A Change of Guard

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Thursday, 27 March 2008

Vineyard's generosity reaches a Cambodian school

At center, from left, Vineyard School administrator Chum Rathneary, Justin LaVigne, and Todd Alexander pose with students for a class photo. The school athletic director is to the right of Mr. Alexander. Photos courtesy of Todd Alexander. Click photo for larger version.

By Janet Hefler -

March 27, 2008

The Vineyard School in the Siem Reap region of Cambodia now has library shelves filled with books, supplies for students and teachers, access to the Internet, and a new computer teacher, thanks to the generosity of the Island community and the friends and family of Oak Bluffs harbormaster Todd Alexander.
Mr. Alexander recently returned from a 10-day trip to visit the school, built in 2005 with funds raised by him and his wife Karen Gelinas. In an article in The Times last month, Mr. Alexander made an appeal to the community for donations of books and money for the school. Collection boxes were set up at the Oak Bluffs School, West Tisbury School, the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School, ArtCliff Diner, and Mocha Mott's in Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs.
Before leaving for Cambodia on Feb. 23, Mr. Alexander said the publicity had resulted in an outpouring of donations, with enough books to fill seven boxes and about $5,000. Three laptop computers also were donated.
In a follow-up call on his return home, Mr. Alexander said he is very grateful to everyone that contributed, and to the many people who sent kind messages to him through the reader response feature on The Times website. He had a plaque inscribed with the names of the people who donated money, which he left at the school.

At center, from left, Vineyard School administrator Chum Rathneary, Justin LaVigne, and Todd Alexander pose with students for a class photo. The school athletic director is to the right of Mr. Alexander. Photos courtesy of Todd Alexander. Click photo for larger version.
Mr. Alexander deemed the trip a success. Since his son is too young to travel so far, his wife stayed home to care for him, and Mr. Alexander's friend Justin LaVigne of Edgartown went on the trip with him.
"We got everything there, no problem," Mr. Alexander said. The two men each checked two boxes of books as luggage and used backpacks to carry their belongings on their flight.
Richard and Toni Cohen of West Tisbury, who had planned a trip to Cambodia and Vietnam around the time of Mr. Alexander's trip, offered to take two boxes of books and deliver them to the school. That left only one box that Mr. Alexander had to pay to check as extra luggage, which was still cheaper than shipping it.
When he arrived at the school, Mr. Alexander said he was relieved to see that there actually is a library, although many shelves were bare. The students know all about Harry Potter, though, he said.
Mr. Alexander spent monetary donations he received on dictionaries, reference books, a globe, and wall art, as well as notebooks, pens, and other supplies for students and teachers, which he purchased in Cambodia, since American dollars have more buying power there.

Todd Alexander, right, and Roma Chhon, left, help Vineyard School administrator Chum Rathneary and students put books donated by Islanders on the library shelves. Click photo for larger version.
With almost 600 students attending the five-classroom school, desks are in short supply. Mr. Alexander and Mr. LaVigne visited the man who made the school's original desks, who lives a few miles away, and ordered 33 desks from him at a cost of $1,000.
Mr. Alexander also ordered a low-wattage computer through AAfC, which is compatible with the school's solar power, and set up a General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) Internet system. "There also was enough money to pay for a computer teacher for two years, to teach all the kids about it," he added.
His return visit to the school also gave Mr. Alexander the opportunity to spend some time with Roma Chhon, the young woman who provided the inspiration for building it. He and his wife met her in 2003 when she was 14, selling postcards and books outside Angkor Wat, a Buddhist Temple. When they learned Roma had dropped out of school because she had to work to help support her family, they offered to pay for her education.
After the couple returned home, they found out about the American Assistance for Cambodia's (AAfC) Rural Schools Project. They raised $13,000 through donations from friends, family, and the Island community, which the AAfC used to build the Vineyard School with matching funds from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.
Although Roma visited the Island a few summers ago, Mr. Alexander said it has become very difficult since then to arrange another visit. She stays in touch via email, however.
Roma acted as an interpreter for Mr. Alexander and Mr. LaVigne during their stay in Cambodia. Now 19, she wants to focus on improving her English and attends the English School, for which Mr. Alexander and his wife continue to pay. "We're hoping she will be able to teach someday," he said.
Before going back to school last year, Roma's English-speaking skills landed her a job working for a hotel as a hostess.
"I saw her life before, and I saw it this time, and it was drastically different," Mr. Alexander said. "I really wasn't expecting that. Her family has a pump at their house now where they can get water, instead of having to go a couple of kilometers away for it, just to cook or do laundry. She's just much happier."
Mr. LaVigne became friends with Mr. Alexander while working at Mocha Mott's in Oak Bluffs several years ago and met Roma when she visited the Island.
"Todd and I had so many conversations about what he had done with the school over the years, and when the opportunity came up to go with him to see it in person, I was eager to experience it as well," he said.
The trip to Cambodia turned out to be a life-changing experience, Mr. LaVigne said. He especially was impressed by the children's obvious desire to be in school and their gratitude for an education. Mr. LaVigne said his visit to the school inspired him so much that he wants to start raising money to build another one, this time in a more rural area.
Although he already is busy starting a new business as a landscaper specializing in garden design and maintenance, Mr. LaVigne said he doesn't consider the fundraising an overwhelming hurdle.
Mr. Alexander has offered to help, although he said he is happy to let Mr. LaVigne take the lead. "To me, that's much more exciting, if you can get one more person down the line to build a school somewhere," he said.

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