In a remote village surrounded by banana trees, little children in their pyjamas and dirty clothes happily count “1, 2, 3, 4, 5” as they copy their teacher doing aerobic exercises before class.
The informal looking preschool in Kampot province’s Touk Meas district is essentially an open air classroom, with children between the ages of three and five sitting on a plastic mat covering the dirt floor. There they play with educational toys as chickens forage around them.
This provision of early education, nutrition and health checks is part of the village-based preschool and community development project carried out by the Cambodian Children’s Advocacy Foundation Organisation (CCAFO).
“We have three goals for our village – to provide a preschool programme of quality education, nutritious meals and regular medical check-ups,” Hing Channarith, the organisation’s CEO and co-founder, said.
Registered in early 2006, this Cambodian NGO’s aim is to provide early childhood education and English as foreign language to the neediest communities in rural areas, hoping to tackle poverty at the grassroots level in vulnerable segments of Cambodian society.
Channarith, a 57-year-old from Kampong Thom province, used to work for Veterans International Cambodia (VIC), a non-profit international NGO which provides rehabilitation services for persons with disabilities in Cambodia.
He served as VIC’s country director between 1996 to 2005 before deciding to embark on his own project.
“With my experience in writing project proposals for an international organisation and donors, I wanted to utilise my knowledge to improve the education sector. I want to reach rural communities in Cambodia by providing free preschool and foreign language lessons to local children,” Channarith told The Post.
Since 2006, the Phnom Penh based organisation has been implementing its two village-based educational projects in Kampot and Kampong Speu provinces.
“We have been promoting preschool education in 19 locations in the two provinces. We believe that the future economic growth of Cambodia will be based on the knowledge of the younger generation. Therefore, we focus on educational programmes,” he said.
Channarith believes expanding early childhood education is a key strategy in reducing late primary school enrolment, as well as the number of students who fail and drop out.
“Our preschools are set up in rural areas where there are no government preschools. We provide nutritious food for children when they attend the morning session, and during the meal, students learn important habits like washing their hands, thanking the teacher and cleaning the dishes,” he said.
Besides hygiene, which remains a problem in remote communities, the organisation also stresses the importance of basic healthcare and has the children checked regularly.
“Along with the nutrition programme, we work with the local government hospital to conduct a physical check-up. If they need any medical treatment or surgery, then we can refer them to hospital,” Channarith said.
He said that rural families often need to be convinced about the advantages of early education, with CCAFO sending teachers to have conversations from house to house, updating parents and relatives about the child’s performance.
“After teaching each afternoon our teachers visit individual families to tell the parents about the progress of their children. We also help parents register their children who are six years old to start grade one in primary school. They are fast learners compared to children who have never attended preschool,” said Channarith.
A second main project of the organisation provides secondary school-age teenagers with English classes to boost their employment prospects.
“The purpose of the language project is to help in the reduction of poverty by addressing its root causes, and to assist the Cambodian government in providing services for the most vulnerable communities,” Channarith said.
Since 2014 the organisation has built a strong network with other organisations, working with the likes of iHerb Charitable Foundation, as well as serving as a local partner for a Hong Kong-based NGO on a project building classrooms in Cambodia.
“We have helped five education organisations and centres in three provinces, including Siem Reap, Kampong Thom and Svay Rieng provinces. One of them is the Takin Foreign Language Center which receives a monthly budget of $700.”
After 13 years of operation, Channarith hopes to integrate the preschool under the local commune council so that the teachers can become contracted government teachers.
“We will focus on building capacity for the CCAFO preschool teachers in order to integrate them as contract government teachers and to integrate the preschool under the commune council.
“We are also continuing to fundraise and search for donors to help us sustain our projects,” he said.
CCAFO is located on Posenchey district’s Street 2001 in Phnom Penh. More information can be found on the organisation’s website (www.ccafokhmer.org) or by telephone (023 890 186).