Americans Daniela Papi and Greta Arnquist were planning a cycling adventure across Cambodia and decided to raise funds to support education development efforts. The team they formed was dubbed “The PEPY Ride” and PEPY stood for ‘Protect the Earth, Protect Yourself’ as they planned to teach about the relationship between the environment and health during their journey.
The team raised enough funds to support the construction of a number of educational buildings, including a school and a teacher house in Chanleas Dai, in partnership with a Phnom Penh based organization, American Assistance for Cambodia. Several months before the bike ride, Daniela visited Cambodia to plan out the trip. She discovered that in Chanleas Dai, the school that they had worked to build, was empty! The group learned a valuable lesson in development:
Buildings do not teach people, people do.
They realized that if they want to raise funds to support the development of education in Cambodia, investing in people is key.
To raise more funding and awareness, Daniela and a growing group of volunteers organized a series of volunteer fundraising trips and worked with American Assistance for Cambodia to start an English language and computer literacy program at the Chanleas Dai School. It quickly became apparent that, with added support, students were learning English, but their Khmer reading and writing skills were further behind. In order to support Khmer literacy and advance education in Cambodia, the team decided to register as a separate organization.
Daniela decided to stay in Cambodia longer and employed an English teacher to work in the school and on the computer literacy project.
We officially got PEPY registered as an International NGO in Cambodia! Maryann Bylander joined the leadership team and supported PEPY’s growth from a small project to a more professional organization. We offered English classes, Computer classes, library services, and a Khmer literacy program. The Teacher Awards Program was also implemented to start teacher evaluations and awards/bonuses for exemplary teaching and work ethic. Finally, the Bike to School project was started to give the school’s Grade 6 graduates bikes so they could commute to school and continue their studies.
As it became clear that there was a need to transition to local leadership, Mrs. Aline Meas Vanna was hired as our first Country Director and conducted a lengthy participatory needs assessment of the Chanleas Dai area.
Under Aline’s leadership, our community-based education programs were started. One was the Child to Child Program, where students in primary school participated in a leadership program that involved children working in groups to learn about problems in their community, identify solutions, and act in support of those solutions.
Our second program was the Literacy Camp where teachers from across the country were invited by us to a teacher training to develop their skills in supporting Khmer literacy programs for their students through interactive and engaging teaching and training offerings. In addition, PEPY partnered with local organizations to support a range of environmental, hygiene, and livelihood projects in the community.
We launched PEPY Tours as a separate organization designed to support PEPY’s work and teach travelers about international development.
Our Classroom Library project was started in partnership with Room to Read and provided books to children and training for teachers to utilize books as teaching tools in over 10 schools in 3 communes.
During this time, the construction of 4 more schools was supported by our team and some in partnership with Dubai Cares. PEPY funded the first lower secondary high school building in Chanleas Dai. Previously, very few students went to junior high school, let alone senior high school, and the decision was made to move the English classes to junior high school to provide older students with more opportunities. Solar panels were installed and the computer program was also moved to the junior high school and integrated into a Creative Learning Class program providing critical and creative thinking skills as well as research training. As part of the school building process, we began the PSDP program, which focused on finding sustainable ways to support government schools. We hired Andrea Messmer to help implement this project, and she eventually became a key PEPY team member and later the Board Chair.
We worked with BETT, a Belgian-funded education initiative, and Room to Read to identify early reading books to be used in primary schools across the country and supported the reprint of the country’s first Khmer early reader series. Local Chanleas Dai teachers also worked with our team and with Room to Read to publish Khmer books.
Over the course of the year, Daniela and Maryann returned to the United States, transitioned PEPY to local Khmer leadership, and began planning for a long-term process of localization. For much of this time, we were run by a three-person Executive Management Committee. At the time, we had 70 team members in Siem Reap and Kralanh District.
In the summer of 2011, our board and managers participated in a retreat to consider the future of the organization and how best to approach a transition towards localization. Together, they decided to scale programs back and prioritize the areas where they could be most effective: youth development. We then focused our efforts at the high school level to work on decreasing the number of drops out and increasing the number of students moving onto higher education in Kralanh District. The Child to Child program was phased out and staff size was decreased to 30. Our office in Kralanh was closed and our headquarters moved to Siem Reap.
