Oak Bluffs Couple Gives Gift of Education

By MAX HART

Three years ago, Oak Bluffs harbor master Todd Alexander and his wife, Kara Gelinas, were vacationing in Southeast Asia when the couple befriended Roma, a 14-year-old girl selling water and souvenirs with her family outside Angkor Wat, a Buddhist temple in Cambodia.

When they first met her, Roma had no official schooling because her family could not afford it, and the Alexanders - who were taken with her kindness and moved by the poor conditions in which she lived - decided to help. They enrolled Roma in the Australian Center for Education, the best school in the region, and paid for all of her educational costs.

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And while that chance encounter led to a unique and lasting relationship with a family and a culture halfway around the globe, their connection to Cambodia took on a whole new meaning this month when an elementary school, constructed with money raised entirely by the Alexanders, opened its doors for the first time.

Now only several miles from where Roma and hundreds like her once had no other option than to work for a living, the children of Angkor Wat will have an opportunity for an education at the Vineyard School, a gift from a couple of friends on the other side of the world.

"It happened pretty quickly, and I admit I didn't really know what to expect from the whole process," Mr. Alexander said this week after returning from the grand opening ceremony on Dec. 15. "But it was amazing. I am pretty much blown away."

Mr. Alexander's return to Cambodia was indeed a triumphant one: more than 600 children have enrolled in the Vineyard School in the Siem Reap region of Cambodia.

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The school is the result of several years of long-distance planning with Rural School Project in Cambodia. Mrs. Alexander learned about the program, which builds schools in the more impoverished parts of the country, several years ago through one of her colleagues at the Oak Bluffs School. The couple then contacted Bernard Krisher, the program director, who said they could pay for a new school for $14,000. They could even choose where the school would be built and would get to name it themselves.

An estimated 3,000 villages in Cambodia have no schools. Through the project, Mr. Krisher worked out an arrangement in which the Cambodian government and the World Bank would match every contribution of $14,000 in order to build a three-to-five-room school and pay for teaching and supplies for two years. An additional contribution of $1,850 funds installation of solar panels providing energy to operate a computer with Internet access.

"We're still working on money for the solar panels," Mr. Alexander said. "But I sent off the last check about three weeks ago, so the school is all paid for."

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The Alexanders raised the money over the course of the last year. In August, they sponsored a concert at the Atlantic Connection that brought in about $4,000 - the only public fund-raising event they organized. All the rest, he said, was given by private donors.

"There are a lot of people who gave, and they made it happen," he said. "It was really built by all them. I just asked them for the money and gave it to the right people."

To honor the people who gave the largest amounts, he created a plaque with their names and hung it on the wall inside the school.

The schoolhouse itself is a five-room structure that will house up to 600 students (two sessions of 300) - twice the number originally expected.

Mr. Alexander admitted that seeing the students and the classrooms was an experience he was not entirely prepared for.

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"They picked me up in a car and drove me out to the school, and all the kids were lining the road, clapping," he said. "At the school there was a big stage, and local politicians spoke and hundreds of parents were in the audience. And then it kind of hit me - ‘Wow, this is a bit much.'"

Speeches from the regional governor and local politicians, prayers by Buddhist monks and traditional dancing highlighted a long ceremony, Mr. Alexander said. He said he also addressed the gathering in a short speech that was translated, and told the crowd how he came up with the idea, about his wife (who could not make the trip), and about the school's namesake.

"I wanted to tell them about where I was from, about the place the school was named after," he said. "It's kind of cool to think of a Vineyard School in the jungle in Cambodia."

While in Phnom Penh, Mr. Alexander said he also had the chance to finally meet Mr. Krisher himself.

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As for Roma, she continues to go to school and has an offer to continue her education at college. Mr. Alexander also said his efforts to bring her to the United States after years of trying to secure a visa have finally been rewarded. She will visit in March for three months.

"It will be nice for her to see where we come from, what the school is named for," he said. "We're really looking forward to it."