Terence Cao inspired by Cambodian trip
Local actor inspired by trip to Cambodian village now wants to do more to help educate children there
When actor Terence Cao decided to go on a mission trip to Cambodia, he didn't expect it to be a life-changing experience.
He had found out about Sopheak's Friendship School from fellow actor Thomas Ong when they were filming The Caregivers late last year.
Cao, 46, roped in two friends. Along with actress Aileen Tan, former actress Constance Song, and Ong, they had left for Siem Reap, Cambodia on May 27.
The were on a trip to teach the Cambodian children English.
On Monday, just a day after returning to Singapore, Cao told The New Paper: "We were very enthusiastic and we prepared many items like clothes, stationery, rice and biscuits.
"But what Thomas didn't prepare me for was the condition of the villagers' lives. We take clean water for granted, but that is a luxury for them."
The school is in Angkhrong Village in the Prasatbakong District, about 15km from Siem Reap, the country's major tourist hub.
Said Cao: "The road to the village was rocky and muddy. On the first day, we just wanted to give them everything we could. But we also realised that sustainability is more important."
It was during this trip that he realised how English could become an "important tool" for the Cambodians.
With tourism thriving, the children would have a better chance of finding work later if they can speak English.
And this is the mission of Sopheak's Friendship School. Founded by Mr Sopheak Phountam, who also runs the place, it aims to bridge the language gap for local children. (See report right.)
The school is completely funded by sponsors.
Cao said that most teachers at the school are high school students who earn about US$40 ($50) a month teaching English.
He was moved by the efforts of the students, aged between seven and 13 years old, who had to cycle or walk a long distance just for an hour of free English lessons.
CLASS DESPITE FEVER
Struggling to keep his emotions in check, Cao told of a little girl he met while at the school.
A girl who was about eight years old had shown up for class despite having a high fever.
"We tried to get her to go home, but she told us that she had walked 40 minutes for the one-hour session and she was going to study first," he said.
"After the class, she walked another 40 minutes home."
He said the group's method of teaching was to converse with the children in English.
Through this, he found joy in finding "dignity and integrity" in the students, something "different from Singapore".
When asked about their ambitions, the children would say they want to be a teacher or a tour guide.
But this was not for the money.
"Instead, they say they want to be a teacher so that they can impart knowledge, or a tour guide so that they can share the history, culture and beauty of their country," he said.
"Here, parents always tell their children, 'If you don't study, then you won't earn enough money'."
Cao now hopes he can do more for the children in their education journey.
For a start, he and his friends have promised the children and young teachers that they will sponsor their school fees if any of them gets into university.
He has also started the process of funding to build another classroom.
Cao, who had shared photos of the trip on his Instagram account, said: "I encourage people to consider other options when taking a holiday. Why not, for a change, consider taking a journey where you can help others?
"I feel that Singaporeans in general are warm-hearted and compassionate, just that some may not know how to go about it, so this will be a very good opportunity," he said.
She told us that she had walked 40 minutes for the one-hour session, and she was going to study first.
- Actor Terence Cao on a young girl who walked 40 minutes to class despite having a high fever
The English school that started in a backyard
GIVING: Thomas Ong (in blue) with the school's founder and principal, Sopheak Phountam.
He has been working quietly behind the scenes in his mission but his supporters have been growing in numbers.
Local actresses Ann Kok and Jesseca Liu, former actress Constance Song, actor Zhang Zhenuan and UFM 100.3 DJ Huang Wenhong have joined Thomas Ong after he embarked on the project.
Last week, actor Terence Cao and actress Aileen Tan also joined the group.
Ong, 45, told The New Paper that he was moved by his friends' "willingness to help".
"They are not afraid of the hot weather or that they have to teach in a cramped classroom. They even go barefeet to play games with the kids in the field.
"No words can describe the feeling when I see them. It's elating and touching," he said.
Ong got to know Mr Sopheak Phountam, the founder and principal of the Sopheak's Friendship School, during his first trip to Cambodia in 2012.
Then, he had travelled with Kok to donate bicycles to public schools and orphanages.
He said: "Since then, I have seen how Sopheak's school grew to two schools in different villages, giving free English lessons to under-privileged children."
Sopheak's Friendship School began its first classes in mid-2012 in Mr Sopheak's father-in-law's backyard. It had five teachers and 150 students. Today, there are about 600 students.
Ong said: "Some of my friends have visited the school on their own and this is exactly what I had hoped for.
"I have often made trips alone to get more things done, like handing donations for the school fund and setting up a proper accounting system and bank accounts for accountability purposes."
He added: "I believe that education is very important and will help the kids have a better future. By mastering English, they will be able to get better jobs and the lives of their families can improve."
Anyone interested in volunteering can contact Mr Sopheak at firstname.lastname@example.org
Some of my friends have visited the school on their own and this is exactly what I had hoped for.
- Actor Thomas Ong on starting a trend of giving back