A Visit to Phare Ponleu Selpak

This is the first part of a series by Give2Asia's Crowdfunding Manager Garrison Spencer, whom traveled to Vietnam and Cambodia last November. Here, he  writes about his experience at the Phare Ponleu Selpak campus, a Give2Asia fiscal sponsorship partner in Cambodia supporting youth and community development through the arts. 

Being able to support one’s self as a performing artist is a challenging task to achieve. This is especially true in a place like Cambodia, where making a living doing anything can prove difficult due to a severely inadequate public education system, poor infrastructure, and corruption.  These issues are exacerbated in Battambang and other northwestern provinces, where the Khmer Rouge was able to cling to power until the early 1990s.  Despite these challenges, Phare Ponleu Selpak has been able to provide an education and opportunity for thousands of disadvantaged Cambodian children, and for some, even open the door to gainful employment as acrobats and musicians at their circus in Siem Reap.  

Phare Ponleu Selpak was founded in 1994 by a group of eight Cambodians who, after spending their childhood in refugee camps, returned to their homes with a calling to rebuild their community through social support, education, and the arts.  In addition to offering a traditional education, Phare teaches fine arts, graphic design, music, acrobatics, and theater.  Most well known, however, are their acrobatics students who perform at the school’s circus venue on location in Battambang and who upon graduation have the opportunity to work at the affiliated Phare Cambodian Circus in Siem Reap.  

After a dusty, mile long walk to the outskirts of Battambang, I arrived at the gates of Phare’s beautiful campus and immediately noticed the elephant statues lining the sidewalks, which I later learned were carved and molded by Phare students.  I was guided through the campus’ mural-covered classrooms, studios, and playground by Phare’s Development Supervisor Benedicte Guilbert, who explained how they help marginalized youth reintegrate into society through the use of culture and art, which they have found to help with concentration, improve communication, and increase creative thinking skills.  In turn, this greatly improves the choices available to as they reach adulthood.  I was curious what, besides poverty, constituted a marginalized child and learned that it has changed over Phare’s 20 years of operations. Initially, many children suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder from the horrific violence, famine, and forced labor they experienced during the Khmer Rouge regime.  Overtime the issues have shifted towards child trafficking and domestic violence, often caused by the lingering trauma experienced by those children who are now parents themselves.  When the bell rings and children stream into the courtyard, you would not guess at the hardships they have experienced as they jump and play and giggle at the stranger at their school.

Back in Siem Reap, I arrive at the 330-seat circus tent of the Phare Cambodian Circus, which employs 50 theater, acrobatics, and musician professionals, most of whom are graduates of the Phare School in Battambang.  Next to the tent is a shop selling the work of Phare’s visual artists.  30 minutes to showtime and there is a line at least 100 people long waiting to file into the tent, in part due to Tripadvisor ranking the Phare Circus as one of the top activities in Siem Reap.  As the lights dimmed and the show began, I was struck by what a performance it was, not just a series of acrobatic feats, but a true theatrical production, complete with a plotline, costume changes, and audience participation.  The show I saw was called Preu (Chills) and was a playful take on Cambodians' fear of ghosts, portraying a group of students confronting the spirits they see during the night.  At the end of the show, one of Phare’s staff takes 5 minutes to share with the audience the story of Phare Ponleu Selpak and its mission to provide a nurturing and creative environment where young people can access quality arts training, education, and social support.  As audience members rushed to make donations and take photographs with the performers, I could not help but feel a twinge of jealousy of the performers who now make a living through their art, something that so many aspire to and so few achieve.  

The work that PPS does in transforming the lives Cambodian youth through art and education is truly inspiring and I will not soon forget the many smiling faces at the school or the gravity-defying feats of the circus.  To learn more about Phare Ponleu Selpak, please visit their website at www.phareps.org or visit  www.give2asia.org/pps to make a contribution.