Having worked in an orphanage in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for two weeks in 2009, my wife and I decided we wanted to help the Cambodian students in a way that would continue past our tenure. Too many volunteers, we felt, come and go through the revolving door of "voluntourism," which has been shown to have potentially detrimental effects on the behavior of a child. We wanted to have a long-lasting, meaningful presence.
But how? We wanted to help them all, but reality dictated that we only have so many resources.
The good news is that a little money by our standards can really go a long way in Cambodia. That's how we decided to help one student, Mony, re-enroll in Build Bright University (BBU) for an opportunity to finish the remaining three years towards her degree. The tuition at BBU--the national university of Cambodia--is only $400 a year, and although I was still paying off my own student loans, we decided to send her $200 every six months.
One Degree Forward team members Mony and Pouv collect supplies provided by One Degree Forward during the torrential floods of 2011.
"When I came back from my trip to Cambodia, I talked to Kyle about sending Pouv's two children to school," said Tim Ellison (Kyle's father). "He had done basically the same thing for Mony. So we decided to start an organization."
Over a meal of seafood enchiladas at Polli's Mexican Restaurant (my dad's business in Makawao), we decided to fuse our missions of using education as a means of elevating deserving Cambodian students out of poverty. Donations would be gathered, tuitions would be paid and the nonprofit One Degree Forward was born.
"We've gotten a lot accomplished in a short amount of time," said Ellison about their year-and-a-half-old organization. "We now have 17 children who our donors are either sending to universities or private English schools."
"I think the biggest bang for the buck is to try to find kids who want to go to college and learn English," said Ellison. "Learning English there is a big deal. A lot of commerce is done in English. College courses are taught in English. It really gives someone a chance to step out of abject poverty and help them get a job."
Many of Ellison's students are top in their class, one is in medical school and Mony has recently become One Degree Forward's first college graduate.
"It's very rewarding to work with people who are working so hard to better themselves," said Ellison.
The group also has grown to support a rural school outside of Siem Reap, which educates over 100 children in a village with no electricity or running water.
"Another one of my visions is to rent a two- or three-bedroom house and make it like a dormitory, because girls have no place to stay," said Ellison. "Boys can stay at the temples when they go to college. Girls have a tough time trying to live and go to college. The minimum wage there is a dollar a day. It's really tough to live on that."
In addition to educating students, One Degree Forward is committed to maintaining transparency and minimizing operational expenses to ensure that as much money as possible goes directly towards helping students. As proof of this, all school receipts are scanned to us and subsequently posted on the organization's Website.
"What's really neat is building this team," said Ellison. "Everybody is a volunteer."
"You don't know where life's going to take you," Ellison added. "Maybe we can't change the world, but we can take 25 kids and change their lives--and that's exciting. And it's nice to be able to work on a project like this with your son."
For more information, or to make a donation, visit onedegreeforward.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call Tim at (808) 283-7646.