Tuesday, July 8, 2008

More on Harpswell

I've highlighted the good works of Alan Lightman and his Harpswell Foundation in the past. It's such a good cause, especially for raising the profile of young women in Cambodia, that I have no hesitation in plugging it again.

Alan Lightman of Harpswell - gives to others
: by Caitlin M Elsaesser (TimesRecord.com, Maine, USA)

Alan Lightman has a long list of accolades attached to his name. He was the first professor at MIT to teach in both the humanities and science departments. He is the author of an international best-selling book, "Einstein's Dreams." But what has satisfied him the most is his charitable work in Cambodia. Having grown up in an upper-middle class community in Memphis, Tenn., Lightman said his time has come to give back. "I feel it is my responsibility to help people who have not had these privileges," he said, with a light drawl that reveals Southern roots. To that end, Lightman and his family established the nonprofit Harpswell Foundation in 1999, named after the location of their island retreat. Since then, the foundation has built a school in a remote Cambodian village and a women's dormitory and leadership center in Phnom Penh. The foundation manages the progress of the 30 girls in the dormitory.

Now Lightman is embarking on his most ambitious project yet: he wants to build another women's dorm and create an endowment to maintain the dormitories indefinitely. He estimates the cost for that to be $1.8 million. He admits it will be no easy feat. "I've struck out a few times," he said, referring to fundraisers on which he lost money. But this writer who loves solitude is not giving up. "I believe in the mission and the cause," he said. For nearly 20 years, Lightman and his family has summered on a small island off the rocky coast of Harpswell. Twenty minutes driving on narrow roads leading to the sea and 10 minutes riding on "Lightwave," the family's small boat, bring the Lightmans to their island retreat. "Many days I am the only person on the island," Lightman said. "That is a great feeling." The house has no Internet or phone connection, a reflection of Lightman's values. Lightman did not use e-mail until recently. Though he is sometimes critiqued by colleagues at MIT who must hand-deliver memos, Lightman relishes peace. But Cambodia pushed Lightman into electronic communication. Now, not only is Lightman on e-mail nearly every day for his work in Cambodia, but he often makes trips into nearby Brunswick from his island retreat specifically to write e-mails to the dormitory girls.

Falling for Cambodia
Lightman visited Cambodia with his daughter, Elyse, three years ago at the prompting of a friend. When he and his daughter visited a remote village of 600 people, women with babies on hips begged the Lightmans to build them a school. Lightman was amazed by their positive attitudes, especially in light of their past. The village consists of a small sect of Muslims, the whole of which constitutes less than 5 percent of the Cambodian population. These Muslims were targeted in mass killings in the 1970s by the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia's ruling party from 1975-79. Led by Pol Pot, historians say the regime was responsbile for slaying up to 2 million of the country's people. "In spite of their miserable history, they still had hope in education," Lightman said. "There was no way we could not help them." In the following two years, Lightman raised $30,000 presenting slide shows and writing e-mails to friends. He built the village's first school. Lightman, who is Jewish, also funded the construction of a mosque for the village using his own money.

Help from a native
Lightman's school contractor was Chea Veasna, the fourth woman in Cambodia to receive a law degree. Because she was not allowed to stay in the mosques, as boys were, she lived for four years in a small muddy space with no bathroom underneath the law school. Veasna and Lightman hatched the idea together of building a women's dormitory to help women who experienced similar obstacles. After building a dorm in Phnom Penh, he did a country-wide search for the top high school girls, combing application essays for leadership potential. "Most said they would help family and maybe their village," said Lightman. "While we admired that, we put those in the trash."

Thirty girls who wrote they wanted to help their country were asked to join the first class at the Harpswell Foundation dormitory and leadership center in Fall 2006. Lightman worked with dorm manager Peou Vanna to leave no detail unturned: they obtained a 50-percent university discount for the girls, launched enrichment classes, and armed students with information on how to be ladies in a city, which was necessary for girls moving from small villages to the biggest city in the country. Two years into the project, the results are showing, said Lightman. All the girls are first or second in their class, and university presidents have called Lightman to ask him for the secret to the girls' success.

Katheryn Lucatelli has worked extensively in Cambodia and visits the dormitory frequently. The executive director of Build Cambodia, a nonprofit organization which works to create awareness among Americans about the country, Lucatelli thinks the dormitory is doing important work. "These women are up against a lot," Lucatelli said. "(They need) to develop a new kind of leadership, and this is an incubator where the women have become family to one another." These days, when Lightman is at his island retreat in Harpswell, he is often thinking of the girls in Cambodia. When showing an informational video about the dorm to a reporter recently, he smiled at their English. "It is getting better every day," he said. He makes two visits to Cambodia a year. The girls call him dad, and Lightman wants to do more for them.

The challenge ahead
Lightman aims to build another dorm on the north side of Phnom Penh and endow both buildings, which cost $40,000 a year to maintain. This time, friends and family won't be enough to raise the $1.8 million needed for the project. So in the next few months, Lightman will meet with investors in New York City and his old friend, actor Kathy Bates in Los Angeles, to begin the long process of gathering funds. Here in Maine, the Frontier Cafe in Brunswick will host a multiple-day event for the Harpswell Foundation in the last week of August, with specifics yet to be determined. To some, international development work seems far away from Lightman's writings on imagination and time. Einstein's Dreams is a series of musings which look at time in unconventional ways. In one chapter, time is circular; in another, time flows backwards. Lightman said that some of the same themes in his writing drive his philanthropy. "Both are related to thinking in unconventional ways. People have more power than they think," he said. "It's about expanding the imagination." Read more here.


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