The day before my wife Lynda and I were to begin flying to Cambodia, our oldest daughter texted me an adorable photo of our 3-year-old granddaughter grinning ear-to-ear while clutching her new Minion lunchbox. Caroline was so excited about going to preschool and how she’d have her own lunchbox for snacks.
Oh, I remember all too well my first—and only—day of nursery school. I got kicked out for throwing a puppet up on the roof and the director told my mom not to bring me back the next day!
Among the many projects our 12-person team saw in Cambodia, we witnessed the incredible impact Samaritan’s Purse is having in the lives of kindergarten, primary, and secondary students. During our weeklong trip, we visited four schools across the country, and we praise God for how we’re partnering with churches and communities to help students stay in school.
When students enjoy learning they don’t feel pressure to quit early and migrate to nearby Thailand to work. That’s keeping families together. And in the midst of all that, our dynamic and passionate staff are proclaiming God’s Word and sharing the love of Jesus Christ.
Remembering the Past
Our first day started on an ominous note, however. We toured a different kind of school, one whose halls used to be bustling with bright high schoolers. But in the mid-1970s, following the Vietnam War and during one of the country’s darkest periods, it was converted into a torture, interrogation, and execution center under the brutal Khmer Rouge.
The school is located on a dusty road outside Phnom Penh, the country’s sprawling capital, and was renamed S-21. Its guards, mostly teenagers dressed in black garb, forced confessions from about 14,000 people to crimes they didn’t commit—and then they massacred every one of them.
Ironically, the head of the prison was a former schoolteacher. Today, the prison stands as the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide. What’s horrifying is that many of the rooms have walls of photographs of not only adults who died there, but also children, whose faces stare straight at you, tugging at your heart and confronting your conscience.
This particular school that promoted death stands in stark contrast to the four schools we visited that today promote life, both now and in the life to come.
Shaping the Next Generation
At the Preykou Primary School in Kratie Province in central Cambodia we had the privilege of participating in an exuberant Operation Christmas Child shoebox distribution to about 120 students. I was honored to tell the children why Lynda and I enjoy packing shoeboxes, not only filling them with school supplies, hygiene products, and special toys and gifts, but also to share Jesus’ love.
One of our staff, Chhang, then proclaimed the Gospel: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, NKJV).
Afterward, I met Bobha, Sona, and Bonat, three Christian students who had earlier committed their lives to the Savior after their parents received Christ. Each of them shared how much they appreciate God’s love for them and how Christ is the one, true God. They like learning about God by studying the Bible.
Chhang told me that these three children are among the 20 or so Christians at the school. They endure discrimination from other students who are devoutly Buddhist. Nearly 95 percent of Cambodia’s population is Buddhist. However, these young believers are standing strong, encouraged in their faith by a pastor whose home church is next door. Our team prayed with that pastor.
It took us 11 hours the next day to travel by bus to Banteay Meanchey Province in the far northwest corner close to the Thailand border. We were invited to attend a hand-washing event at Phum Tmey Secondary School.
Our staff were forthright in teaching the 300 students the importance of proper hygiene, something we take for granted in our country. Samaritan’s Purse has built nice lavatories for the students, along with a new well and a huge filtration system that provides clean, safe drinking water.
We were blown away the next two days as we visited two of the 18 schools Samaritan’s Purse has constructed since 2012. We saw enthusiastic and engaging classroom teaching in action. Parents, teachers, school administrators, and community leaders all expressed their gratitude for an enduring commitment by Samaritan’s Purse in their villages.
Our education project director, Pok Tri, explained how we’re dedicated to going to poverty-stricken rural areas, “where nobody else is willing to go.”
Keeping Children in School
We’re not only building schools, we’re also providing computers, school uniforms, book bags, books and other supplies, and even bicycles so students can travel up to 15 kilometers to school. At the same time, we’re training principals and teachers in school management and better teaching methods. Samaritan’s Purse is investing in these leaders by sharpening their skills in the classroom.
If the students have good schools to attend and receive quality resource materials to enhance their learning, they’re likely to remain enrolled. Otherwise, their parents will feel compelled to pull them out prematurely and send them to Thailand to work where they risk being caught in trafficking.
As Samaritan’s Purse staff and volunteers are doing around the world, the hope of the Gospel is being declared. In this province alone, more than 2,000 people heard the glorious Good News last year, with 20 surrendering their hearts to the Lord and 13 being baptized, a major life-changing event in this culture. These new believers are being nurtured and taught how to become faithful followers of Christ.
Wow! We returned thankful to God for allowing us to not only see this work up close, but to be directly involved. The Holy Spirit is clearly at work in so many lives. Please join me in praising Him and also praying for lasting spiritual fruit throughout Cambodia and Southeast Asia.