As you look at the smiling faces of the Stung Mean Chey School students, it is easy to believe that their lives are easy. Just don’t look out the window, because immediately outside you are faced with Cambodia’s largest municipal waste dump—a 100-acre mountain of filth with a blackened surface that bellows smoke like a smoldering hell on earth. This is the backdrop for these student’s lives, as their parents often spend the day looking for valuable recycleables in an attempt to support their families.
Until these students were offered on-site education in Phnom Penh by Christian and Marie-France des Pallieres following a visit to the area in 1994, they would join their parents, often starting at first light and working into the dark hours to earn about 50 cents an hour while the smoke was so thick you could taste the burning plastic. Now, the next generation of the Preak Torl shantytown has a better life, as they work at their education and take home 11 pounds of rice each week as a reward.
The year-old, brightly colored Stung Mean Chey School (above) stands like a phoenix rising from the ashes of this smoldering, now-retired dump and the dark history of the country—from the Cambodia Campaign during the Vietnam War to the mass killing of 1.7 million people (21 percent of their population) by the Pol Pot regime. The school’s students are the first, and only, generation to have been born since the country reunited under the monarchy in 1993. Instead of simply surviving, their goals are to go to high school, learn a trade and find a better life.
On the wall of the ground floor of their school amidst student-painted murals hang brass plaques with the names of donors that made this People Improvement Organization (PIO) program possible. Among them are equestrian donors: JustWorld International and Tom MacGuinness of Horseware Ireland. Though these students may never have heard of, let alone seen, the Olympic equestrian disciplines, the support of these donors has allowed PIO to build a five-story haven for the Stung Mean Chey students.
“I founded JustWorld 10 years ago,” says Jessica Newman. “At first, we sent student volunteers to seek out potential partner organizations and that is how we found PIO.” She recognizes that none of this would be possible without the efforts of PIO founder, Phymean Noun, an “incredible woman” who was named a 2008 CNN Hero for her efforts.
JustWorld started by giving PIO small grants and the rest is history. Newman coordinated with MacGuinness and her mother, Maria, to return to the area for a trip in November of 2006. Horseware Ireland and Maria Newman agreed to help fund the Stung Mean Chey’s original two-story school that year and the newer four-story school in 2011.
“When we first visited the Stung Mean Chey, I had already been going to Cambodia to visit my sister (who lives in Phnom Penh) and coordinate other charitable work,“ says MacGuinness. “When we visited the dump, it was still open and assaulting to the senses. JustWorld International was already working with PIO to build the school, so it was a coming together of the stars that we were there at the same time.”
The good thing about this project is it is relatively inexpensive to build in Cambodia. “I am so appreciative of Justworld and Jessica Newman,” says MacGuinness. “She is out there on the front lines. They have such a tight ship, they really account for every penny and have great oversight. Cambodian land is expensive and the title isn’t always clear, but once you have it, it is fairly straightforward to build.”
It took about $200,000 to build the newer school, not a difficult amount of money to raise for JustWorld or Horseware. It is not uncommon for an equestrian-related fundraiser to bring
in $20,000 or more—the cost to build one story.
Thanks to JustWorld International’s ambassador program, riders from various levels and disciplines are able to raise money and awareness for programs like the Stung Mean Chey School. “[Canadian Olympian] Ashley Holzer just came on board in April,” says Newman. “She is incredibly motivated and driven, so I think it is going to just launch. Having Ashley on board is exciting and we are hoping to have the dressage community participation grow from there.”
Newman stresses that you don’t have to be an elite athlete to become involved, you just need a dedication to the cause.
“The bottom line is that if you are privileged—like those in the equestrian community—you must do something to give back,” says MacGuinness. “To see how the majority of people [in other countries] live is eye-opening and the reality is that what we are giving is such a small amount of all that we have.”
With the help of JustWorld and Horseware, PIO is working to raise funds to renovate and expand the older building, says Noun. The plan is to have two floors of vocational training space and four floors for high school students. This will allow the many students who cannot afford current options the opportunity to continue their education near home.
To learn more about JustWorld International, visit justworldinternational.org.