The Venerable Somnieng, head of the Life and Hope Association in Cambodia, visited La Pietra last year and inspired middle-school girls to develop a cross-cultural exchange with girls in Cambodia.
Sisters setting the PACE
La Pietra middle-school students devoted a recent FridayFest, a school social event, to a community service activity. Working with the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii, La Pietra has adopted a sister school in Cambodia through a Buddhist temple located in Siem Reap.
The connection began when La Pietra English teacher Marisa Proctor traveled to Cambodia last summer with the East-West Center's "Travel and Teach" program and volunteered at Wat Damnak, where the Venerable Somnieng, a Buddhist monk, is the head of the Life and Hope Association. LHA sponsors many community outreach programs, including the Program Advancing Children's Education, or PACE. This year, PACE has identified 13 at-risk girls in the community to live together in a boardinghouse and attend the Life & Hope Junior School.
Last October, Somnieng spoke at La Pietra while visiting Honolulu for a conference at UH. Upon arriving, his eyes lit up when he was reminded that La Pietra is an all-girls school, and it wasn't long before he suggested forging a link between the girls at his boarding house and La Pietra's middle schoolers.
Later that day, when social studies teacher and Middle School Congress adviser Tom Robinson heard Somnieng speak, he knew that he had found an opportunity to build a long-term, meaningful connection for his middle-schoolers. This wouldn't be just a one-time community service project, he realized. He wanted something more lasting.
The result became Sisters Setting the PACE, an organization whose mission is to empower girls in Cambodia and Hawaii by building friendships and developing cross-cultural citizenship through support, communication, cultural exchange and lifelong education. Students will learn from and motivate one another to become responsible young women who will bring about positive change in their communities and beyond.
Mutual benefit for both parties is the main goal for this project. By creating this connection, the Cambodian girls have the opportunity to get an education, and La Pietra students get the benefit of cross-cultural communication with people from a country most Americans know little about. Both schools hope to build a solid relationship so that, within a few years, they might even get to meet. While the focus this year is mostly on raising funds to help the girls' transition into the Life & Hope Junior School, long-term plans include donating school supplies and even computer equipment to allow more frequent communication.
La Pietra middle-school students have already raised more than $2,500 and sent disposable cameras to the PACE girls, who will photograph their lives and respond in writing to a questionnaire about themselves. When they send these back, La Pietra girls will be paired up with PACE girls and return the favor with pictures and letters of their own.
La Pietra is working in cooperation with the East-West Center's Schools-Helping-Schools program to help ease the communication and fund the expenses for the exchange between schools. Originally created to aid victims of the 2005 tsunami in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand, Schools-Helping-Schools is now expanding out to other projects. Its involvement ensures that 100 percent of La Pietra's donations go straight to the students of PACE. The East-West Center is a nonprofit organization designed to strengthen relations and understanding among people and nations of Asia, the Pacific and the United States.