Beyond two piglets

Webster Elementary School teacher Erica Ross with a Cambodian couple who received a pair of piglets bought with money raised by Webster students through a read-a-thon. The couple's nieces and nephews received backpacks with school uniforms and supplies.

Webster Elementary School students exceed their fundraising goal to purchase two piglets for needy villagers in Cambodia, raising enough to buy two pairs, school supplies and more.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

This past winter break, Erica Ross, a Webster Elementary School teacher, traveled to Cambodia to deliver the fruits of a fundraising effort by her first grade students to two families living in one of the poorest nations on earth.

“I had read about a hotel near Angkor Wat [a 13th century temple recognized as among the world’s greatest archeological treasures] and decided I must visit,” Ross said in explaining the genesis of her class project. “This hotel there, called Shinta Mani, organizes community projects to help the people of their village and I wanted to participate.”

Ross found that Shinta Mani, which means “the gem that provides everything one desires” in Sanskrit, conducts a program, the Institute of Hospitality, that trains local at-risk youth in the service industry. As part of its operating philosophy, the boutique hotel also gives incoming guests the opportunity to help provide education and income-generating tools to local villagers.

Intrigued, Ross learned that donations of $80 would buy a pair of piglets and $18 would furnish school supplies and uniforms. She determined she would provide her Webster students with a lesson in the international reach of community-based philanthropy.

“I team-teach with another first grade teacher, Wendy Berman. We decided to do a read-a-thon with our kids and give them the chance to choose how to use the funds they raised,” Ross said. “The students got very excited and were very involved in deciding what donations they would provide.”

The read-a-thon last November was more successful than they anticipated. Starting with a goal of raising $80 to purchase a pair of piglets, the two classes read their way to $320-enough to purchase two pairs of piglets, two bicycles for young hotel employees living in rural areas who lack transportation to work, several sets of backpacks loaded with school supplies and a month’s tuition for one student at the institute.

Solomon DeLeon is the coordinator for the community support projects at Shinta Mani. He said that, since 2005, the hotel has provided direct assistance to local families with more than 1,000 home water wells and pumps, as well as coordinating donations such as piglets and bicycles.

“The idea that children in the U.S. would take an interest in the well-being of children in low income countries like Cambodia is truly wonderful,” DeLeon wrote in a message to The Malibu Times. “I hope that others will follow Ms. Ross’ class example.”

Berman prepared her students with a class reading of “Beatrice’s Goat,” the tale of a young girl in Africa whose family is given a goat-and the means for selling milk and cheese. Inspired, the children assiduously applied themselves to raising nickels and quarters. The family of first grader Adele Carcano donated the full funds for a bicycle.

Six-year-old Whitney Clarfield, in Ross’ class, said she read 30 books to meet her contribution effort. After raising four times their goal in funds, the children celebrated with a “Piggy Cupcake” day.

“I liked the idea that the students had to work for their sponsorship,” Ross said. “It was a fun challenge and they got to see the immediate results of their efforts.”

These results came from Ross’ photos of the families in Siem Reap, near Angkor Wat. The receiving families had built special pens for the new piglets and received instruction on their husbandry. One pair of piglets can provide eight to 10 more piglets a year, which are sold back to the hotel, generating income for the families and providing local food for the hotel.

“Cambodia was a real eye-opener,” Ross said, who admitted that the shadow of dictator Pol Pot and the infamous Killing Fields was everywhere. “There are a lot of landmine victims. Prosthetic limbs are prevalent. But the people seem that they are doing their best to recover.”

When Ross arrived at Shinta Mani, the program director had arranged for her to deliver the piglets and bicycles personally to the local families. A $320 donation represented a significant contribution to the local economy, but the villagers were equally delighted with the Webster Elementary T-shirts and caps they received.

Webster Elementary Principal Phil Cott said that the first-graders’ effort was in line with several projects that have earned the school an about-to-be-announced special recognition-designation as a Service-Learning Leader School from the California Department of Education.

“It’s like a California Distinguished School Award,” Cott said. “Our students have raised funds for UNICEF and School on Wheels [a local program that provides tutorial assistance to homeless children]. We also adopted 19 kids from the Running Springs area who were burnt out of their homes, held a book drive for BookEnds and helped to develop Brandon’s Village [a Calabasas playground for special-needs children]. Our students are learning early about community service.”

Berman said more teachers and parents have approached her and Ross about the Shinta Mani program since Ross’ return.

“Our first graders are ready to do more,” Berman said.

Berman’s student, Ashlyn Kunerth, also read 30 books to reach her contribution goal. When asked what she thought of Ross’ photos of the Cambodian villagers and their gratitude for her efforts, the six-year-old said, “The photos were amazing. It made me feel closer to God.”

More information about the Shinta Mani program can be found online at