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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Assumption students and stuff bringing supplies to Cambodian sister school this fall

BELLINGHAM - The last time Assumption Catholic School teachers Betsy Gottschalk and Jill VonFeldt went to visit Assumption's sister school in Cambodia, there was no water, only a few books on the shelves, and charts on the walls were hand-drawn.

But when they venture there again this November, five years after their first trip, they expect to see a successful vegetable garden, students using a computer, the only well in the area and classrooms filled with students.

For the last six years, Assumption Catholic School has been raising money to help support Bellingham Community School No. 253 in Preah Vihear Province in northern Cambodia. The sister school is the creation of Ham Hayes and Gloria Harrison, who worked through the nonprofit organization American Assistance for Cambodia to open the first middle school in the region.

It officially opened its doors in 2006, the last time Gottschalk and VonFeldt were in Cambodia.

Assumption's parent-teacher organization pays for most of the salary of the Cambodian school's English and computer skills. But the support for the school goes beyond that; students and staff have helped raise money for the school to purchase a computer, install solar panels and dig a well for a vegetable garden.

After the first trip to Cambodia, Gottschalk and VonFeldt started small fundraisers to collect money for the school, which features five classrooms in a cement block building for nearly 130 students. But it wasn't until second-grade teacher Liberty Sponek started a vegetable garden at Assumption a few years ago that the biggest fundraising efforts for the sister school took off.

Every Sunday from spring through the school's fall harvest festival, produce from the school garden is sold at Assumption Catholic Church, with all proceeds going to support the "dream things" at the Cambodia school, Sponek said. The garden, which is part of the Whatcom County School Garden Collective, is planted, tended to and harvested by students and parents. So far, a slow Sunday brings in about $65, while on a good day, they may collect $300.

But Assumption's garden does more than raise money for the Cambodian school - it also provides a connection between Assumption and Cambodian students. When the Cambodian school added a well to its property, that enabled those students to create a vegetable garden to help provide food for the school.

"We can make that connection now because we're both digging in the dirt," Sponek said.

The main reasons for this year's trip are to bring 10 bikes and two computers and to assess the school to see what other items are needed. But this trip is also a chance for a few Assumption students to become student ambassadors to Cambodia.

"It's important for kids from here to meet people and see what's going on in other parts of the world," Gottschalk said.

As the sister-school relationship continues and more Assumption families get involved, Gottschalk hopes they can some day build dorms for teachers and students who must travel several miles to attend the Cambodia school, and maybe even pay for some Cambodian students to come to the U.S. to receive a college education.

"It's core to who we are as a Catholic school," said new principal Monica Des Jarlais about raising money for a sister school in Cambodia. "We teach students that Jesus is calling on us to make a better life and we need to look at what we can do to transform other people's lives. ... Students have a responsibility of going out and improving lives, both locally and globally."


Assumption Catholic School students, staff and families are raising money to support Bellingham Community School No. 253 in Cambodia and travel costs associated with students and staff bringing supplies to the school this fall.

Students will be selling hand-made crafts at the Bellingham Farmers Market on Saturday, Aug. 27. Items include garden art, windsocks and cards.

Produce from the school garden will be for sale from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. every Sunday at Assumption Catholic Church, 2116 Cornwall Ave., until Assumption Catholic School's Harvest Festival in mid-September.
Reach KIRA M. COX at or call 715-2266. Visit her School Days blog at or get updates on Twitter at

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