Founded 20 years ago by a French couple shocked by the poor children of Phnom Penh forced to work in the garbage dump, PSE now welcomes more than 6500 students and is building a new campus. Pour un Sourire d’Enfant, French for « for a child’ smile » does exactly that, even to adults.
But let’s be honest, not always as the route has been long and bumpy as paved with many issues and excitements. Today, the organization is managed by Khmer professionals and has an international board of experts, all having at heart the future of all the underprivileged children accepted into the school. PSE grew and now has several areas of expertise.
First they have a very well trained team of social workers who managed the recruitment and follow up on every single family sending her child to PSE. Students were all destined to a miserable life. Thanks to PSE they get a chance to study, they feel safe, are able to develop and to show their full potential. The organization aims at empowering them enough for them to get a skilled job. They can arrive to the school at different ages but yet the common criteria is that none of them has reached the grade 12. They all go to a « foundations class » in order to regain the adequate level for their age and then they are placed in partnering public schools to pursue their studies until the grade 12. When they reach that limit, PSE gives them the opportunity to attend a vocational school and get a training in business (sales, marketing, accounting mainly), in hotel management (front office, room service, restaurant) or in IT/media.
Most students live with their families but some do not have relatives or their situation at home puts them at risk so 650 of them stay in the boarding school. And it is true, they smile. They smile because they know how lucky they are to go to school for free, they smile because they get to exercise, to play, to sing karaoke. They smile because they are treated with respect and because they can they that they have a future. They smile because they will be able to help their families and that comes up first when you ask them why they are happy indeed.
The smile nonetheless does not take away the problems, there always are right? These children are often traumatized and many have attention disorders. It is mandatory to show them what respect and discipline is. They fight, they are scared, they do not share and talk freely, often they lack a sense of responsibility, they are sick, they demand constant attention and care. Children, but not really. They know the bad side of life but have to learn how to lead their lives, a huge teaching challenge.
Teachers are numerous at PSE. Mostly Cambodians and some long-time established foreigners uniting their strengths and professionalism to serve the community. It all feels like a very big family. Managers first take care of the mandatory requirements – main classes, health, food – but also innovate and improve the programs every year. For example, the dean of the hospitality school had the great idea to give modeling courses to his students to help them regain confidence in themselves and also changed all their uniforms: huge success among the students who now are all very proud of their school and work hard to deserve the honors. Same happens in the business school where teachers use online programs to help students prepare for interviews and other create role games for the students to better understand the structure of a company and how to better find their dream job in the service that best matches their abilities. PSE offers computers labs, a restaurant and a boutique all for the students to try and train. Teachers are key but there is a lot of peer to peer training going on too and they encourage it.
PSE is a learning community. Everybody learns from everybody as long as the communication chains are maintained. It is a formidable lab to experiment innovative pedagogical tools and methods and the structure is able to move. That is why it moves forward! Many partners are now attracted to work with PSE: local and international Universities, local and international ngos, local and international companies. They all see the potential: PSE not only explores ways to bring the best out of people but also does good. In the 21st century, challenges faced by developing countries are more and more also found in the west. This laboratory should indeed catch our attention and our energy to not only try out but find out they keys to human capital development, individually and collectively.
Let’s contribute to the next big surprises, shall we?