harpswell students refer to as “Mom,” his daughter Elsie who will marry in August, and his younger daughter Kara, who works in NYC.  The entire Lightman family is involved in the work of the Harpswell Foundation in some way.  Alan is proud of his wife and daughters, and I am in awe. I hope that my husband, Mark, and I can meet them soon.

Evening English class for Harpswell students

Visit to Sihanoukville

I will be writing more about the Harpswell Foundation students and the extra educational programs they attend in the dorms: English lessons and critical thinking skills sessions in the evenings, as well as leadership development training sprinkled throughout the year. I will also write about the unique sisterhood these women share that will continue after graduation as they begin their work to improve Cambodia from the inside out. I want to tell you about the wonderful day we spent at the beach, and the discussion I had with a group of the girls about arranged marriages and the influence of family approval on Cambodian girls’ choices in life.

I also want to write more about Phnom Penh and this city of contrasts:  of the morning I toured the beautiful grounds of the Royal Palace followed by a tour of the ghastly Tuol Sleng prison, where more than 20,000 men, women and children were tortured and executed between 1975 and 1979 by the Khmer Rouge.

I plan to write about my visit to an organization called “A New Day Cambodia,” which rescues children scrounging in the Phnom Penh garbage dump to support their families, and provides them housing and sends them to school. I’ll also tell you about the visit Alan and I had with Carol Rodley, the US Ambassador to Cambodia, and her multiple trips to speak to the Harpswell students in their “Hall of Great Women Leaders.”

This week, Alan asked me to serve on the Advisory Board of the Harpswell Foundation. It took me about a millisecond to agree.  There are many ways I want to assist this organization in its mission of Empowering a New Generation of Women Leaders in Cambodia. When I embarked on this trip to Cambodia, I hoped to discover how I could combine my 30 years of business experience with my interest in helping to empower women in developing countries.  I was looking for a focus for this “next chapter” in my life following my retirement from the chemical industry. I found many opportunities to make a difference, and I am energized and anxious to get to work!

Stay tuned for more stories over the next several weeks.

For more information on the Harpswell Foundation, go to

I have met many women on this trip to Cambodia whose life focus is to help make the world a better place, and they are an inspiration to me. One such person is Carol Allbaugh, Program and Training Officer in Cambodia for the U.S. Peace Corp, the number two Peace Corp position in the country. Carol is a retired school administrator from California who is living here with her husband, supervising more than 60 Peace Corp volunteers.  A meeting with Alan had been scheduled at Carol’s request to discuss how the Peace Corp volunteers might assist the Harpswell Foundation in its mission.

The meeting is at a small coffee shop, much like a Starbucks in the US.  Carol and Alan have never met in person, so we enter the shop not knowing how to recognize her. She jumps up when she sees us, and greets us with a big smile. Her medium-short hair is salt-and-pepper gray and she looks like a typical retiree heading out for a round of golf. We exchange pleasantries as the meeting gets underway.

This is Carol’s second career, she explains to us.  When she graduated from college in the 1960’s, she had a dream to work in the Peace Corp.  Instead, she got married, had a family, and advanced to a responsible position in education administration in the state of California. She laughingly told us that when her kids would misbehave, in her frustration she would sometimes yell at them “I am going to leave this house and join the Peace Corp!”  So, when she retired a few years back, she decided to follow her dream, working as a Peace Corp field volunteer for two years in Thailand before moving into her current management role in Cambodia. Her husband has followed her in her adventure, and although he is not a part of the Peace Corp, he helps her out whenever he can.

Mira Weisenthal

Alan and Carol discuss several ideas for how the Peace Corp volunteers might contribute to Harpswell. Carol already has one volunteer working with the Harpswell organization as a Resident Leader at the smaller of the two dormitories.  Mira Weisenthal is an impressive young woman who is finishing her two-year Peace Corp assignment by working with the Harpswell students as a Resident Leader, living with them in one of the dormitories.  I have enjoyed getting to know her this week. She has a warm, friendly personality and I suspect it was easy for the students to welcome her into their close-knit Harpswell sisterhood. Mira  is busy teaching English, facilitating evening discussions on current events, and acting as a combination role model and confidant in an older sister kind-of-way.

Lots of ideas are discussed, and I notice that Carol has a way of guiding the discussion back to a few solid possibilities with definable next steps. The Peace Corp volunteers will prepare and run a one-week leadership training workshop for all Harpswell students, building off an existing seminar. Being responsible for the entire program will be a valuable learning experience for the Peace Corp workers, so everyone benefits. Carol will give one or two Harpswell students summer internships so they can gain real-world working experience over the summer. Also, her volunteers will identify exceptional students from the schools in which they are teaching, most of which are in remote provinces that Harpswell can’t reach.  Alan emphasizes the importance of the volunteers recognizing the competitiveness of the Harpswell program.  Only the very brightest students who also exhibit strong leadership skills should be referred. Carol nods her head in understanding. She gets it.

As we leave the coffee shop an hour later, I marvel at the energy and focus of this 60-something individual who is using the skills and experience of her first career to make the world a better place during her “second half.” Carol tells us adamantly, “I love what I am doing; I could do this until I die!”  I am awed by her commitment and desire to make a difference–and I have no doubt that she is doing just that. You go, Girl!

Alan and I are in the remote village of Tramung Chrum, and it is nearing mid-morning. As we walk down the dusty street toward the village mosque, we are followed by a group of men, women and children who had gathered for a meeting to discuss a project to create a sewing business in the village. More people emerge from seemingly nowhere to join us during the quarter mile walk.  Up ahead we can see children lined up on either side of the mosque gate to greet us.

