“We will educate our children. We will do it one by one, step by step.”

–Ponheary Ly

About PLFC

Ponheary Ly served as a teacher and later tour guide in Cambodia. She had a passion for education. Living a portion of her life in poverty, Ponheary knew the struggles that children in rural Cambodia faced when trying to attend school. Starting with just one student, Ponheary began what has grown into the Ponheary Ly Foundation, sponsoring 2,800 students in four primary schools and five secondary schools through rural northwestern Cambodia.

Ponheary grew up in a family where education was important. Her father was a teacher, and she and her siblings knew the value of education. Early in life she took advantage of opportunities to learn and expand her knowledge, but all of that changed when the Khmer Rouge took power. The Khmer Rouge abolished education and killed many of the intellectuals and educators in Cambodia, including Ponheary’s father and thirteen of her family members.

In the aftermath of the regime, Ponheary and her surviving family worked to rebuild their lives. Ponheary became a teacher. She began supporting students and extra programs at the schools where she worked.

After working as a teacher, Ponheary became a tour guide. At the Temples of Angkor where she took tourists, Ponheary came into contact with numerous children who spent their days selling trinkets to tourists rather than attending school. Moved by what she saw, Ponheary decided to use her tips to support a better education system for Cambodia’s children. She encouraged the tourists she met to sponsor children’s education programs rather than buying from the children at the temples, which only encouraged them to continue missing school.

Ponheary started supporting one student with her own earnings and soon, with the help of the tourists she guided, she was able to expand this number. In 2005, Lori Carlson came to Cambodia on vacation and was inspired by Ponheary’s work. She set up a foundation in the USA to help Ponheary to broaden her efforts, and eventually moved to Siem Reap full time to manage and grow the charity.

By 2008, Canadian tourists Greg Nelson & Patti Shedden had heard about Ponheary and Lori’s work. When visiting Siem Reap, they engaged Ponheary as a tour guide, and asked to see the school projects. Like every one who visits the schools, and meets the kids, their lives were changed forever. They established PLF Canada in order to give Canadians the opportunity to support this incredible work.

Ponheary’s dream of helping Cambodia’s children has become a reality on a larger scale than she ever expected. After living through the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge, Ponheary has been able to do something that honors the memory of her father and all those who lost their lives because they were educators or educated. She is working to move past her own struggles as well as to move her country beyond the traumatizing memories of the past. Education provides new life and opportunity.

In 2010, Ponheary was named one of CNN’s “Heroes”.

Today over 50% of Cambodians are aged under 18, and half of the population living in rural villages is illiterate. While the challenge is large, Cambodia’s future depends on these children. PLFC believes education will not only help to pull children and their families out of poverty, but it will also help the country to move forward on it’s own.

Our Work

Preah Vihear province was the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge regime which decimated every societal structure during its reign of terror: family, community, religion, education. In the years of civil war that followed the genocide, rural communities were left to re-form and fend for themselves, with all hands – young and old – being put to work in the rice paddies. A kind of collective amnesia had settled over the community about the importance of education. By the mid-2000s, Cambodia’s tourism industry was booming, and when children weren’t helping with farm work, they were sent to sell trinkets to visitors at Koh Ker temple. Living a hand-to-mouth existence, education wasn’t even on the list of priorities for these families on the margins.

PLF Canada delivered the funding to buy a house near to the school, which became the Srayang Dormitory. In the first year, we welcomed the first Koh Ker graduates (all girls!). Three years later, we had our first Grade 9 graduates. By 2014 the very first Koh Ker student broke even that record by continuing on to Grade 10 in Siem Reap city, which up until then was where rural students had to live in order to complete High School.

Students from Romchek Village joined Koh Ker in 2014, and we received their first dorm students in 2015 – a feat accomplished by a whole community coming together and pushing all the students and teachers forward to make the dream of Grade 9 education a reality. The tiny village of Prey Kuol, situated even further into the forest, joined the pathway six years later.

A major new landmark was reached in 2017 when our first student from Srayang continued on to university in Phnom Penh.

The story of Set Channy’s inspiring journey to higher education.

In the first decade of the Srayang project, we bore witness to the extraordinary determination of students to get themselves through school against all odds. We saw the transformative effect of their efforts as they have “re-taught” a community that never got to go to school about the value of education. Their families began to realize just how much schooling opens the door to economic opportunity…. and the community awoke

Parents, who never went to school, began prioritizing the education of their children, and big shifts in the community began to happen. When the Srayang dorm first started, the average age of our students at intake for Grade 7 was 15-16 years. But, ten years on, parents were actively encouraging their children to stay in school, which meant the kids graduating Grade 6 were younger. It was less and less appropriate for them to leave home for Grade 7. At the same time, the success of PLF efforts at the primary schools – the breakfast program, the libraries, the better teachers and so much more — meant that more and more kids wanted to continue past Grade 6. So, in the 2020-21 school year, we took the natural next step. The Srayang Dorm was transformed into the Srayang Learning Centre.

Now, instead of being limited by availability of beds in our dorm – reserved for only the highest achieving 6th graders – we have the capacity to offer all primary graduates who are ready for high school the opportunity to sit our entrance exam and reach the next milestone. Instead of living on-site, students are now transported back-and-forth from their villages to the Srayang school each day in huge trucks.

The transition and scale up from dorm to center was massive, and entailed a huge remodeling project. It heralded the beginning of a new chapter, where children get to live at home AND go all the way through school. Hundreds more students having the opportunity to gain their high school diploma. 

As students progress through high school, a new challenge arises. Every year, some do so well that university is an obvious choice. Others are better served by vocational training programs that provide more immediate access to employment. For those who stopped at Grade 9, many have gone back to work in their communities, becoming the first in their villages to have career opportunities.

Alongside the changes at Srayang, our programming has expanded to include the three primary schools that feed the learning centre: Koh Ker, Romchek and Prey Kuol.

We continue to support the scholars dorms in Siem Reap – for the kids that continue their high school in the city. And we provide scholarships for some of the best students to attend university.

More info on all this on our Projects page.