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From the Killing Fields to a Future: Texas Nonprofit WOWi Aims to Give Cambodian Kids a Future

8 December 2011 No Comment

Ponheary Ly Foundation
Ponheary Ly Foundation founder Ponheary with children (Photo by Lori Carlson)

By Shelley Seale

At the age of 14, Ponheary Ly died and came back to life.

At least, that’s how she describes it. The year was 1977, and the Khmer Rouge was on its deadly rampage in Cambodia. After seeing her father killed, along with 13 other family members, Ly was on the run and in hiding when some soldiers accused her of stealing food. They marched her deep into the woods and forced her to dig her own grave.

“The ground was very hard,” Ly recalls. “I only got a few inches down, and then I don’t remember what happened.” The next thing she was aware of was waking up in the shallow pit, covered with dirt. “I must have fallen unconscious, I must have stopped breathing. The soldiers thought I died, and they buried me.”

This was only one of many horrors that Ly survived during the brutal period in her country’s history. After she reunited with her mother and six remaining siblings, the family was forced to start over. Education became her answer.

Today, three decades after the fall of the Khmer Rouge its legacy remains: over 30 percent of Cambodia’s population is under age 14 and uneducated. Nearly all of these post genocidal-era children work or beg in the streets rather than attend school. Without proper education this cycle of poverty cannot be broken and the suffering merely gets passed from generation to generation.

That’s something that Ponheary Ly wants to end – with the help of an Austin, Texas-based nonprofit called Windows of Wonder Institute, or WOWi.

When Cambodia opened to tourism in the early 1990s, Ly became a tour guide. But neither she, nor her visitors, could ignore Cambodia’s impoverished children; not when they saw them every day at the Angkor Wat temples, working and begging. That’s when Ly began using her tips to sponsor a child to go to school. That child turned into a few, and then dozens as her tourist clients gave extra donations as well.

Today, the Ponheary Ly Foundation (PLF) enables over 2,000 children to attend school. I met Ly last year when I visited Cambodia, and she told me her story. I also met some of the children her foundation helps, and was amazed by the work being done under the force of a few people – and humbled by how great the needs are.

Kim Smith, co-founder of WOWi, also traveled to Cambodia a few years ago and heard Dr. Beat Richner speak, a physician who founded five hospitals to provide free healthcare to Cambodian children. The experience got Smith to thinking about how he and his WOWi foundation could help.

“Given my depth of experience in digital media, why not start a digital media program in Siem Reap?” Smith asked himself. “And why not model it in part on the Artisans d’Angkor workshops that train youths in traditional Cambodian crafts that are then sold to the over two million tourists who visit Angkor Wat each year?”

Smith knew that if he could train Cambodian youths in digital media production and management, while at the same time supporting humanitarian activities such as those Ponheary Ly and Dr. Richner were involved with, he could have a program with a huge potential impact. Soon after, Smith met Keith Hajovsky, a travel consultant and tour guide specializing in Southeast Asia.

“Keith put the project on a firm footing by facilitating a partnership between WOWi and the Ponheary Ly Foundation,” Smith explains. “The key to the WOWi/PLF partnership is PLF’s new computer lab, and students eager to learn computer-related skills and digital media.”

WOWi Then Plus NowSmith and Hajovsky began putting together their project, and set up a fundraising program through Crowdrise. The collaboration with donors that they created is so new and unique that it’s been trademarked. Investors of $25 or more into the project will receive what’s called MYtiles, virtual tiles that the donors can fill in with content of their choosing – photos, a graphic, or company logo that can also link to any internet site they wish. Your MYtile can also be created by a graphic designer, or a PLF student.

“This last option will actually directly provide these students with an opportunity to strengthen their technical and creative skills, something that will help them get a better job later on in life and break the cycle of poverty,” Hajovsky says.

All of the MYtiles are then displayed on WOWi’s virtual LIFEwall. The donations will cover the costs to send a group of American university students and digital media industry professionals to Siem Reap, where the team will spend two weeks training PLF students in digital media creation and technology, leaving behind a working digital studio. And they have one of the world’s most awe-inspiring subjects with which to work: the majestic temples of Angkor Wat.

“Ever since I was a little kid looking through National Geographic magazines, I’d always wanted to see the temples of Angkor,” Hajovsky said. “They seemed so exotic to me in all those pictures, but when I actually saw them in person for the first time they were even larger and more magnificent than I had ever imagined—they really blew me away.”

The two week team training will mark the start of an ongoing program that will eventually produce a self-sustaining, sophiticated digital media training school. Through the sharing of these two cultures – the horrific and beautiful aspects alike—the WOWi project is poised to accomplish something amazing: a total reversal of what the Khmer Rouge stood for. “It represents a true step towards returning Cambodia to its ancient glory, now through open exposure to the rest of the world and education rather than through isolation and brutal suppression,” says Duane Conder, WOWi’s Director of Communications.

For his part, Smith hopes this project will become a platform that can be used anywhere in the world to support humanitarian activities. “The internet has an ability to open up windows of contact worldwide,” he says. “WOWi is about forming communities through these ‘windows of wonder.’ Perhaps ultimately, a world community can be formed.”

WOWi will be leading a volunteer trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia on February 4-18, 2012. If you are interested in being a part of this experience in digital training for Cambodian students and visiting Angkor Wat, please visit www.wowi-austin.org, or submit an application online.

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