It all started one day on the outskirts of Phnom Penh at the foot of a massive
The scorching Cambodian sun backlit the plastic garbage bags that were being
carried by small children as they scavenged through garbage for something to eat or
As we stood and watched the smell was overwhelming and bits of garbage blew
through the air getting stuck in our hair and eyelashes burning our eyes. This was
these children’s every day reality.
Then we learned that these kids could go to school if only for school supplies.
A few years earlier Pymean Noun built a school at the Dump called the POI school
and gave the families rice in exchange for letting their children attend school
instead of working the dump to feed their families. The money earmarked for school
supplies was used up with the rice program and they had no supplies.
Wanting to make a difference in these children’s lives we went shopping! We
bought cases of school supplies and donated them to each and every student at the
PIO School plus more for those waitlisted so more children could attend.
It was a wonderful and joyous day but I was haunted by it.
When was the next group of American women going to be driving past a garbage
dump outside of Phnom Penh and decide go shopping for school supplies? It was
such a random act. I wanted to find a way to keep those supplies coming on a
regular basis. On the plane ride home I wrote the business plan for The Pencil
Promise. Our Promise: For every backpack you purchase we deliver another, filled
with school supplies, to a child in need.
Since that first trip in November 2009, I have had the privilege of traveling the
world working with many marginalized communities delivering school supplies and
opening access to education. We work with Tibetan refugees escaping tyranny and
living in exile in pursuit of the right to an education. We work with Laotian orphans,
slum children of Indian, the Maasai and Samburu tribes of Kenya, and of course the
Cambodian children of the PIO school where this journey began. Education is the
only way to break the cycle of poverty and it is working.
When we educate one child there is a ripple effect. They not only learn to read and
write but they then teach their families. They learn the importance of drinking
clean water and that vaccines are not the government trying to hurt you. They learn
AIDS awareness and the importance of prenatal care. This knowledge elevates the
standard of living for every member of the community.
Since those first few trips when we brought backpacks from the US to deliver, The
Pencil Promise has started our Women’s Empowerment program. We work with
some of the worlds most marginalized women doing jobs skills training and then we
offer them employment sewing our backpacks. This has been a source of so much
pride to me personally, and it gives these women a jobs skill and an opportunity for
financial independence, as well as creates beautifully made backpacks for children
That day squinting into the sun at that garbage dump outside Phnom Penh I never
could have imagined that this foul smelling rat infested setting would transform the
trajectory of my life, bringing immeasurable joy and purpose, and along the way
transforming the trajectory of the lives of so many women and children in need.
Susan Barron Trenk founded The Pencil Promise 2009. You can contribute to her amazing cause by purchasing a backpack that will help children in need get an education that could turn their lives around, or helping your child engage in a rewarding cultural exchange by becoming a PencilPal.