Eager to improve foreign language skills in his local community, Loy Souvann has single-handedly established a makeshift English language school in order to help children develop the necessary skills to escape poverty and broaden their prospects in the world of work.
Growing up in a rice growing community with 12 siblings to farmer parents, Souvann, like most children in Siem Reap province’s Peak Sneng village, had no opportunity to study foreign languages as a child.
With his parents struggling to feed their 10 sons and three daughters, Souvann, the sixth child, knew he had to develop new skills and forge a life elsewhere.
To this end, he began studying English at university in the hopes of finding a better job in tourism in thriving Siem Reap town, some 30km from his home.
But most people from Souvann’s community – which is very close to the world renowned tourist hotspot Angkor Wat – do not attempt to study at university after high school, most frequently leaving to work illegally in agriculture in Thailand for low wages.
“When I returned home, I saw children who knew no English at all. If it continues like this, I thought, they will never have good jobs to do. They will leave for Thailand and work in farms for a generation,” Souvann tells The Post.
Thanks to his English education, Souvann is now a designer and creative manager at a Siem Reap town hotel.
Most days, as the sun sets, he rushes home, rides his bicycle to meet a volunteer teacher before they both head to Peak Sneng village for English lessons.
In a makeshift tin-roofed, wooden classroom – with old-fashioned painted wooden desks and beaten-up white-board with a large hole in the middle – volunteer teacher Khun Khen teaches a classroom of more than 40 children in a space that would ideally accommodate half that.
She has been a volunteer teacher with Souvann since she was in high school. She is now a third-year business management student at a Siem Reap university.
“I have volunteered for his school since the classes were held under people’s homes and in an abandoned kindergarten,” Khen says.
Due to bad road conditions, Souvann says he can only travel to his school, which he has named 48 Colors, a few times a week.
The school was named in honour of the 48 colour pencils he received from a foreign tourist when he first started the project, the 34-year-old tells The Post sitting in front of his school.
It was approximately two years ago that another visitor saw that he was conducting English lessons under villager’s home and decided to buy a plot of land in order for him to build school.
“Thankfully, a tourist bought us one hectare of land in the village and said he will raise enough money to build the school. Though we are still raising funds to construct a building, we began constructing a one-room classroom that we sometimes have up to 100 students learning in,” Souvann says.
Now the school has about 100 students and three volunteer teachers, with the number of pupils steadily increasing as materials are donated.
Inevitably, attendance by the students is erratic as they have to help their parents in the rice fields or with farming during harvest season.
“Students here are irregular as many of their parents do not care about their studies. Their presence in school is high or low according to the season."
“When their parents do not have work for them in the fields, the classes will be full and there will be nowhere to stand. But when it’s harvest season, they bring their kids to the fields. The classes are then quieter with only few students,” says Souvann, who spends about 20 per cent of his income on the school each month.
Marn Lok is another of the school’s young volunteer teachers. He’s a 16-year-old in tenth grade at Hun Sen Angkor Thom High School, and has volunteered at 48 Colors for two years. He himself only receives English lessons two hours per week through the state curriculum, but he’s keen to share his knowledge with the kids in the community.
“I want there to be educated people to develop my community, as currently not many people pay attention to studying,” he says, adding that he worries about who will replace him when he finishes high school and moves to the city.
“Students cannot improve since many teachers from the town do not come here to teach regularly as the road is too bad,” Lok says, referring to the poorly maintained 30km road that takes one hour to drive from Siem Reap town.
He says education levels in the community are extremely low.
“The graduation rate is low, and the rate of English speaking is virtually nothing. Among my peers, there are only few students who complete grade 12. In the whole commune, almost no one will succeed in education. So we believe that if we teach English and some young people can go to Siem Reap town to find jobs and learn skills, they will be able to find a better job rather than immigrate to Thailand,” Lok says.
A lack of funds is among the main challenges facing 48 Colors, but Souvann says there is also a major shortage of well-educated and reliable teachers, as well as space to teach in.
“We started with only one classroom and then extended into two. We’re now building one more room. We also just installed a solar panel by raising money from Facebook, so now the kids can come at night time."
“It’s not only the students, but also the teachers who are unable to come to school consistently because they are also students in high school. I pay them $10 each per month. It is not a salary, but it is some help to support their studies too,” says Souvann, who admits he has days in which he feels close to giving up.
Souvann says he plans to officially register as a non-profit organisation in order to raise funds, but has been delayed as the application process requires money to be completed.
“We want to register with the Ministry of Education, but that requires money and we also have poor infrastructure,” he says.
“But we are facing many challenges as aren’t officially registered. Some people find it difficult to volunteer with us because authorities ask for paperwork and it also makes it difficult to receive any donations.”
Those who wish to support 48 Colors school and help children in rural communities learn English can contact Loy Souvann via telephone (066 810 555).