Today on International Literacy Day, we want to spotlight a millennial who is hard at work bringing the positive effects and power of reading to thousands in the developing world.
Leslie Engle Young is the Director of Impact for Pencils of Promise, a for-purpose organization that builds schools, trains teachers, and funds scholarships. Fresh out of college, the Oregon native, now 30, bought a one-way ticket to Laos, a decision that fatefully led her to PoP. That turned into almost four years as the Country Director in Laos, where she got her hands dirty — literally — working with a passionate group of locals, fiercely dedicated to creating real change in their country through education.
Here is the story of how a little girl in Laos changed her life and continues to keep her striving towards education for all:
I met Khantang 5 years ago, right after I moved to Laos. At the time she was 10 and finishing primary school in Pha Theung, the village where Pencils of Promise built its first school. When I first met her, she was incredibly shy, slinking away if I even attempted to make eye contact. I had the opportunity to watch her in the classroom, where she sat in the back and rarely engaged with the other students or teacher. She appeared destined to be a follower, which as a 10 year old on the brink of womanhood in the developing world is not an ideal position to be in.
But over the course of the year, something started to change. Khantang was seen, and she knew she was being seen, in the classroom. At the site of our first school, I spent a lot of time in Khantang’s village with Lanoy, now our Country Director of thirty-six full-time staff members in Laos. At the time, however, the PoP Lao team consisted of a whopping two people: Lanoy and me. That year, Lanoy and Khantang formed a relationship, with Lanoy serving as a mentor for Khantang, and by the end of that school year, that shy 10-year-old girl was a completely different young woman. She exuded confidence and self-awareness. She tied her Lao skirt up around her waist to reveal denim shorts, easier to play rattan ball. Called "speaktakraw" in Thai, the game is essentially like playing volleyball with your feet using a small woven ball. It takes incredible agility and grace and Khantang was fierce on the court.
The early days in Laos were about leaning and recreating. Lanoy and I were volunteers working out of the guesthouse she worked at or a local coffee shop. We tagged along with any NGO or education officials or student that would have us, eager to learn anything and everything about Lao education and community engagement. Within six months, Lanoy was ready to leave her other job and we were embarking on the first solo Pencils of Promise build. From there the momentum never stopped. We had three employees, then six employees, then a small office, and so on.
The first time Lanoy and I went to a meeting with the Lao government she didn’t say a single word. Fast-forward five years: Lanoy now owns every room she walks into. For example, I just returned from a trip to Laos, where I got to see Lanoy in action with her team, with a community and with the government. I saw her give a speech to an entire community at a school inauguration, during which she called upon the adults to care for their school, prioritize education and continue working to invest in their children. I saw her welcome a group of Provincial government officials to a programs negotiation meeting, during which PoP moved one step closer to procuring approvals to implement a teacher support program that will support student literacy. The day I left Laos to work full time from our office in New York, Lanoy was in charge of 30 full-time staff that had built over thirty rural schools.
After 5th grade, Khantang got a neighbor to lend her an old bicycle, and she rode it daily to school with a group of friends. The last time I saw Khantang, when she was 12, she told me she loved everything about being in school.
Like Lanoy and Khantang, Pencils of Promise is not the same entity that it once was. Five years ago, PoP was a school building organization focused mainly on providing physical infrastructure. Now, however, we are a learning organization dedicated to quality educational outcomes, with the aspirational goal of creating a 90% literacy rate for all of our students. We are active in three countries across three continents, working every day to provide over 30,000 students with a quality education.
I still keep up with Khantang and all that she is doing, She’s now 15 years old and more than halfway through secondary school. And we know, unquestionably, that with each additional year she is in school, her likelihood for future success becomes greater and greater. Khantang and Lanoy are my own regular reminders of the fact that – perhaps more than anything else – education empowers women to believe in their own promise, and gives them an opportunity to find out what that promise is.
Photo Credit: Pencils of Promise/ Facebook