Highlights and Challenges of 2009

Posted on: December 14, 2009 Posted by: Manin Oem Comments: 0

Highlights and Challenges of 2009

Below, join PEPY’s directors Maryann Bylander and Daniela Papi as they reflect on the highlights and challenges of 2009.  Are there questions you’d like to see answered in an extension of this conversation? Let us know!

What do you think your biggest achievements have been this year?

MA:  Well, I think I’d have to start with the four schools we built.  It might be surprising to say that, since those of you who have traveled with us know that one of the things we always stress is how the biggest changes in education will not be the result of buildings, but will be the result of investments in training, capacity building, and community advocacy.  That’s all true, and I think we’ve had some incredible progress with the intangibles.  But when I think about the year, my strongest memories are the community workshops, meetings with contractors, moments with volunteers, and the learning our staff went through that resulted in four safe (and beautiful) spaces for learning.  I don’t believe that these buildings are the way we have impacted education in the most significant way this year, but I think managing four community-based school construction projects at the same time was a major achievement for our staff. Being on a construction site checking steel rebar, engaging the community in the construction process, figuring out how to make a building go up in Cambodia…. it was a tremendous challenge and our team did a fabulous job.

I think the other huge achievement is with our team of program staff.  The most pressing challenge we deal with is getting the right people in the right places and keeping them there.  Whether by luck or learning, we’ve managed to form a tight-knit, hard-working, inspiring team.  Awatd, our Community Program Manager, and Ratana, our Education Program Manager run most of the show these days.  I smile every time they get up in front of a training, or share their ideas for future
program changes with us.

D: Watching a proactive team of PEPY staff, Cambodian government teachers, and trainers from the Provincial Teacher’s Training College (PTTC) make our second Khmer Literacy Camp a really inspiring place to be was one of the highlights of the year for me.  Last year when we tried to do this for the first time, we didn’t have the right staff, we didn’t have the right materials, and we didn’t really have a strong plan for what the camp would look like.  It was a success last year in that it opened the doors to several literacy improvements in our school programs, but it took the full effort of nearly all of our team to make it happen, and it was not a very community-driven initiative.  This year, in contrast, the PEPY staff had much less to do with the camp, as the teachers and principals of the 10 schools involved led the way, along with the PEPY team, and they had the vision of what the camp should look like.  Finding talented teacher trainers from the PTTC was one of the biggest keys to success of this program and we will continue to look to them for advice and training as we improve our programs.

What would you have done differently?

MA: Not eaten that ant soup? Hmm. . . there’s lots I would do differently, which I hope means we’re learning!  One of the things we could always do better at PEPY is more planning before jumping in, and hiring farther in advance the people we expect we will later need. Because we have such a proactive and motivated team, we often stretch staff too thin before we hire extra people to work on a program/project.  In retrospect I probably would have hired someone to manage the Classroom Library Program instead of having staff we already have work on development and implementation of the program.  The Classroom Libraries have SO much potential that they aren’t yet reaching because we don’t have staff with enough time and resources to devote to building the program.    

D: I agree with Maryann, and I confess to being the “push-aheader” in a lot of our blind-jump decisions. The Classroom Library Program does have SO much yet unreached potential, largely from lack of leadership and ownership, mostly from us moving forward without getting the right people in place to make this project work.  Getting the right staff has been the biggest struggle from us from Day 1.  What might be a funding dilemma in the US (“Oh no, we can’t afford the $200,000 fee to hire the best English early literacy curriculum development team!”) in Cambodia, when it comes to Khmer literacy, it is a staffing dilemma… those skills either don’t exist or are extremely hard to come by. This puts us in the dilemma of either pushing forward with foreign leadership behind certain initiatives that we want to be locally owned, or choosing staff who are typically new entrants to the work force and have less experience than our ideal candidates—but who have the passion for learning and believe in what we are trying to achieve.  Point being, we have great staff who believe in what we are doing, but in projects such as the Classroom Library Program, we are not yet close to reaching the program’s potential as we have not put enough time into identifying or developing the skills we need to make the program work.  But we are getting there…. We are learning a LOT. To some, that might mean we were not qualified to start PEPY in the first place, which is true. We were travelers “looking to do good” who funded a building. Later, when we realized that buildings don’t teach and the “priorities” of community needs are different from our initial ethnocentric ideas, we could have gone home, but that would have meant leaving a project a failure. We weren’t qualified to stay. I hope that the fact that there are many things we would do differently hopefully means we are bringing in qualified staff who we are learning from and that there is a lot we will continue to do better in the future. 

Have any favorite moments stood out?

MA: The first school building volunteer trip we did with Dubai Cares was a pretty amazing week.  Because of publicity agreements we didn’t write much about our partnership with Dubai on our websites, but that partnership defined 2009 in many ways for our team on the ground.  We spent four months working with the community, working on school construction, developing agreements, etc, and it was rewarding when we finally had the opportunity to start working with the Dubai Cares volunteers directly.  This year’s literacy camp was incredibly special as well. Seeing Ratana, Aim, and the Provincial Teacher Training College trainers manage the camp with such success was inspiring.    

