Saing Sokchea, founder of the NGO Advanced Centre for Empowerment (ACE), was born and raised in Kampong Thom, but in the late 1990s and early 2000s he migrated to Phnom Penh to pursue his studies because there were no higher education opportunities available in his home province.

Sokchea lived in a dormitory when he was in Phnom Penh, but finding suitable accommodations at that time was a big challenge, especially for disadvantaged youths whose family members all lived in one of the more remote provinces away from the capital, according to Chean Toing Ain, also known as JC, managing director of ACE.

“Our founder and certainly myself and many other students were always struggling to afford accommodations in Phnom Penh,” JC told The Post.

That struggle to find housing was what inspired the founding of ACE by Sokchea in 2009, which then went on to become a fully registered NGO with the Ministry of Interior by May of 2011.

Before that, Sokchea spent several years providing leadership training to youths and adults in impoverished neighbourhoods such as Dey Krahorm, Beoung Kak Lake and Andong in Phnom Penh, as well as in many of the more remote areas of the Kingdom.

Sokchea understood that finding housing was actually much harder for girls, because boys could safely manage to find a spot sleeping at a pagoda, which wasn’t ideal but was at least a possibility for them.

Reflecting on the difficulties he encountered back then as a student gave Sokchea the vision to establish a place that could contribute to helping students overcome similar challenges with housing to what he’d faced.

“When I founded ACE, the aim was to contribute to providing education opportunities and supporting poor communities, while at the same time establishing a dormitory for university students to stay at for free by volunteering their spare time to support and teach children in disadvantaged communities in basic subjects like health, English or life-skills,” Sokchea, now living in Australia, told The Post.

Sokchea said that the project evolved to also include educational programmes for adults on domestic violence prevention, budgeting for individuals and families, parenting, healthy diets and similar topics.

Today, ACE is an independent Cambodian NGO that teaches life skills and English to children living in impoverished neighbourhoods while providing accommodations, leadership skills, teaching experience, English lessons and life skills to the university students who work as volunteers teaching the classes for children, with the programme’s design advancing the abilities and opportunities of two generations of Cambodia’s future leaders at once.

“Our NGO operates three major projects: School and community support in poverty-stricken communities, the Dormitory and Leadership Training Centre (DLTC) for promising and talented university students and a training and personal development project aimed at young professionals,” said JC.

Persuing dreams

Tab Kay, 20, from Siem Reap’s Prasat Bakorng district, had spent one year looking for a school that would allow her to major in her preferred area of study while also providing help with accommodations in the city because the costs for a rental room were beyond her means.

Kay migrated to Phnom Penh and registered to study at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP), while applying to ACE to stay at their free-of-charge dormitory.

“I want to be a math teacher but my parents can’t afford to pay for a rental room for me. One day I found an announcement from ACE about providing dorms for provincial students. I applied and I was selected for their programme. Now I’m living with nine other female students in their women’s dorm,” she said.

Kay lives in ACE’s dorm for about seven months out of the year while her classes at RUPP are in session. Her experience studying at RUPP with ACE’s support has been so positive that she now plans to pursue a Master’s degree after she finishes her Bachelor’s and has now expanded her academic dreams to one day earning a doctoral degree and becoming a full professor at RUPP.

A linguistics student who travelled from Stung Treng province, Son Sotheary spent one year studying online in 2020 before coming to the capital to continue her studies in-person at RUPP, which she was able to do because of ACE’s dormitory programme.

Her ambition is similar to her dorm-mate Kay in that she wants to become a teacher in the city rather than going back to her hometown.

Another provincial student from Kampong Thom, Soun Pitou has been living in ACE’s men’s dorm for more than two years while studying because his single mother could not support him while he studies English literature at the University of Cambodia.

“ACE helps me a lot, with accommodations, training courses and even some food packages,” Pitou said.

JC said that so far their university students living in the dormitory have a 100 per cent graduation rate. Many have gone on to become successful in their fields, including medical doctors; a civil engineer; a human resources director at a large company and people in various other management positions at companies; accounting, finance and banking professionals; as well as successful business entrepreneurs.

“There have been about a hundred university students who have lived in our dormitories and all of them have gotten their degrees,” JC noted. “Some students have to fight hard with their parents in order to continue their studies because their parents want them to quit studying and find a job to help them pay off family debts, and our programme helps them stay in school by making it affordable.”

ACE’s programmes benefit three different groups at once, said JC. First, the dormitory residents who get free accommodations while studying as well as leadership training, life-skills training, scholarships in some cases, English classes and work experience as teachers.

Secondly, the disadvantaged children in the poor communities are provided with a range of activities and services designed to scale up their education opportunities and help them to become well-rounded individuals.

“These activities include English classes, Khmer-language tutoring, arts and crafts classes, sports and recreational activities including traditional Cambodian dance lessons, school field trips and excursions, basic health and hygiene classes along with de-worming or anti-parasite medicine distribution, women’s and girl’s health classes, a nutrition programme, dental check-ups, community clean-up efforts and access to free libraries at our centres located in the communities we work with,” said JC.

Third, within these communities ACE supports the children’s parents with help repairing their homes, teaching them about preventing domestic violence, parenting tips, basic health and health check-ups with medical professionals, lessons on budgeting and saving money and even support by providing basic food supplies when necessary like rice, salt, sugar, instant noodles and cooking oil.

Im Oudom, 12, who is in grade 6 and living near one of ACE’s centres, said that he has begun studying English at ACE at the beginner level.

“I have been studying English there for about seven months. I get support not only with my education, but also we get food and school supplies,” Oudom told The Post.

According to Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT) as of September 2018, there were over 250 communities considered to be extremely impoverished located all around Phnom Penh, but that was the pre-pandemic number and with the economic hardships caused by Covid-19 it’s possible that this number has grown since then.

“We always keep this in mind. We want to expand our reach to more youths to imbue them with quality leadership skills so they will become knowledgeable, well-rounded and responsible citizens,” JC said. “We help them to learn to be more selfless than selfish and to give more than to get. We teach them to understand the duties and obligations of a good and responsible citizen.”

Similar to the difficulties faced by other NGOs, ACE has been struggling to survive and continue to help students in need.

“We try to do as much as possible to help them. At the same time, we ourselves were struggling too because our fundraising plans were cancelled repeatedly and we faced severe funding shortgages,” said JC. “But we continue to run our organisation with a mission to empower youths to become tomorrow’s leaders for a brighter Cambodian future.”