CHAMBORK TROP VILLAGE, Kandal Province — Located on the quiet shores of Tonle Bati Lake, Seametrey Children’s Village was bustling with activity on a recent weekday, as dozens of children attended classes or played at various facilities, including a pool, a leisure center and sports grounds.
In a nearby wooden house, within earshot of the excited shrieks of playing children, the organization’s founder Muoy You, 72, was sitting in an armchair and recounted how she had come to build the sprawling, green complex.
She recalled how she and her late husband You Khin were struck by the utter devastation left by war and Khmer Rouge rule when they first returned to their native Cambodia in the 1990s.
They had longed to return after decades abroad and wanted to help rebuild their country. During their visit, they were especially heartbroken by the plight of the children; the lack of education for the street kids and the crowded, barren classrooms for those who did attend school.
“There are not many quality education choices for poor and ill-behaving Cambodian children and I realized I want to provide high-quality education,” Muoy told VOA Khmer.
“I believe that all children need a free and resourceful environment to spark their curiosity.”
‘Education Saved Me’
The couple had avoided the war because they received university scholarships to study in France in the early 1970s; she to study French, he to study arts. She went on to teach French, while her husband worked as an architect.
Many of their family members died during the Khmer Rouge regime.
“Education saved me, so I want to provide education for the poor children,” Muoy said.
In 2003, after years of saving and planning—and growing political stability in Cambodia—they bought a house in central Phnom Penh to set up a free Montessori primary school for underprivileged children. The curriculum also included English, French, music and sports activities. She later rented a neighboring building to expand the school.
After her husband died in 2009, Muoy turned the building she owned into a guesthouse named after him in order to cover the costs of her non-profit school.
In 2013, when rent prices sharply rose in the capital, she decided to move and founded Seametrey Children’s Village complex on a plot of land she owned on Tonle Bati Lake, located in Prek Rokhar Commune, some 30 kilometer south of Phnom Penh.
Currently, about 188 poor children from the area attend the primary school and about half who are slightly better off voluntarily pay $30 per month to attend, Muoy explained.
The complex gradually expanded over the years, as Muoy used the income from her guesthouse, donations from well-wishers and visitors, as well as funds from Indiegogo Crowdfunding.
“I wasn’t a tech savvy, but I tried it anyway. We received more than $20,000; I was astonished and delighted,” she said of her initial round of crowdfunding, adding that in total she raised more than $60,000 over the years.
The complex now employs 19 teachers, including some foreign volunteers. It boasts 14 classrooms, a library, a computer lab, and an art exhibit space, as well as swimming pools, a football field and various playing installations.
The complex is also open to visitors, mostly city dwellers who wish to escape the chaos and bustle of Phnom Penh. They can relax on the lake shore and enjoy the facilities for a small fee that goes towards supporting the children’s village.
A Better Way for Kids to Study
Reatrey, one of the teachers, was also educated at Muoy’s school when it was still located in Phnom Penh. “It changed my life,” he said.
According to Reatrey, the Montessori-style education, extra-curricular activities and access to the environment at the complex is very good for children’s development.
“I think it’s better this way because kids can study better. We have playtime, sports time and study time; so kids don’t stress out. At public school, we only have break time for 15 minutes,” he said, adding that the children at Seametrey are encouraged to learn both in and outside the classroom.
“Here we are taught cultural differences and discipline first-hand; we learn side by side with nature, and foster a love for the environment.”
Chhem Morn, 64, Prek Rokhar Commune Chief, said residents of his commune are very glad to have access to the facility, adding that his three grandchildren also attend school at Seametrey Children's Village.
“The school creates a very attractive environment for children to learn and they hire senior teachers to teach the children,” he said.
‘Cambodians Can Also Do It’
Muoy, meanwhile, remains ambitious and plans to attract more fee-paying visitors in order to expand beyond Grade 6 and set up a secondary school.
“Once we fully renovate our recreational center, we will start promoting the center to people and use the income to expand our classes to Grade 12,” she said.
While much has improved in Cambodia in recent years, there remains, she said, an enormous need for quality education organized by the Cambodians themselves.
“My big goal is to show to people, especially foreigners, that Cambodians can also do it. When they come to Cambodia, they can see a nice school like the ones they have in their home countries; not just classrooms and nothing else,” she said.