Kimline Nuch, former PEPY CFO and member of the Executive Committee, was promoted to the Director role. We decided to pioneer a new line of programming focused on higher education and the Scholarship Program was initiated with a two-student trial. At the time, very few Kralanh High School graduates passed the national exams that would qualify them to continue on to the more elite university programs. We realized that merely offering scholarships was not enough, and that students need support throughout high school to achieve their educational ambitions.
In response, we piloted the Dream Management Program with the Scholarship Program for high school students. In Dream classes, we provide students with an elective course in goal setting and career preparation to continue their studies beyond high school.
Our Scholarship Program quickly expanded to 20 students from Kralanh District and our Dream Program was formally started. In 2012, the National Employment Agency in Cambodia conducted a survey with businesses in Siem Reap to identify issues within the labor market. They found that there was a chronic skills shortage in high school and university graduates in English language, technology, and soft skills.
We wanted to ensure that scholars would be successful in finding jobs and help show our target communities that investing in education creates meaningful opportunities for young people. After planning and developing a team, we launched the Learning Center, a career preparatory training center for 60 youth a year (comprised of PEPY scholarship and non-scholarship students) focused on English language, ICT, and soft skills development.
Community payback projects for scholars were also started so that our students could gain project management experience while studying at the Learning Center and so the impact of their education would be felt more widely in their local communities. These projects included hygiene, education, and environmental efforts often in the scholars’ home communities.
We evaluated the Scholarship, Dream Management, and Learning Center programs and Dream was changed to focus on Grades 10, 11, 12 as younger students struggled to understand the concepts of the class.
Irish teachers came to Cambodia to exchange teaching techniques with our team and provide support in the English Project at the Learning Center. The friendship blossomed between the our team and the Irish teachers leading to an annual exchange where Irish teachers come to PEPY for several weeks and selected PEPY students and staff travel to Ireland to participate in a homestay and culture exchange with DPETNS school.
We made the official transition from a US-registered 501c3 organization into a Cambodian-registered local NGO (LNGO). Our name was changed to PEPY Empowering Youth to be run by Cambodians, for Cambodians. We also established a local board of directors with this transition.
As that transition was completed, our Executive Director position was handed over by Kimline Nuch to Sarakk Rith, who had also served on our Executive Committee, in September 2015.
Our Dream Management Program gained full support from Child’s Dream Organization, allowing us to expand it to Srei Snam District’s 28 January High School. 443 students registered for the program and 129 of them were from 28 January High School! Our officers focused on building relationships with the school principals and teachers to help build a strong partnership and create sustainability for the program’s classes in the future.
We started a partnership with iHerb Charitable Foundation and GoAhead Foundation allowing us to expand the Scholarship Program to two additional districts: Kompong Leaeng and Taing Kork.
We formed a new partnership and expanded the Scholarship Program and Dream Management Program to Varin High School in Varin District. In total, we accepted 40 new scholars from 5 districts. The number of our team members also grew from 13 to 17.
For the first time, we were able to hire a Monitoring and Evaluation Officer, elevating the data management of our programs and improving PEPY’s ability to evaluate our programs internally.
We began an exciting new partnership with USAID's We Act Project through PACT Cambodia in March. The focus of the pilot project was for youth participants in our Learning Center to research and run community development and business initiatives in teams. We quickly realized that these large-scale projects may not be appropriate or applicable to students during their first year of studies. Furthermore, our staff members were not equipped to facilitate the business sessions. However, in light of COVID-19 and the crashing economy, helping support job creators became a necessity and focus to our team.
In October, we entered into a full-year project with PACT supporting the Learning Center and our expansion to a new office with our newest program: PEPY's Youth Innovators' Space and Incubator. This allowed us to bring in skilled and experienced staff to run our Social Enterprise Incubator and IT For Business courses. The new program and office were launched in December 2020.
In February of 2021, our former team member and Board Chairman, Khouth Sochampawatd, started her new role as our Executive Director. During her 6-month transition period, she focused on program assessment and came up with strategies to improve the training methodology at PEPY. Under her leadership, our incubator program was successfully established and expanded and she also helped us develop an HR department.
Our programs transitioned to online workshops due to the pandemic, and gave our team the opportunity to develop and strengthen our IT skills. Our partner USAID's PACT Cambodia, Team4Tech, REVIVN, and iHerb Charitable Foundation played a key role in helping us provide technology to participants in our programs to allow them to continue their personal and professional development during the extended lockdowns.