If you’ve ever wondered about the power of the individual when it comes to helping others living in poverty in a far away land, take a page from Elaine Crebo’s book.
The Kelowna woman and her family are responsible for two schools in rural Cambodia that are helping women and children make better lives for themselves.
“People often ask, ‘What can I do? I’m just one person,’” says Crebo. “But this shows, one family can do a lot.”
In Crebo’s case that was being the driving force behind first building a small school in northern Cambodia that teaches women to sew, and then a larger school in the southern part of the country for young children that provides them with a basic education.
The sewing school was built 4 1/2 years ago in a remote, rural and desperately poor part of northern Cambodia.
Crebo says the primary industry there is growing rice and children often do not get to go to school because they have to help in farming. But living off the land in such remote and poor areas can be very hard, saying she saw children scavenging in ditches looking for food.
Crebo, who now runs the international education program at Kelowna’s Aberdeen Hall school, moved to Cambodia for six months six years ago with her own two young children to help a volunteer group that was working to stop child sex trafficking and provide food.
While there, she saw immense poverty and wanted to do something more to help.
She says she came up with the idea of the sewing school while living in Cambodia and having met the women in the villages where the aid group worked.
No stranger to Asia, Crebo had travelled extensively in the region during her years living in Hong Kong earlier in her life.
But working with the locals in Cambodia, she was convinced there was something more she could do to help make a better future for the people in the small rural villages.
That’s when the idea of starting the sewing school came to her.
She figured if the women there were taught to sew, they could not only learn a trade, but also sell their work to raise money to help their families and their community.
With little or no education because so many educators were killed during the years of the Pol Pot dictatorship in the 1970s, many rural Cambodians flee the countryside to the larger cities in search of work. For many women and girls, that leads to a life of prostitution.
Crebo felt creating the sewing school in the village may be able, in its own small way, to help break that cycle.
So she set about trying to making it happen.
After her time with the volunteer group was up, she returned to Canada but was back in Cambodia the next year to literally carve out a piece of land to house what she calls the “primitive” structure that would become the sewing school.
She remembers helping cut the trees in the jungle to clear the land.
By this time she was working with a local aid worker and his small Cambodian-based organization. The group hired a local instructor to teach the women a six-month sewing course.
“This was going to change the lives of the women and children,” says Crebo looking back on the plan for the sewing school.
But she wanted to do more.
That’s when the idea of a larger school for children in the southern part of the country came to her.
It would be located rural, remote village about 5 1/2 hours from the capital Phnom Penh.
But for that school, she knew she would need more assistance—and much more money.
With the help of an older, generous benefactor back in Canada, who donated $10,000 from the sale of his home prior to entering a care facility to help get the project off the ground, and from the Ogopogo Rotary Club in Kelowna, more than $26,000 was raised. That included donations from Rotarians from as far away as Hong Kong.
While plans were being drawn up for a permanent structure, several families in the Cambodian village where the school was to be located agreed to let space in their homes be used for the first Grade 1 and 2 classes.
In a fitting twist, women at the sewing school started by Crebo and her Cambodian partners years earlier were contracted to make the school uniforms for the students.
After 2 1/2 years in the temporary location, the permanent school building opened last month, for 120 Grade 1 to 4 students. Next year, it plans to add a Grade 5 class.
“It’s really exciting what has happened,” says Crebo. “It’s actually, very cool.”
She says without the help of many people neither school would have been created.
“I’m so grateful to all those who helped us. One hundred per cent of the money raised is going to help.”
As part of the project, Crebo and a friend who is an artist, created an illustrated book inspired by the many photographs Crebo took during her time in Cambodia, specially of the children who would become its first students. Proceeds from sale of the story book will go to help the school.
And, as a special gift, copies of the book were given to all the students at the opening of the school last month.
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