When Tham Sao Run is home for a visit, her accounting books are so foreign to her family, they could be written in another language.
Neither of her parents have bank accounts. Sao Run isn’t sure if anyone in her village does.
Sao Run reads in the shade under her stilted house, learning about cash flows and shareholders equity. A rusting blue bicycle rests against one stilt and chickens pick through the grass and dust.
In high school, Sao Run raised chickens to pay for her school supplies, books and uniforms. She was especially proud to purchase her bike, a cherished item that meant she would no longer have to walk an hour each way to her high school classes.
She could fly down the dirt road with ease, swerving between potholes as rice paddy fields expanded on every side of her.
In the bustling city of Phnom Penh, she now rides her bike to her classes at the National University of Management, careful to avoid cars and other bikes. There is so much traffic in the city, so much activity, she has to be careful not to get hit.
But in her village, life is quieter.
Sao Run’s father is out fishing today. Nearby, their water buffaloes wade up to their snouts in a small, muddy water hole. Their ears and tails swish.
Sao Run’s three younger siblings are stacking firewood for cooking and cutting grass for the buffaloes — chores that used to be Sao Run’s. The rainy season is over, but their rice field, the small plot of land they rely on for their daily meals, is still in disarray. Already, there is not enough food and Sao Run is worried for her brothers and sisters.
Life in rural Cambodia is hard and the harshness of the environment does little to give families in poverty hope. This year, monsoon rains came too hard, flooding Sao Run’s rice paddy and ruining their harvest — ruining a year’s worth of food. But then when the rain stopped, it refused to start again, leaving families to suffer both hunger and thirst through the drought.
With no money to move to a new place with more opportunities, no job skills beyond farming, and few people to call on for help, families like Sao Run’s — families like all those who live in her rural village — are forced to stay and hope that their land and the weather will allow them to produce enough food for their families.
In Sao Run’s village, there are few schools, hospitals or community centers. With such a small number of people across such a broad swath of land, even markets can be too far for many families to travel. Women are particularly isolated.
It’s not uncommon for children to drop out of school — often before they can read — to start working and earning income for their families. Traffickers target these rural villages, trying to trick children and adults into traveling far away for work. And, many parents aren’t convinced that education is worth the investment — especially for girls.
That’s why Sao Run’s college scholarship is exceptionally rare. She can count on her fingers the number of people who’ve had the same opportunity.
While many people will leave the village to find work on a larger farm or in a garment factory or to try their luck in the city, few have the opportunity, the funding or enough fundamental academic skills to dream of a college degree.
But in 2008, Sao Run received that chance and she didn’t shy away.
When Sao Run was a junior in high school, she was one of a handful of students identified around the country to enroll in a sponsorship program. Her test scores were already high and her academic success already indicative of her potential. Because of her compassionate sponsor and our partner, Friendship For Cambodia, Sao Run received assistance to pay her school fees and supplies.
In Cambodia, education is one of the most critical tools in the fight against poverty. Schools keep children safe from traffickers and exploitation. It teaches them the skills to gain higher paying jobs in their future. And, as girls grow more educated, they have better control over their futures.
However, access to schools, especially beyond primary school, is so limited that graduating from high school and college is a relatively rare accomplishment, even for kids from Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s only major city. For young girls from rural villages — the majority of the population of girls — to have the opportunity to study at that level is exceedingly rare.
But, for young women, a college degree is powerful enough to change their entire life.
When Sao Run graduated from high school in 2013, her exam scores were among the highest in her district. She was selected again to study at the university level with the invaluable support of her sponsors, and she chose to major in accounting. She moved to Phnom Penh, and shared a room with a group of girls. She began visiting the Holt International office regularly, where she met other college students her age. She started practicing her English with renewed fervor, and enrolled in English classes. She rode her blue bike to class.
During her sophomore year, she moved into the Holt International office, in a small room for students. She started working for Holt Cambodia as an accounting intern, and taking even more English classes at night. Between her part-time job and classes, she was working 14 hours a day or more.
But, she loved it. Working and learning fueled Sao Run’s energy. She also had the chance to intern at the nonprofit organization People in Need.
Now, Sao Run is nearing the finish line. She will graduate at the end of September, and she plans to find a full-time job as an accountant at an NGO that focuses on community development. Giving back to those in need is important to Sao Run.
During a recent visit home, Sao Run could feel the difference her education is making in her life. She now has the money to help her little brother stay in school and keep studying. And she hopes she can help him attend college, too.
She’s happy to be a good role model in her community. She wants to use her education to help her village and to break down the barriers to a good education. She talks to parents about keeping their children in school.
Sao Run is truly an example of the life-changing difference sponsors make in the lives of children. Because of compassionate sponsors who supported Sao Run, she has learned all she needs to break the chains of poverty forever. Her example will likely inspire other children to dare to chase their dreams. And, her desire to help her village will bring vital skills to the community.
Sao Run says she is very grateful and appreciative to her faithful sponsors. Without them, she would never have had this chance.
Thank you, sponsors and donors, for giving Sao Run a chance to pursue her dreams. Her life will never be the same because of you.
Billie Loewen | Creative Lead