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Veteran Bartender Turned Philanthropist

Angelina Jolie and Bill Gates are among the mega rich, and each year they donate millions of dollars to help children out of poverty. But even ordinary citizens like, Sam Lek, a Cambodian-American bartender, can also make a big difference in the lives of thousands of people in Cambodia. VOA’s Manilene Ek has the story on this veteran bartender turned philanthropist, and Reasey Poch translates.

Sam Lek came to the United States from Cambodia in the early 1970's and got his first job as a dishwasher. Two years after graduating from Hotel School, Sam got hired as a bartender at one of the finest hotels in Washington. He’s been working at the Mayflower Hotel for the past 31 years, and often served former President Bush.

Sam Lek: “Every time, the President held a meeting or interview at the Mayflower hotel, I was always chosen to serve Senior President Bush. They made their selections based on someone whom they trusted and for their bartending skills as well.”

In addition to serving drinks to many of the nation’s elite, Sam is also a philanthropist. He is the founder and President of “Sam Relief, Inc”. His charity provides educational assistance to economically disadvantaged children by building new schools and providing the students with books and materials. But, the money doesn’t stop there. Sam also offers annual financial bonuses to a handful of high-performing students and “lucky” teachers.

Sam Lek: “Teachers are also faced with many challenges. Currently, the money also goes to subsidizing the teacher’s salaries- I can’t support all of the teachers. So, I decided to have an annual lottery.”

It’s mostly from Sam working “behind the bar” that his charity really took off. The money he received from customers allowed him to build 12 schools and to raise over $600,000 dollars in donations.

Sam Lek: “The customers that come to the hotel are presidents, senators, congressman, lobbyists, lawyers, and PTA (Parent Teacher Association). I have known these people for the past 30 years, and these people trust and support my work in Cambodia. That’s why they donate a lot of money to my charity.”

Earlier this year, King Norodom Sihamoni honored Sam with the title of nobleman or “Okhna”- which is bestowed upon individuals who dedicate themselves to helping the people of Cambodia.

Sam Lek: “In the beginning, I did not want be “Okhna”, because I just wanted to help the poor people of Cambodia. So far, I have contributed more than $500,000 dollars to Cambodia. The two government officials who encouraged me to take this title, were his Excellency Sok An and Khieu Kanharidh. They had asked me why I didn’t want to be “Okhna”, so I replied, if someone would handle the paperwork for me- I would gladly accept the title.”

U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia, Joseph Mussomeli, also acknowledges Sam’s contribution to society. In a speech made at one of Sam’s school openings, Ambassador Mussomeli said that, “the country cannot prosper, unless and until there is a good educational foundation and official U.S. government assistance to Cambodia is not enough.”

Already, many private philanthropists like Sam are investing in Cambodia’s educational system, but is it enough and are their well intention effective? Next time, we will take a closer look at how effective education development projects are in Cambodia – drawing on a recent report from the World Bank.