by Allegra Mangione, GoPhil Development & Marketing Coordinator
PEPY Empowering Youth is an NGO located in Siem Reap, Cambodia, dedicated to connecting Cambodian youth to the skills, opportunities, and inspirations needed to reach their potential. PEPY scholars come from rural communities where they may not have the opportunity to pursue higher education and skilled jobs.
In a normal year, PEPY offers its scholars goal-setting courses, mentoring, scholarships, English classes, and soft skill classes. This year, PEPY has shifted efforts to support students’ families in addition to scholars, to address COVID-19’s economic fallout and combat the many barriers it has presented to ensuring youth access their dreams.
The following narrative is an update from PEPY on how they have shifted their focus during the pandemic, their present challenges, and their hopes for the future.
Supporting Students Through Turbulent Times
This month, our primary focus was on our scholarship students. Students are facing many new challenges, and we are working to address them, one by one. Many of our students work at restaurants and hotels, which have been severely impacted by decreased tourism in Siem Reap. During the last quarter, our PEPY student and alumni unemployment rate increased by 5%. While the PEPY team, students, and alumni have worked hard to identify new employment opportunities, there are still approximately 30 youth out of work. Even as we work to find other opportunities for them, more employers in Siem Reap shut their doors each week. We anticipate having to support more students with finding employment in the near future.
Here are some voices from current students describing how they have experienced the pandemic:
“During coronavirus, my situation changed and I had a lot of problems. I lost my job, which I only had for 6 months. I lost my income to support myself and my family. In particular, what I find most difficult is adapting to studying online. This is especially difficult for me. Each lesson has some points that I cannot grasp online.
After experiencing all these problems, I realized that not all problems are bad. Instead, they teach us to be strong, patient, and flexible. I took this difficult situation as an opportunity to learn a lot of new things. I am grateful to PEPY and my PEPY family and friends who always support me. Although I have not yet found a job, I will try to take this time to improve myself. I’m satisfied and happy to adapt to this new context. And I believe that as long as we are open to accepting new things, we will develop. Do not be discouraged and try to persevere.”
“I want to share that during this uncertain time I have lost my job and I can no longer meet my friends to study at school. With PEPY, we can study in online classes. Sometimes the internet is too slow while I am studying online. This makes me bored and sad because I have no job and cannot earn money to support myself.
However, I would like to say thank you to PEPY for supporting me—it is helpful for me during this time. I am happy to be able to call my family and friends. If I go somewhere I wear a mask, and I am exercising, drinking lots of water, eating enough and reading books to get more knowledge. Reading sometimes makes me laugh, even when I’m alone I smile and often get a mix of feelings. I think my new skill is reading books because before the pandemic I seldom read books but now I love reading. That is the way that I am happy.”
Urban Gardening as a Solution
One way we are working to reduce scholars’ living expenses is by supporting them with urban gardening. On September 30th, PEPY held an Urban Gardening Basics training for scholars, led by PEPY’s Partnership and Development Manager, Kathryn, who has several years of experience in garden management. During this training, Kathryn explained what urban gardening is, its benefits, the basic principles of urban gardening, and general gardening techniques. At the end of the session, the scholars worked together to design and make a basic urban garden structure using plastic bottles. We are excited to help scholars make the training actionable by developing their own gardens in their homes and advising their families on how to make plastic bottle structures in their villages, too.
Chantoeut (pictured above) remarked on the mental health benefits of gardening during the training and said, “if we care about the environment, the environment will care and love us back.”
PEPY scholars after the Urban Gardening training with garden pots they designed.
Companion planting sheet outlining which plants grow well together in Urban Gardening training.
Emergency Food Deliveries
We want to make sure our students’ families support their education and one way we approach this is by helping to stabilize families. Our Food Response Intern, Lada, has been coordinating emergency food deliveries to families in rural communities since the onset of the pandemic. This month, there was only one delivery to a family in our target communities. Based on feedback from our students, families are still able to use their rice reserves and sustain themselves through the monsoon season with fish, frogs, and local fruits. We anticipate shifts in the near future when the monsoon season ends and rice reserves run low. Lada will continue to monitor the situation and see if there are more families we need to support.
In October, PEPY will commit to supporting any families that come through our network and fit our criteria for emergency needs. We expect to see the challenges experienced by rural families slowly but steadily increase in the coming months as food reserves dwindle and borders to Thailand and Vietnam remain closed.
Looking into the Future: Broader Access to Scholarships
It is becoming more apparent that PEPY may be one of the only organizations providing scholarship support in at least one of our target communities: the Varin District. The Varin District is our most remote and troubling site as it is already very difficult to transport youth into the city. If we are indeed the only remaining full scholarship opportunity, the number of youth moving onto higher education has the potential to decrease significantly. We are looking to fundraise in partnership with other scholarship organizations (including JWOC) to provide more support to scholars next year.
We are prioritizing our Scholarship Project for fundraising over all other initiatives through 2021 to try to increase the number of scholars we can support. Realistically, we may have to consider changing our scholarship approach to push more vocational programs and make university study the exception and not the rule.
No matter what, we will continue our mission to connect Cambodian youth to the skills, opportunities, and inspirations needed to reach their potential.