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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Milton teens back from Cambodian school

By Tricia Pursell

MILTON — Their bus arrived at the Milton Senior High School around 10 a.m. Saturday, and as they were filing out, they shivered against the cold morning air, shared some hugs, gathered their luggage, and hurried to their cars.

After 38 hours of traveling by plane and by bus, eight students and six teachers and chaperones were understandably tired and glad to be home.

“I’m very glad to be home,” Milton student Sarah Haas said. “To have American food again, my own bed again.”

“We crossed the international date line heading east, so we spent Friday, crossed it, and spent Friday again. In theory, we got home before we left,” said Michael Conn, history and world cultures teacher at Milton. It takes a toll on everyone’s body, he added.

But the joy and satisfaction they experienced during the trip to Cambodia far outweighed any fatigue.

“It was truly a remarkable experience,” Conn said. He is credited for planting the dream and inspiration in the hearts of his students to build a school in previously war-torn Cambodia.

“My daughter and I went to Cambodia last year, where we saw the level of poverty and the plight of children there, and it just really touched both of us,” Conn said. “When I came back, I felt like I needed to do something. When school started in the fall, I showed my students pictures of what I saw in Cambodia. We started talking, and we decided we wanted to do something to help the children.”

He found an organization that was building schools in Cambodia, and after some research, presented the idea to his students.

“The kids were very excited about it, then went and got the approval of the superintendent. In November, we went to the school board in rural Cambodia, and everywhere we went, there was strong support. It started with the kids; the kids wanted to do something. I presented them with what I saw, and there was genuine concern, compassion, and an outpouring of support for doing something to help the kids.”

Conn calls Larissa Luu, a senior at Milton, the face of Team Cambodia. “Every time I spoke somewhere, she was right there with me, making presentations,” he said. Three other students designed T-shirts, labeled “Educate Cambodia,” the sale of which raised several thousand dollars for the school. The team raised $30,000 in four and a half months, Conn said.

‘There wasn’t a dry eye’

On Thursday, they saw the school firsthand.

“When we got off the bus at the school — which was as rural as a school can be — all the students were lined up, and in uniforms,” Conn said. “As we approached, they all started to applaud. The elders of the village were also there.”

“There wasn’t a dry eye during the ceremony,” said Bryan Noaker, principal of Milton Senior High School.

“It made me feel so proud of everybody back here at home,” Luu said. “It was kind of like a hero’s welcome. Something you can’t experience in the United States.

“Seeing those kids and how appreciative they were of a little schoolhouse,” Luu said, “changes your perspective, makes you rethink everything.”
“The happiest moment of my life was when we saw the school,” said Haas. “I will always remember that. Nothing can stop that for me. It made everything so worth it.”

The approximately 150 students at the school, all at the seventh-grade level, had been attending classes there for about a week before this dedication ceremony took place. The school is labeled “Milton School” in both English and Cambodian languages.

“It was so touching. We all cried. All 14 of us cried,” Conn said. “None of us will forget the images of our bus pulling away, many of the children running alongside the bus. None of us will ever forget that experience as long as we live.”

At the killing fields

Just one day earlier, the group had visited the killing fields outside Phnom Pen, where thousands of people were brutally killed during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, firmly set on “ethnic cleansing.” As a result of these killings, Conn said half of the population of Cambodia is 19 years of age or younger.

The location of the Milton School in Cambodia is part of the region hardest hit by this rule.

“These two consecutive days were the most moving days of the trip,” Conn said. “But different emotions.”

When the group visited these killing fields, Haas was ironically celebrating her birthday. “It was so sad,” she said. It was so overwhelming. The places where they were located were so peaceful and so beautiful, but what happened there was so horrible. We can’t imagine.”

“What these people had been though, is almost incomprehensible, but their spirit is still there,” Conn said. “The children are beautiful, bright-eyed. They just need opportunity. These are not people that are incapable of helping themselves. They just have suffered a huge setback. They just need tools.”

Spark of hope

And that’s what the Milton students have given them. The money they raised, matched by other organizations, built the school, supplied solar panels for power, teachers, textbooks, a well for fresh water supply and a computer with access to the Internet.

“We saw the level of poverty, but we saw at least there was a spark of hope that these kids could learn new skills and new knowledge that could provide a better life for themselves and their families,” Conn said. “What a lesson for our kids.”

Every two to three years of the school’s existence, Conn said they will need to raise an additional $2,500 to support the expected growth of the school.

“My hope is, after seeing the school and seeing the need in that part of Cambodia, we can even do more,” Conn said. “I would love for us to take a group back there in the next year or two and stay more at the school, spend more time at the school, do some activities with them.”

But in the meantime, life goes on for the students at Milton Area High School.

“We expect the students back in school on Monday, with some stories to tell, I’m sure,” Conn said.

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