“We didn’t realize how much of an impact – and how mutually beneficial – this experience would be.”
By Claudia Rowe, special correspondent
In a lesson showing just how far one unlikely idea can travel, 18 upper affluent kids from suburban Seattle are this weekend en route to Cambodia, where they will teach science, art and English to some of the poorest children on Earth.
Foreign aid is a messy business, often stymied by inefficiency and corruption. But students from the Overlake School in Redmond wave off such concerns – not to mention parental worries about residual landmines and mandatory inoculations.
They believe their two-week trip to the village of Pailin will benefit them as much as their young pupils.
“I’ve never been anywhere close to the Third World,” said Louise Chouinard, 18, who will teach health there and plans to pursue a career in sports broadcasting. “I know I’ll have a whole different outlook – not only on my life but on the lives of others – when I get back.”
Her confidence is based on three previous visits that Overlake kids have made to the elementary school halfway around the world since 2003.
First impressions – ‘Blown away’
The connection began humbly enough, when Head of School Francisco Grijalva learned about American Assistance in Cambodia, a group dedicated to educating rural children, particularly girls, as a way to eradicate human trafficking.
By raising $13,000, Overlake would get a school near the Thai border dedicated in its name.
“That seemed do-able,” Grijalva recalled. “A nice way to put our name in a location that not many people know about.”
Yet when his airy notion reaped an actual school, the longtime educator could not shake the nagging feeling that his community could do more.
“I was just blown away by the openness of these kids,” he said of the Cambodian students. “They wanted to get educated. They knew they needed an education to go forward.”
A friend, not ‘a statistic’
Still, convincing Seattle-area parents to kick in for plane and hotel fare, while relinquishing their children to two grueling weeks abroad gave Grijalva some pause. “This wasn’t going to be a walk in the park,” he thought.
He was wrong.
In the past eight years, about 80 of Grijalva’s students have made the trek, teaching Cambodian kids, raising more than $45,000 to build and wire a computer lab, construct a playground and fund a teacher at the Overlake School in Cambodia.
Many have afterward pursued careers in foreign service. Meanwhile, an Overlake board member has bankrolled two additional schools, as have Grijalva’s family and another parent.
“We didn’t realize how much of an impact – and how mutually beneficial – this experience would be,” said Mark Manuel, director of diversity at Overlake. “There’s something that happens over there. When our students come back, they have to act. It becomes ‘I know someone who’s hungry, who’s dealing with land mine issues.’ So it’s no longer a statistic, but a friend.”
For sophomore Dylan Reynolds, the stark differences between his own life and those of the 250 youngsters he will meet – were the draw.
“It’s kind of the elephant in the room,” he said. “We are this very affluent, privileged community that’s pretty walled off from the rest of the world, so it’ll really give us something to ruminate on.”
Stark facts, big hopes
In a final preparation meeting before departure on Saturday, students were abuzz with questions, and nerves. Would they be able to transport enough model solar systems and basic chemistry experiments to teach science? Would they need to bring such basics as pencils, cramming those into 14 duffel bags worth of supplies?
“Assume they don’t have anything,” said Manuel.
Yet more obvious challenges – such as the language barrier – leave Overlake’s students unfazed, confident in their ability to communicate through gesture and expression. Grijalva attests to this himself.
“There is this emotional bonding that takes place,” he said. “From the very first visit, it just took off.”
The Cambodia trip has now become a biennial tradition at Overlake, something that dozens of students apply for – despite the heat, deprivation and $3,000 per-pupil price tag.
They are an earnest bunch. In fact, nearly every aspect of the journey, from lesson planning to gathering equipment and fund-raising, is designed by students.
But the facts are stark: Most of the kids that Dylan, Louise and their schoolmates meet will never progress beyond elementary school. So Grijalva has his own ultimate goal: Someday, he hopes, at least one Cambodian youth will find her way back to the green hills near Seattle and attend school here.
It would complete the circle, he said. “Those kids think of themselves as Overlakers.”
Here’s a video from the Overlake trip in 2008: