Several things about Heather Starbuck’s trip to Cambodia last year made an impression on her. The heat. The cockroaches that crunched under her feet when she walked down the hallway of her hotel. The way the kids at the school she visited immediately caught on to “The Macarena.”
The kids surprised the University of Colorado freshman in other ways, too.
As she was saying goodbye on her last day, a particularly outgoing 13-year-old boy named Lyhou approached her. He was one of the poorest in the school, she said; he wore the same shirt, green-and-white striped with a sassy saying — “I Do What I Want” — printed in English across the front, almost every day.
That day, he took off his sunglasses and gave them to her as a keepsake.
“They were probably his only personal possession,” she said. “He had nothing but he was so generous.”
Starbuck has started a campaign in Lyhou’s name to raise money to build another school in Cambodia.
The 18-year-old launched Operation Lyhou (pronounced Lee-how) this past summer with the goal of raising $13,000. To reach her goal, Starbuck is selling trendy T-shirts emblazoned with a sketched peace sign for $19.99 each.
So far, she said, she’s raised $526.
Starbuck is working with an organization called American Assistance for Cambodia, which has helped build more than 400 elementary and middle schools in rural Cambodia since 1999. Through the organization, World Bank will match Starbuck’s $13,000. The money will pay for the construction of a modest school and other amenities, including teachers, computers and solar panels, she said.
“The kids there love school,” she said, adding that they often came early or stayed late and showed up on weekends to use the computers.
“It’s amazing to see how much they took advantage of it,” she said — especially coming from the United States, “where school is seen as such a drag.”
Starbuck traveled to Cambodia as a high school junior. Her school, the private Overlake School in Redmond, Wash., had raised the money to build a primary school in the town of Pailin, Cambodia, several years earlier, a project profiled in a New York Times column about the problem of sex trafficking in Cambodia and the positive effects of education.
Every two years, students from Overlake return to Pailin to make improvements and volunteer there, teaching English, dental hygiene and other subjects for two-and-a-half weeks.
Starbuck ended up on the trip by chance. She was new to Overlake and halfway through her junior year, hadn’t chosen an activity for the school’s “project week.” Someone dropped out of the coveted Cambodia trip at the last minute and she snagged a spot, not knowing what to expect. At the time, she said, she was bitter, “an angry high school kid who thought school was boring.”
Visiting Pailin changed that.
“I was feeling really down,” she said, “but it made me realize there are so many better things you could be doing than feeling bad for yourself. Somewhere in the world, someone has it worse.”
The trip inspired Starbuck to intern with two nonprofit groups — a microfinancing organization called Global Partnerships and the aid agency Mercy Corps — and eventually apply to CU, where she’s studying international affairs.
She said she chose CU partly because the school is ranked the No. 5 all-time producer of Peace Corps volunteers, a path she’s considering pursuing after graduation.
Starbuck keeps in touch with Lyhou, who’s now 14 and in high school. At first, she said, the e-mails they sent were simple: “How’s the weather? Did you go to school today?”
But in the year and a half since she last saw him, Lyhou’s English has improved. In one of his last messages, he asked what she sees as a very important question: “How’s college?”
Lyhou told her he wants come to the United States to study.
“He seems to have really big goals,” Starbuck said.
So does she.