The International

The International

The International

The impact of TASSEL

A 10-Day Journey
A TASSEL student gives a welcoming speech for the volunteers.
Nina Gerzema
A TASSEL student gives a welcoming speech for the volunteers.

“HELLO TEACHER! WELCOME TEACHER!” the voices of hundreds of Khmer students echoed across the campus of the TASSEL school. As the 29 volunteers from all across the world stepped out of a small bus, we were all immediately showered with flowers, paper necklaces, and letters from children of all ages. This summer, three ISSH students, four alumni, and 22 other dedicated volunteers traveled to Cambodia from Japan, Singapore, South Korea, the United States, and Norway with TASSEL for one sole purpose: to spread love and education to students who truly need it.

TASSEL is a non-profit organization with “a mission to provide continuous, high-quality English education and life-sustaining relief to the underserved in rural Cambodia, as well as to nurture and transform the hearts of all involved.” TASSEL believes that a high-quality English education can open up opportunities and career paths in any field the students desire. Additionally, the life-sustaining relief provided by TASSEL provides long-term support for those recovering from the devastating effects of the Khmer Rouge. The love and education that TASSEL provides the community will make a lifelong impact on not only the students but also families and Cambodia in general.

TASSEL students to greet the teachers at the entrance of the school.                   (Nina Gerzema)

The hundreds of students, ages ranging from kindergarten to high school, were enthusiastic to greet the volunteers. They fought eagerly to grab their hand as they led the volunteers to a grassy field where both the Khmer TASSEL teachers and the volunteers would give opening speeches. Through playing games, students got to learn our names and more about our hobbies and interests. Despite the pouring rain on introduction day, all of the teachers and students enjoyed an exciting and intense volleyball game that ended in smiles (for both winners and losers)!

After an exciting few days of getting to know the students and Khmer teachers, the first day of teaching arrived, and all of the volunteer teachers eagerly traveled to our assigned schools, either in Samrang or Banan, to teach our first class. As they led us to the classroom, all of the TASSEL students stood up and, in unison, greeted us with: “Hello, Teacher, how are you today?” The students’ enthusiasm never faded throughout the entire lesson. Even when learning difficult concepts such as past tense and new vocabulary, they persevered with the biggest grins!

Students enthusiastically hold up the answer to the 1-2-3 Game in class.           (Nina Gerzema )

After class, we were led into the courtyard and taught how to play traditional Cambodian games, such as “Monkey” or  “3-1”. These games involved lots of running in humid weather, but the enthusiasm and laughter of students energized us to play hard as well. The break time gave the students and volunteers a chance to bond even further by sharing names, Khmer phrases, and fun facts such as favorite colors or school subjects with each other. 

Not only were we able to connect with the TASSEL students, but we also got to meet the TASSEL community during the rice and medicine package distribution. These packages, funded by TASSEL, are given to students and their families in order to prevent needless illness and hunger. Many students are not able to attend school due to the responsibility of taking care of sick family members or scavenging for food. Foraging for food in rural areas can be extremely dangerous in bad weather, and doesn’t always result in finding any food. TASSEL wanted to raise this burden off of the students and to both help them receive an education and to keep their stomachs full.

Students enthusiastically hold up the answer to the 123 Game in class. (Nina Gerzema)

We were in charge of giving this out to over 200 families over the course of 10 days, with one package consisting of a 1kg rice bag and medicine (Tylenol, painkillers, pain-relief patches) that would provide adequate care for common illnesses, like a cold or fever. Afterward, we had an opportunity to talk to the villagers and hear about their stories. Most, if not all, villagers told us that they did not have enough food, and often went hunting for anything they could find, like insects, rodents, and morning glories. 

Many Cambodians who reside in rural areas struggle to get medical care for injuries/illnesses and don’t have enough food to share with their families. The rice and medicine package would be able to feed them for a while, and we left the distribution site feeling grateful, knowing that they had a stable food source for the next month.

One family shares their story with TASSEL teachers and volunteers.                   (Nina Gerzema )

Over the course of the trip, we were able to visit a few TASSEL families who generously offered to share their stories and their hardships with us. We were able to meet these families thanks to the TASSEL teachers who regularly visit the families of the students to provide whatever they may need, ranging from food and clothing to companionship. From the stories we heard, the TASSEL families were suffering from different circumstances, which were all equally heartbreaking. What we heard went beyond our imagination; stories of domestic violence, unwanted pregnancies, and battles with PTSD were mentioned many times during family visits.

Domestic violence was a problem for many families with a paternal figure who was an ex-Khmer Rouge soldier during the Cambodian genocide that lasted four years, from 1975 to 1979. Many of these people turn to gambling and alcohol to drink away the pain and forget their past. Excessive alcohol intake would make them violent and lash out at their partners and children, leaving many physically disabled and traumatized. When the TASSEL teachers asked the children what they wished the most, many said that they wanted their father to stop beating their mother.

Families share their stories for volunteers to hear. (Nina Gerzema )

A lot of the families we visited were big; a girl had five siblings but wasn’t biologically related to any of them. It is common for children to be adopted into other families or by their grandparents in instances when parents did not plan to conceive children, and, therefore, cannot afford to feed and care for them on top of working long hours. Being a part of a big family means that there are many mouths to feed, and everyone has to find a job. Many children have to give up their education when times get tough, in order to focus on work. TASSEL tries to minimize this from happening by providing free medicine, food, and most importantly, education for the children. Although horrific, these traumatic events are not uncommon to TASSEL students and their families, which is why TASSEL persists in giving long-term support to ensure the health and happiness of the community members. Throughout each of the ten days of the summer trip, deep bonds were formed between the volunteers and the TASSEL community members. Through each lesson, game, discussion, or activity, love and happiness filled the atmosphere. Love is the most important part of TASSEL’s mission, and an outpouring amount of it was shown by TASSEL volunteers and students alike.

The Khmer teachers hosted a Teachers’ Banquet on the night before our departure to the airport. This was an emotional day for both the Khmer teachers and volunteers. We and the teachers prepared songs and speeches and exchanged the handmade gifts that we had spent the past week secretly working on during the nights. For many hours, we shared laughs, cries, and hugs with each other. “We will all be back before you know it, so this isn’t goodbye!” 

ISSH students and alumni with a TASSEL teacher at the banquet. (Nina Gerzema )

The summer trip may be the highlight of every year, as volunteers and TASSEL community members alike can enjoy 10 days of games, learning, and activities, but TASSEL’s ultimate mission is to provide lasting care and love for students and their families. Volunteers from around the world continue to teach students throughout the year and continue to raise awareness for TASSEL’s mission and its families. The Sacred Heart chapter of TASSEL is working to raise funds at school and continuing to teach students through online means, with video calls and letters every week.

The 2022-2023 TASSEL trip went all too fast, and all of us have returned to our normal lives, but the impact of the trip will never wear off.

More to Discover