Reality Check

Hawai‘i donors turn their dollars into books, computers, an education and a future for Cambodia.

For $13,000 you can buy a used 1995 Nissan Maxima, pay for one year of private school education, or, you can follow the lead of Honolulu physician Dr. Kathy Kozak and build an entire schoolhouse in Cambodia. Your donation can “transform an entire country,” she says—and you get a school named after you.

Children line up to receive new uniforms and school supplies.

American Assistance for Cambodia (AAFC), with the help of the Asian Development Bank, can turn a $13,000 donation into a three- to six-room schoolhouse. Donors from around the world, including nine from Hawai‘i, have funded the building costs of more than 300 schools in the most remote areas of Cambodia. In some cases, with the next closest school more than 100 miles away, there is no opportunity for villagers to get an education. Once completed, the new school is given to the village and staffed by state teachers.

The Mr. and Mrs. Sak Nhep School, donated by Hawai‘i residents Jerry and Vanny Clay.

“Education is essential to move Cambodia into the future,” says Kozak, donor of the Kozak ‘Ohana School in Kompong Thom. After the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge, most of Cambodia’s schools and teachers, along with much of its population, were wiped out. Today, rural areas of the country are barely literate, with a literacy rate of just 30 percent, compared to a 99 percent literacy rate in the United States. “The only way to combat poverty is to start with education,” she says.

The AAFC began its fight against poverty in 1993 by opening an orphanage, providing health care and educating the youth. Today several students raised and educated in AAFC programs have returned to the rural schools as teachers. As the cycle continues, these teachers provide their own children with an education and the chance to attend college. As a young, developing country, 75 percent of the population is below the age of 30, Kozak says. “We need to give [these children] the opportunity to further their education so they can be teachers, so they can be business people, so they can be a part of the global economy.”

Since building her school, Kozak has faced the questions of Why Cambodia? Why not Hawai‘i? many times. “One in five children in Cambodia is never given the opportunity to go to school, whereas in the United States, children are given the right to go to school,” Kozak says in response. “In addition to improving our schools in Hawai‘i and in the United States, I’d like to see us also look at bringing up some of the other countries with their level of education as well.”

Students gather outside each morning to salute the Cambodian flag.

“It astounds me how much I take for granted,” Kozak says of life in the United States. Laid out in plain terms, the monthly salary of a computer teacher in Cambodia is equivalent to your cable bill or a tank of gas, while the money you spend for 1,000 anytime minutes could pay for an entire year of college. These extras, such as an English teacher, access to the Internet, running water, or textbooks and school supplies, can be added to each school, though the program only requires the initial donation. “I feel a commitment to these children,” says Kozak.

“I want to help them further themselves and further their education,” she says, noting that a satellite dish will be installed this summer to provide her school with Internet access. She also plans to make yearly visits. “It’s one thing to be a tourist in Cambodia; it’s another to get to know the people. It’s an amazing opportunity to have a relationship with the students and families.”

“Once you travel to a country like [Cambodia], it opens up your eyes and I don’t think you can ever close them again, it just captures you,” Kozak says. “I feel like I’m at the bottom floor of something that’s going to transform the entire country. I can’t wait to see it. I can’t wait to be a part of it.”

For more information on charities in Hawai‘i, contact the Hawai‘i Community Foundation, a statewide grant-making organization supported by generous individuals, families and businesses to benefit Hawai‘i’s people. Visit the site at

> Update: Project Focus
Last May we profiled Project Focus, an organization that uses photography to give disadvantaged kids a new perspective on their lives. This month the nonprofit pairs up with Kids Hurt Too, an organization that helps children cope with the loss of a parent. Fourteen children, ages 9 through 18, will photograph their surviving parent or guardian as a means of reflecting and healing. The resulting “Lost and Found” exhibit will open in late August. Log onto or for more information, exhibit dates and location.