The Ponheary Ly Foundation

by Andrew Stein

Ponheary Ly, the sister of our Siem Reap guide Dara, is a CNN hero for her work in educating the under-served and orphaned youth of Cambodia. We had the opportunity to visit one of the schools supported by her foundation, the Ponheary Ly Foundation, between temples during our tour of Siem Reap. This is an inspirational story of a woman overcoming her own losses, including the murder of several family members, and helping others do the same. Here is the CNN article by Allie Brown, CNN, Sept. 6, 2010:

Tour guide helps kids find way to school

Koh Ker, Cambodia (CNN) — Ponheary Ly has survived genocide, the murder of several family members — including her father — and life in poverty. Today, she’s working to build a brighter future for the children of Cambodia — by helping them go to school.

“Education is important for me,” says Ly, “because my father was a teacher.”

Primary schools are free to attend in Cambodia, but not all children go. With most of the population living in rural areas, children often lack transportation to get to school — and many families keep children home to help on the farm and earn money, said Ly.

Those able to go often must pay a small fee — around $20 a year — to buy uniforms and supplies, and many families can’t afford it.

Cambodia is one of the poorest nations in the world, where about 40 percent of the population of 14.7 million live off less than $1.25 a day, according to World Bank.

“They don’t have enough to eat,” said Ly. “How can they have the money to buy uniforms and supplies?”

Ly, 47, is bridging that gap. She and her foundation are helping thousands of rural children attend school by providing them with uniforms, supplies and other services.

“I need them to have a good education, to build their own family as well as to build their own country,” Ly said.

Ly’s family was thrown into poverty during the Khmer Rouge regime. Their father was the main breadwinner, and when he was killed in 1977, along with 13 other family members, the family was left with nothing. After the regime dissolved, Ly, her six remaining siblings and their mother were forced to start over.

Education was Ly’s answer.

She became a teacher in 1982, struggling to get by on her government salary. But she used her meager earnings to work with other teachers to create libraries, and she offered free instruction to children who couldn’t afford lessons.

When Cambodia opened up to tourism in the 1990s, Ly — who speaks Khmer, Russian, French and English — became a licensed tour guide to earn more money.

As she guided tourists to the ancient Angkor Wat temples in Siem Reap, she saw children begging tourists for money at the temples. On her tours in the countryside, she noticed that many children didn’t go to school at all.

Ly began using tip money — and soliciting donations from tourists in lieu of tips — to support the children’s education. She started with one girl who was in school but lacked the resources to continue, and by the next year she was helping 40 children.

As Ly was slowly growing her program, one child at a time, she met an unlikely ally from Texas.

Lori Carlson was visiting Cambodia in December 2005 and ended up on one of Ly’s tours.

“She explained to me the work that she and her family were doing in the community,” Carlson said. “When I saw what she was doing and saw how incredibly effective it was and how important it was in the country, it became very compelling to me.”

Carlson was so moved that she returned to Texas and helped establish the Ponheary Ly Foundation.