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Friday, December 23, 2011

McRaes teach English to Cambodian teens

Teaching English and working with 30 Cambodian teens is how two retired Wilkes County educators, Jim and Ramona McRae, spent their Thanksgiving this year.

The trip reunited Mrs. McRae with Young Hi Seo and her brother, Jae, former students at Millers Creek Elementary School. Mrs. Seo, 37, lives in Singapore and works for NBC Universal. In her spare time, she and her husband volunteer and support a program run by a Korean nun in Prey Veng, a remote Cambodian village.

Mrs. Seo encouraged the McRaes to join her and her husband in their annual work with a group of students from the Prey Poun High School close to Prey Veng.

The experience was life changing for the McRaes, who have been traveling internationally since 1978. Their latest trip was the most extreme travel they have experienced, agree the McRaes.

“It is a different world,” said Mrs. McRae. “”This was a very humbling experience and made us appreciative of our standard of living.”

Transportation in villages such as Prey Veng, where the McRaes stayed is mostly by bicycles or scooters. Electricity in those villages is scarce and only generated by batteries powered by gas generators. The diet for most people consists of rice and vegetables. Most villagers’ houses are on stilts with floors made of bamboo slats. Below the floors are frequently chickens, dogs and pigs roaming the ground.

The students they worked with have virtually no knowledge of western culture, but are hungry for knowledge and the opportunity to improve their English.

“These teens want to be successful and want to be helped,” said Mrs. McRae.

The couple knew they were in a vastly different place as soon as they got off the plane.

“We saw a father, mother and baby riding together on a scooter. The father was steering the bike with one hand and holding an IV connected to the baby in the other,” said McRae.

Sister Regina, the 50-year-old Korean nun who runs the school program the McRaes worked in, told them the couple was probably leaving the hospital.

They quickly learned that seeing three people on a scooter was not uncommon. The McRaes also realized that Sister Regina lives a life remarkably similar to Mother Theresa.

Cambodia, a 69,898 sq. mile southeast Asian country is still recovering from three decades of war. Equally as devastating was the reign of Pol Pot who led a ruthless campaign against western culture and capitalism, forcing the people to work in collective farms. He tortured and killed 1 million to 3 million people, many of whom he saw as intellectuals.

“Anyone who wore eye glasses and therefore read, were considered enemies of the state,” said McRae.

Since 1993 and the end of Pol Pot, Cambodia has seen much progress, but has a long way to go.

Sister Regina was motivated to begin her scholars program eight years ago. She was selected as a guide for a Cambodian Buddhist Monk in Korea. He shared with her his country’s history and its struggle now to become more developed, leading to an improved way of life for the Cambodian people.

Six months later Sister Regina moved to Cambodia and began her program of helping the 30 top teens or scholars attending Prey Poun, a government run high school of 800 students. She also raises funds for buildings which benefit all students in the school.

Assistance includes giving each of the students a bicycle, which is the only way for them to get to school if they live more than three miles away because there is no public transportation.

Sister Regina helps the scholars earn money by tutoring younger students with English. This is necessary because most families rely on everyone in the family, including their children, to earn money for their survival. Usually this means working in a rice paddy, so other provisions have to be made for the students in Sister Regina’s program.

Those strong family values have caused the scholars to dream of a different kind of career from their parents which will enable them to help their village. The students are also given scholarships to continue on to college. Many of Sister Regina’s students are already in college or have graduated.

“Every kid we worked with wants to be an accountant, banker, teacher or doctor. But they want to return and help their village, not move away to Singapore,” said Mrs. McRae.

The first time the McRaes visited the high school was Thanksgiving. They administered an English test to the students.

“This was a very emotional day for us. We wanted all the students to go with us and that was impossible. During lunch with the students, I realized many of the parents had made an extra effort to send the best they had because we would be eating with them,” said Mrs. McRae,

The top five would be traveling with the McRaes, Sister Regina and Mrs. Seo on a three day trip to Siep Reap and Ankgor Wat, the ancient temple complex close to Siep Reap.

This was the first time most of the students had left their village and they were amazed at the experience, said Mrs. McRae.

“These students have no electricity, no access to computers and only see TV if someone in the village happens to have a generator and TV,” said Mrs. McRae.

The six-hour trip to Seim Reap was through little villages, towns, rice patties and jungle. The students were also able to continue working on their English through conversations with the McRaes and Mrs. Seo.

On their return from Seim Reap, the McRaes went into rice patties to teach English to young children. They traveled on the back of a motorbike, driven by young Cambodians.

“When we reached our separate destinations, we were met by 30 eager little kids waiting for the Americans to come. They were ages 7-14, but looked younger because of their poor diet,” said Mrs. McRae.

After the lesson, they distributed bread, prizes and clothes collected by Mrs. Seo and her friends in Singapore.

Contributions are vital for Sister Regina’s program. Several methods are available, including sponsoring a child for $10 a month, which the McRaes are now doing. The little girl they are sponsoring cried when she learned this because her family is so poor, said Mrs. McRae.

While their eight-day trip to Cambodia was only a portion of their six week travels this fall, it was most definitely the highlight.

They are anticipating a return to Cambodia in a few years and hope to continue supporting Sister Regina’s program, who for them embodies the following quote from Mother Theresa.

“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

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