Room to Read in Cambodia

Written by on October 20, 2008 in Photo Posts, Photos and Stories in Progress with 2 Comments


Last month I went to Cambodia again with Global Adventure (Japanese link) (bringing volunteers from Japan to connect, serve and learn. We spend most of our time at an orphanage outside of Phnom Penh, and we also visit some other projects to get perspective and contribute in very simple ways.

This time, one of the participants was interested in Room to Read, an NGO that creates “reading rooms” all over the world. Room to Read had a special “site visit” opportunity in September, so we attended.

We visited two “reading rooms” (small libraries) located near Siem Reap. When we walked in the first library we saw the potential impact of such a simple idea. Most children in Cambodia, especially children in poor communities in the countryside, have no place to discover and read books. Actually, most have no books at all. Children go to school and return home to work and play.

The “reading room” stood out in stark contrast to the surrounding community. It was quiet. Neatly arranged racks held hundreds of colorful books. We looked up and saw origami overhead suspended on strings, and the walls were lined with crafts. A group of children were reading at a table. Some others were playing a game, and another group had an open origami book and they were carefully folding paper.

The librarian impressed us as a passionate person. She survived the Khmer Rouge. During those years she was denied any form of education, and she seemed to relish this place rich in books and knowledge. I had a strong impression that a “reading room” will succeed or fail depending on the librarian. He or she is the one who will inspire children to begin searching for and discovery the potential of books and games (and to take care of them).

There is a lot of talk about poverty. I don’t like to label people as “poor” (which may be a subject for another time), but one mark of true poverty is the lack of time and space to reflect. Reflection is critical for people to gain a perspective and control over their lives and direction.  When I saw the children absorbed in their books and games, I pictured other children who I know (from the orphanage and other places) entertaining themselves any way that they can (swimming, petty gambling and games, working, and attending whatever classes they can).  Most of their activities are concrete and done in the moment with little thought for the future. Living in the moment is wonderful, but the children I know need more than just that. The children in the “reading room” seemed to have found a place to be alone with their thoughts, explore the world through books and other means, discover new possibilities, and imagine plans for the future.

I was so intrigued that I returned to Japan and contacted the orphanage that we work with. It’s actually more than just “an orphanage.” They have a community center that serves over one thousand families in the area whose lives have been affected by HIV/AIDS (providing weekly food distributions, medicine, and basic counseling). Now the director is very interested in have a “reading room” to serve both the kids at the orphanage and the wider community. I’ve submitted a proposal to Room to Read that says we are willing to raise the funds for the project ourselves, and the director is working with a German NGO to construct a building.

On a side note, I don’t think every Room to Read project is as ideal as I have perhaps implied either in my words or these pictures. We attended a special “site visit,” which means we visited two carefully selected sites that had time to prepare a real show for us. The students were on holiday on the day we visited, and I was quite sure the children we saw had been recruited just for us (because at both sites they all left when we left). I’m sure if we showed up at numerous sites with no advance notice, then we would see more mixed results. I’m convinced (from what I saw and past experience) that the success or failure of a “reading room” will rest on the leadership of the librarian and on the support of the school and community. That’s a large order to fill, actually, because the school system is notoriously corrupt.

One thing I do know is this: if our proposal to build a “reading room” at the orphanage is approved, then I will personally do my utmost with our partners there to insure it succeeds. If you’re interested in contributing money to this project let me know and I’ll keep you informed, or just follow this blog for updates.

About the Author

About the Author: Andy Gray is a writer and photographer living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and working with Alongsiders International. You can find him puttering around the streets of Phnom Penh on his Suzuki Viva 125, running stoplights and driving on the wrong side of the road or on the sidewalks like a local. If you see him in a coffee shop, he'll be the one typing and deleting the same line over and over again. .


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