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Students at Coconut School Cambodia also practice meditation once a week. Supplied

Many of us have an innate passion for helping. But only a few would be willing to take steps forward and extend actual assistance. Ouk Vanday is but one of these few. With his own hands, he built Coconut School Cambodia – his passion project for children at Kirirom Mountain. And even when challenges kept coming, and even when he got questioned by the very people he was helping, Ouk Vanday’s heart was full of determination to push for the right to good education for children. He shares his story with Say Tola.

Despite the heavy rain and strong winds, Ouk Vanday and his young friends didn’t stop working on a building dedicated to become a computer classroom. Some of these youngsters were also working on a small vegetable farm on the side. It was already five in the afternoon, and darkness was already threatening to envelope the entire place. But there seemed to be no halt to the activities at the Coconut School. Fifteen kids were still even on their way to their English lesson in a classroom lighted by solar-powered bulbs.

Located in Kirirom National Park in the province of Kampong Speu, Coconut School bears with it vibrant colours and an easy vibe that one would easily know that it’s a home for dozens of students eagerly chasing their dreams of attending school. At the entrance, recycled plastic bottles are shaped and colored in the image of a Cambodian flag. On the left are used coffee cups and bottle covers designed innovatively as walls to protect the building from rain. In the midst of this, tall pine trees adorn the front yard.

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Ouk Vanday founded Coconut School Cambodia in 2013. Photo: Say Tola

But not everyone knows this hidden paradise that has become a study venue for students in the village. It is where they learn mathematics, science and English. It is where they were taught how to read, write and count. It is where they built their first dreams. And Ouk Vanday has witnessed it all.

A native of Battambang, 32-year-old Mr Vanday has an innate passion for education and a skill for innovative and creative construction. In 2013, he built his first Coconut School at Koh Dach. He spent his time and energy, not to mention financial resources, to building classrooms and making school furniture after he personally saw how kids at Koh Dach still needed to ride a ferry boat to get to the nearest school.

He gathered beer bottles, plastics and other recyclable materials and turned them into useful things for the little children of Koh Dach who wanted to learn.

The students do not pay for anything, not even for the teachers’ fees. But they are required to bring recyclables and help Mr Vanday in keeping the school intact and orderly.

After turning over the Coconut School Cambodia at Koh Dach to its new owner named Sin Sonheng in early 2017, Mr Vanday knew he had another goal to achieve – to build another Coconut School for the children of Kirirom Mountain.

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He knew the children at the mountain do not have their own school, and have to go down the hills, probably hours of walking, just so they can get real education.

Mr Vanday worked non-stop. After getting approval for land ownership from the Ministry of Environment (which took him almost a year, by the way), he started gathering materials for the buildings he would be making.

Currently, the school has five wooden buildings. Photo: Say Tola

“My brain just keeps working, keeps recognising all the pressure in my shoulder. I questioned myself if I am really doing the right thing. I don’t even know where to get wood for the building or how to carry tools up on the mountain. I don’t know how to convince children to come and study here in the forest. I spent three months just to flatten the land before I started the actual construction,” Mr Vanday shared.

He added that the seemingly endless rain, lack of safe drinking water and the absence of a good source of electricity aside from the two solar systems have been great hurdles.

“It was surely tough for me to cope with the living standards here as I was so used to living in the city. There’s no water to drink here. I had to ask people for water. For our daily consumption, we take water from a pond that’s still a kilometer away,” he said.

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Even with the struggles he was forced to face, Mr Vanday knew he couldn’t stop just yet. The children of the Kirirom Mountain deserve to have a good and conducive place for learning.

He built classrooms and provided tables and chairs for the kids, all utilising coconut timber and environment-friendly materials.

To gather more support in making the school sustainable, Mr Vanday promoted the Coconut School in social media platforms, informing people about his passion project and the lives of the children at the mountain who needed great help in their education.

Ouk Vanday personally builds the classrooms, with the help of the local children. Photo: Supplied

In December last year, Mr Vanday also travelled to different cities in the United Sates to meet with the Cambodian community and local governments, aiming to get help for Coconut School Cambodia and give the Kirirom children their right to good education.

“Cooking, teaching three classes, managing kids, building infrastructure – these are all my responsibilities here. I wish I had 50 hours every day to accomplish everything. I can only do so much for a day,” he said, his facial expression showing hints of exhaustion, but his eyes still showed passion and determination.

Mr Vanday said he gathers strength and inspiration from the children he has met at the school.

“One of my 50 students here always comes late. His name is Nun. I reprimanded him for his tardiness. Then he told me he has to walk around three kilometers, sometimes barefooted, from his home to the school. I asked him if he gets tired. But what struck me most was his answer. He said he will never get tired coming here if this is the only way he can learn,” said Mr Vanday.

The Coconut School is already 70 percent complete, and another building which will stand as the computer laboratory is about to be finished. A meditation area has also been made.

“Studying alone is not enough. Students have to understand themselves through meditation. And I think this is a good place to conduct meditation because of the fresh air, the sound of birds, the feels of nature. This will help them maintain a calm mind.”

The entrance of the Coconut School Cambodia in Kirirom National Park, in Kampong Speu province. Photo: Say Tola

To say that Mr Vanday has been a big part of the life of the school children of Kirirom is an understatement. But Mr Vanday sometimes finds himself not getting his desired support even from the people of Kirirom Mountain.

“They still think I am a stranger. They told me once that I only came here to instill foolishness to their children. You know, these kids used to earn $10 to $20 every day from begging or selling flowers. But since they now come here to Coconut School, their parents do not have income anymore. But we have to think long term. What will the future look like if these kids don’t get education?” he said.

Even when the entire school gets completed and the classrooms get fully furnished, an obvious dilemma still remains – the children do not have any other teacher aside from Mr Vanday.

“With the situation here, who would want to devote their lives for the kids? It would really take enormous compassion and sacrifice,” he said, adding that he remains hopeful volunteers will soon show up to help him achieve his goals.

For more information on this passion project, visit Coconut School Cambodia on Facebook.

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