It began when Phymean met a group of hungry children. While eating lunch on Riverside in 2001 Phymean saw a group of street children watching her eat. Finishing her chicken lunch she threw the bones away. She watched in horror as the hungry children descended on the discarded bones, chewing on them to extract any remaining nutrition. Moved by their plight she bought lunch for them and asked them about themselves. The children told her that they worked as garbage collectors. When she asked them what they wanted to do they told her that they wanted to go to school.
Using her own saving Phymean built the first PIO school was at the base of the garbage dump. The children couldn’t leave their workplace to go to school so the school came to them. The school offered lessons in Khmer for an hour or so a day. It began with a group of 20 children.
This was the year that PIO began its first classes in IT, providing lessons in computer basics and Microsoft Office for members of the community.
By 2004 the school was growing and Phymean was providing families with rice so that they would send their children to school instead of to work on the garbage dump. However without funding the school could not be sustained. In 2004 Phymean met Jessica Newman, a woman who had founded an organization committed to providing education as a way of breaking the cycle of poverty. Jessica’s organization, Just World International (JWI) partnered with PIO to ensure that the school could continue. PIO has a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport and so had official approval to operate as a school teaching English and national curriculum subjects.
Now with government approval and a committed donor PIO was set to play a major part in helping the children and families living in poverty on and around the city garbage dump. Funding from JWI enabled a new two story school to be built and the children to be provided with food, clean water, school supplies and uniforms. The school was thriving
- The Borey Keila School In 2005 a new branch of the school was opened in Borey Keila, an inner city slum with many social problems. With support from JWI PIO opened a school offering English lesson to local children. The children were also provided with food, clean water and school supplies.
- Nutrition program at Stung Meanchey and Borey Keila A major part of JWI’s support for PIO is the provision of a daily nutritious meal for all students. Hungry children cannot learn, so with the support of JWI PIO was able to emply a cook at each of its schools and provide a good healthy lunch for the children The meal comprised rice, vegetables and meat, served as a traditional Khmer soup.
In 2007, responding to a request from the local community, PIO opened its third school, this one located 15 km outside of Phnom Penh at Borey Santepheap 2, a newly created village populated by families displaced from Phnom Penh slums to make way for development.With support from several donors a school was built that provided English classes for children living in the Borey Santepheap 2 village.
- The Vocational Training
Another major development for PIO was the introduction of vocational training classes in sewing, traditional dance and cosmetics. The sewing training was in the form of a dressmaking class providing young women with a skill that would enable them to work for dressmaker or start their own business. .The cosmetics training taught students how to provide hair and beauty treatment, providing them with the opportunity for either work in a beauty salon or opening their own business.
In 2008 Phymean received a Top Ten CNN Hero Award. This prestigious award was for work for the rights of child garbage workers to an education. The award was instrumental in making PIO known to a much wider audience. It initiated the rapid growth of the orgamization. A growth that would continue for the next 9 years.
The final step in this stage of the development of PIO was the building of a Shelter at Stung Meanchey to house children who had no safe place to live. Some of these children were orphans, others had been left with extended family when their parents migrated to find work. Others lived in home where there was domestic violence, often accompanied by drug and alcohol abuse. The Shelter provided a haven for the children providing security, support and most importantly the opportunity to continue their education.
The building was funded by the prize money from the CNN award and also by several PIO board members and other supporters of PIO. In subsequent years the Shelter has been supported by individual and group sponsors.
Thanks to support from PIO board members and other donors PIO purchased a 10 000 litre water storage tank and filter that supplied clean water to the school, Shelter and residents of the local community. IN 2010 the school environment changed. The government closed the Stung Meanchey garbage dump and relocated it further away. Some of the families moved but many remained in the district, no longer working as garbage collectors but able to find other, safer work in Stung Meanchey. The work they found was low-skilled and poorly paid but was better than what they had been doing.The mothers often finding work in a clothing factory and the fathers working as labourers or moto taxi drivers. PIO played a crucial role in providing free education to the children of families in the community and helping relieve the poverty that was evident all around.
Demand for places at the PIO schools continued to grow, especially at Stung Meanchey. The old school built in 2005 by JWI was no longer adequate to provide classrooms for the children. Plans were begun for a new four level building at Stung Meanchey.
Support from JWI, PIO Board members, Project Hammer and the Davison Family Foundation resulted in a new four story building which could accommodate more than 500 students from Kindergarten to High School. The building was officially opened in April 2012, coinciding with the 10th Anniversary of PIO..
From 2012 the school roll continued to grow and the space provided in 2011 was insufficient to accommodate all the students. The school roll continued to increase and by 2013 there were over 1000 students enrolled at PIO’s three schools, or attending high school or enrolled in vocational training classes. In that year fundraising began for a second building at Stung Meanchey.
The Shelter was also unable to accommodate all that needed to be there, so in 2013 the Shelter was renovated and extended to accommodate up to 80 children.
In 2015 Phymean became a World’s Children’s Prize laureate. The award was presented by the Queen of Sweden at ceremony in Stockholm. At the ceremony Phymean was accompanied by one of the children from her school, The award was in recognition of her for her thirteen-year struggle for the children who scavenge garbage dumps in Cambodia, and their right to education. Read more about the World's Children's Prize here.
In 2015 other 2015 there were two other awards given to Phymean.
Canadian Multicultural Council Award
In 2015 the Canadian Multicultural Council awarded. Phymean the Special Humanitarian Award for her outstanding humanitarian work in Cambodia.
Cambodian Medal of Honor
In 2015, Hun Bun Rany, president of the Cambodian Red Cross awarded Phymean the Medal of Honor for her ongoing humanitarian work for the children of Cambodia
In August 2016 PIO signed an MOU with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport allowing PIO to teach the national high school curriculum to its students. Prior to this PIO students graduating from Grade 6 had to travel 6 km each day to a public high school. Although some succeeded others dropped out before completing high school. Having students at our own high school should greatly reduce the dropout rate and ensure that students get the best value from their education.
In the first year of the high school program there were only Grade 7 and Grade 8 classes. the classes now extend to Grade 9. The classes for students that have graduated from Grade 6 at the Stung Meanchey School and also those from the the Borey Santepheap 2 School who travel into to Stung Meanchey each day on the PIO bus. In the first year there were a total of 94 students enrolled in Grades 7 and 8.
Providing high school classes is a significant step forward in the development of PIO as a school. PIO now provides a complete education and supports students throughout their education. Providing a continuity that should ensure that students remain at school for as long a possible.