The international school, celebrating its 50th anniversary, has raised awareness as well as significant sums for the charity Educating Cambodia.
The charity is run by the quietly dynamic John Mann, 68, English by birth and an actor by trade. Based in Australia for many years, he played parts in Home and Away and Return to the Blue Lagoon. He stumbled across his mission in life by accident when travelling in Cambodia.
“I visited poor countries because they were cheap,” said John. “In Cambodia in 2005, a tuk-tuk driver invited me to his wedding. It was at Prey Veng, about as far off the tourist trail you could get. There was no electricity, no clean water, no toilet.
“When I gave a camera as a gift, the response was: ‘Thank you, but can you give us a school?’
“I became inspired and set about raising funds. I never had a formal plan, or signed a document, but gradually it started to come together.
“Today we have a school teaching 1080 kids from 12 villages.”
So many pupils and limited space mean operating the school under a two-shift system. “Holidays” for the children of Prey Veng are timed so they can help their parents with the rice harvest.
Although boys and girls get an equal education, John says it is by the success of the girls’ schooling that Educating Cambodia should be judged.
“In the beginning the most widely-held belief was that girls were there to become wives and so didn’t need an education. But the fate of a Cambodian girl with no education was often horrible. Thanks to the school, not one girl has been lost to sex slavery in the past seven years.”
John thanks his long-time friend Hilary Lemaire, the Riviera’s queen of theatre, for her valuable support.
“Hilary’s fund-raising productions have been so important for us. It was she who made the introduction to Mougins School.” Not for nothing is the teachers’ house at Prey Veng named Chez Hilary.
John was speaking on the eve of a performance of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” produced by Hilary in the school’s new theatre space, an evening that raised nearly €3,000 for Educating Cambodia.
“This is my second visit to the school, and I have talked about the project to groups of five year olds as well as the older students. The reactions, the understanding, has been so heartening.”
Back in Prey Veng, a guesthouse is being built in traditional Khmer style to accommodate volunteers who have offered their hands-on assistance.
“At least once a month I receive offers of help – those volunteering to teach English or to nurse. It would be fantastic to say yes, but there is nowhere to stay. This part of Cambodia is heavily populated but never visited by tourists, so there is no accommodation with beds, clean water, electricity … Having a guesthouse for our visitors will be a huge development for us.”
Backing up education with proper medical care has become a priority for John. “We are looking to pay for an ambulance – if we get one the government will provide two doctors.”
Donors to Educating Cambodia can be assured that their money will not be eaten up in admin costs, which are zero – John does all the office work on his “bamboo laptop”. And he has this message for those who feel moved to contribute: “I want people to feel part of our villages, learn what is needed, and to know that what they are giving is precisely targeted.”
Learn more about Educating Cambodia at www.educatingcambodia.com