Children greeting us at mosque

The mosque was built in 2008 from funds donated by Alan’s family.  It was not a Harpswell project. The villagers are very proud of this gathering space and it stands out as one of the few brick buildings in the village.

Alan and the village religious leader, Iman Leb Sim, spot each other and embrace in a prolonged hug. Although they do not speak the same language, they share a close bond and think of each other as family.

Alan and his good friend, Iman Ben Sim

We continue into the mosque building where a man and woman have just finished rolling out mats in the large, mostly bare room. The air feels cool inside and I am glad to be out of the searing hot sun. All the men gather into a circle, sitting cross-legged on the mats. I pause for an awkward moment, then sit down in the inner circle with the men next to Alan. He faces his friend Iman Leb Sim and introduces me as a business woman from the U.S., and Yousos translates in the local Cham language. There are nods and smiles around the circle; no one seems to mind that I have invaded their male territory. The village women and children seat themselves in the back, near the door. They are not sitting on mats and are observers, rather than participants in the discussion that follows.

Alan says a few words about how happy he is to see everyone, and hands out twenty envelopes which contain half a dozen pictures of he and his family, some from home, others taken during visits to the village. Unsure how to disperse the envelopes among the sixty or so people who have joined us, he hands them to the Iman who decides this detail. There are “ohs” and “ahs” as people excitedly look at the photos. All recognize Alan’s daughter, Elise, pictured with others in the village during her last visit. Elise is obviously a beloved daughter here!

I keep turning around to watch a little girl with big brown eyes, perhaps two years old, who is wearing tiny purple socks and yellow flip flops and can’t sit still.  We make eye contact and I smile. She holds my stare, but does not smile back. Her mother lets her wander a few steps, and then guides her back to her lap. This is repeated multiple times in an easy, relaxed manner.

Alan hands out the fruit he bought at the market earlier in the day and I break my gift of twenty loaves of bread into pieces and hand them out, first to the women and children, then to the men as suggested by Yousos. I sense a feeling of happiness and tranquility overlaid with excitement in this gathering space.

Marie with mothers and children in the mosque

There is more business to attend to, and we leave the mosque and follow Iman Leb Sim as he makes his way across the road and through a field to show us a project that is underway.  A pond is being built with the objective of raising fish as a renewable protein food source for the village. Iman Leb Sim has been learning how to raise fish by listening to his radio, powered by a car battery.

On the way, we pass a younger man yanking on a rope tied around a cow’s neck. He is trying to lead her toward a path through a grove of trees. Following behind is a calf on unsteady legs, born just hours ago!

Cow and newborn calf

We reach the pond and learn that the roughly 50’ x 75’ hole was dug by hand. An NGO helped by providing rice as payment to men and boys who did the work. Water has started to fill the hole, seeping in from the ground and from the recent start of the rainy season. Iman Leb Sim takes a long stick, marked at intervals to indicate depth and inserts it into the hole. It appears that the water is about ten feet deep so far.

Hand dug fish pond project

Now Iman Leb Sim gets down to business. He speaks to Alan and Yousos translates. Can Alan help the project by providing money to buy the fingerlings to stock the pond? Each fish costs 300 Riel, and about 1000 are needed to get started. Alan does the math in his head and agrees to provide $100 from the Harpswell Foundation for the baby fish. He looks at me and laughs, saying “I hope I didn’t make a decimal point error.”  The men agree to name one of the fish Marie.

First primary school in the village, built by the Harpswell Foundation

The last stop on our tour is to visit the school compound. The primary school was the very first project taken on by the Harpswell Foundation, opening in 2005.  Prior to that, there was no building for a school. Children did their lessons under a thatched roof structure with no walls to provide protection from wind and rain, limiting school hours. Most of the village children never made it past the early primary years, if they attended school at all.

Plaque on secondary school

Secondary school donated by the U.S. Military

In 2010, the U.S. military built a secondary school which is situated near the primary school.  The secondary school came equipped with a solar panel array, which powers fluorescent lights in the three classroom building. The director of the schools has a request: is it possible for Alan to provide two laptops for use with the secondary school students? Batteries of the laptops could be charged from sunlight during the day, and they would be portable and usable after dark. This is a more significant investment than stocking the fish pond. Alan asks the school director to find out how much the laptops will cost. The decision is deferred for now.

It is time to begin our two-hour journey back to Phnom Penh. There are multiple goodbyes all around, and I am pretty sure I see Alan’s eyes mist up. It has been an amazing, eye-opening day for me.  This remote village of Tramung Chrum exists in a very different world then the rest of us. While there is tranquility and a serene peacefulness, there are also hardships due to lack of education, availability of healthcare, and adequate nutrition. Children growing up here have few choices in life. Girls who leave Cham villages like Tramung Chrum to work in garment factories in Phnom Penh do so around age 15 or 16. They work under difficult conditions, and are vulnerable to being naively coerced into the sex trade industry. However, for many families, the income from their daughters in the garment factories are the only sources of hard cash for them to buy necessary items they cannot grow or make themselves.

In the car on the way back to the city, I think about how one individual who wanted to make a difference has so significantly impacted the lives of the 600 people of Tramung Chrum. When I mention this to Alan, he immediately deflects the discussion away from himself and talks about the donors to the Harpswell Foundation and all the people that continue to be a part of its mission.  I have heard him say how his involvement in the many aspects of the work he either does himself or directs is actually a gift to himself. He is sure he receives far more than he gives. Very cool.

Other pictures from our visit:

Coconut tree in Yousos's backyard

Lunch prepared by Yousos's wife and mother during stop at his home while en route to Phnom Penh

Marie and village woman

Religous leader Iman Leb Sim