The 36 year-old engineer, Huy Chung, had the ability of just writing a check and donating it to American Assistance for Cambodia (AAC), a charity that builds schools in rural parts of the Southeast Asian country. But it wasn’t enough for him.
Instead of dishing out dollars from his pocket, Chung, who was working on a doctorate in finance, chose to get more engaged, and took on a campaign to raise the funds needed to build a school. He gave up a room in his Bellevue home to a renter. He threw a charity auction. He asked everyone he knew and didn’t know for donations.
“I felt there had to be a personal sacrifice for the effort to be meaningful,” said Chung.
The decision to build a school in Cambodia was inspired by a conversation Chung had with his friend, Sreymon Serey. She told him poverty was prevalent among her relatives living in Cambodia. After reading about a teenage girl who raised money to build a school on her own in Cambodia, he was inspired to do something similar and be a part of a larger solution.
Public education is free in Cambodia for school-age children. However, for those living outside the city parameters, the closest school might be several miles away. For poor families struggling to maintain their farms, there often is no time to walk back and forth to a school that might be over 6 miles away.
“The best long-term solution for Cambodia’s poverty is education,” Chung said, believing building a school within walking distance of a village is the formula for change in Cambodia’s future.
The AAC can build a school for $13,000 with matching funds from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. The organization has built over 470 rural-area schools since 1999, according to the website.
But the global recession means a hamper in fundraising efforts. Bernard Krishner, the chairman of AAC, said building a school costs much more than $13,000 nowadays.
So Chung got to work. His first attempt to raise funds was a charity auction hosted by Liberty Café in Renton. He raised
about $1,000 and quickly discovered it was much more efficient to just ask for donations.
He approached everyone he knew at work and in his neighborhood, asking them to tell everyone they knew. Chung also employed online social networking to spread the word about the project.
He even rented spare rooms in his house to tenants, “but that’s another story,” he said jokingly.
“The experience was rewarding in the sense that it was more than just passively sitting in the classroom getting degrees,” he said of his time as a doctoral student. “I had to put myself out there.”
After a year of campaigning, by the end of Oct. 2011, Chung had the funds to go to Pursat Province in Cambodia and observe the school’s progress. His trip coincided with the region’s flooding season, making his 6-hour trek to the village especially difficult.
“The streets were flooded. I was afraid the engine would stall,” said Chung. He remembered the fear he had while crossing a small wooden bridge in an SUV, afraid it would collapse at any second.
When he arrived, the school children lined up in anticipation of their founder. He gave a short speech and passed out supplies. Chung said he felt “gratitude for all the stuff I have and yet envy for the peaceful contentment of the countryside.”
The school is now complete. One hundred and twenty five students in the 7th and 8th grade are able to learn in the institute and Chung is looking into upgrades. The school is named Serey, after Chung’s friend who motivated him to do something few others dream, and even fewer, do.