D: Once again, I agree with Maryann here.  The Dubai Cares partnership really shaped our 2009. The song “I’m Yours” will forever be etched into my memory surrounding the school construction, as Rithy took it upon himself (and all of us!) to learn all the words.  The literacy camp, which I was not able to attend last year, was so rewarding to witness this year.  Having Maryann run our programs this year, with little to no support from me (as I tend to just stir things up by throwing new ideas into programs which were working fine already) has been a big key to this success. Having Awatd and Ratana as our program managers has also been one of the reasons that there are so many program highlights for me this year. 

One last thing: about two weeks ago I was in the library and the bell rang to announce a break in classes.  Typically, until this year, there would always be some teachers who didn’t show up or who let their kids out early, so there would always be some students milling about the school grounds.  On this day, everyone was learning in class and the school grounds were silent.  When the bell (aka tire rim hit with a stick) sounded, I was standing near the library entrance making a phone call.  I heard a stampede and fortunately was able to get out of the way before being run over by about 50+ students, who were pouring into the library to report to our librarians about the books they had read the night before.  Kyla helped work with Srey Touh and our library team to create a system to track student reading progress and to get the librarians involved in asking questions about the books students have read.  It was really fun to get almost literally run over by the excitement the students have for the program!

Also, we can’t forget the launch of our new websites with the help of Soe, who fell out of the sky and landed in our technology-expertise-free laps.  How lucky we have been to have his leadership this year!

PEPY has been working in Cambodia now for over four years.  Where do you see PEPY five years from now?

MA: Such a hard question! I guess one of the trends that I’ve seen with PEPY is that we’ve become more professional as an organization.  We have better accounting practices, monitoring and evaluation, stronger working relationships with other NGOs and the government.  I expect that process of increasing professionalism to continue, though I hope that it continues only in so far as it allows us to be more effective and organized (not to the point where it inhibits creativity and flexibility).  In terms of what I expect we’ll be doing… Running a girls’ dorm?  Publishing early literacy books?  Promoting Child Clubs throughout Cambodia?  Running a leadership camp in Siem Reap?  So much of this will be directed by the Khmer staff we hope will take the reigns of the organization within the next five years.  For PEPY as an organization, our vision is of communities empowered to take action to improve their living standards, knowledge of health, environment, and quality of education. Our staff are going to figure out the best way to make that happen, in line with their experience and passions. Right now the programs we are starting and modifying in Chanleas Dai are being developed with end dates, mostly in the 3-4 year range.  The goals of each of the programs are to encourage sustainable changes to the point they are no longer needed, or to the point where local community members are trained to take over.  So, our English teachers are working with government English teachers, our PSDP Program is helping develop and strengthen local school support committees, and our Child Clubs are developing the skills of young people who could run their own groups in the future.  I can’t say that PEPY won’t be in Chanleas Dai in five years, but I won’t be surprised if we hand over most of our projects to a group of trained community members, and begin working in other areas, or supporting education in other ways.   

D: I hope that even by the end of one year I will not be the one being interviewed for this, but instead our Khmer staff will be.  Part of the reason it is always Maryann’s and my voice here is that taking the time of our Khmer staff to write updates in English, or even taking staff to translate, often comes at the expense of other program work.  But I do think it is important that it is not my dreams and goals pushing us forward in the future, but the vision of our 35+ Cambodian PEPY staff, or more specifically the 20 staff who are from the target area where we work.  I would love to see PEPY help develop more training, materials, and curricula around increasing Khmer literacy skills for new readers.  There is a lot of unmet need in this area, and I think that creating a repeatable model would be a way for us to spread our impact far beyond Chanleas Dai.Then again, if our Khmer staff take us in another direction that better meets the needs of the community—as Aline originally did when introducing the Child Club concept to PEPY—I will be delighted.

Anything else you want to share?

MA:  Just that we’re grateful, and feel really lucky to have the support and encouragement that we do. Thank you.  And as they say in Cambodia to celebrate the New Year: Wishing you all happiness, love, beauty, luck, long life, good health, and a fertile harvest.

D: Thank you! As we get ready to greet The PEPY Ride V team this weekend, I can’t help but be in shock at the turns PEPY has taken and the fact that all of you and our staff here have jumped on this bandwagon to keep us moving in the right direction. I know that my role at PEPY will change, as it must (likely before our next annual update) as my strengths do not lie in sustaining something, creating processes, and following a routine.  We are at the stage of PEPY where we need to further focus and improve the outstanding programs that have floated to the top of the array of work we have entered into, and I think changes in leadership will follow our changing needs… so stay tuned.

Your questions, criticism, and support have pushed us to be more open and honest about our programs, with ourselves and with all of you reading these. (There are people reading this, right?  Feel free to reply and let us know you are out there—we love knowing that the work we put into our newsletter to keep our supporters informed and educated about our programs is not in vain!)  Thank you for being a part of our team!

Happy Holidays,

The PEPY Team