Leap of faith

For Kiwanians Danny and Pam Spitler, it was a gut-reaction donation to bring clean water to children in Cambodia that led to the creation of a new school.

By Richard D. Walton
Photos by Erica Simone


In a tiny Cambodian village of dirt roads and ramshackle dwellings sits a brick-and-mortar school founded by an Arizona couple and run by a survivor of the Khmer Rouge.

It is there because Kiwanians Danny and Pam Spitler—visiting Cambodia to take in historic sights—took a leap of faith.


Touring the countryside in 2005, they were informed by their guide that unclean water was making children sick. For US$300, Chea Sarin said he could have a well drilled for the small village.

The Spitlers wanted to help, but had reservations. Would the guide make good on his promise? They gave him the money. “We either did a good thing,” Danny told his wife on the plane heading home, “or we gave this guy a really big tip.”

Danny and Pam Spitler. The Spitlers fell in love with Cambodia during a trip in 2005. They donated money for a well, which led to larger projects.

Three weeks later, the Spitlers opened an email from Sarin and found photos of the finished well. Beside it was a sign that read, “Donated by Daniel & Pam. Arizona USA.” So began a partnership that improved the lives of young and old and produced the only school in impoverished Ang Chagn Chass.

The Spitler School opened that July in a two-room thatch hut for firsth and second-graders. Today, five brick buildings and nine classrooms serve more than 500 students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

For the Spitlers, it has been a humbling experience.

“We thought we were just doing a little thing,” Pam says. “And here it turned into this big thing.”

To Windy Mortensen, past president of the Kiwanis Club of Phoenix, the school is the natural outgrowth of the Spitler’s giving spirit. Both active club members, “you’d never know day-to-day all the things they’re involved in,” she says.


Still, the Spitlers could not have imagined when they donated US$900 to build the original school, the scope of the need that would confront them.

Ang Chagn Chass has no electricity and no water or sewage system. The people live in wood homes with straw roofs built on stilts to protect from frequent flooding. Because there’s no industry, some villagers labor in meager rice fields nearby. Others travel to the city of Siem Reap to work construction jobs for US$2 per day. Health conditions are deplorable. Malaria and dengue fever pose constant threats.

Hope restored

Sarin was born in Ang Chagn Chass in 1974, a year before the Khmer Rouge took power. When he was two, his father was killed by the regime. Sarin has made it his life’s work to rebuild a Cambodian educational system decimated by a purge of the country’s educated citizens that left behind widespread poverty and illiteracy.

In an e-mail, Sarin wrote that the Spitler School has inspired the people to believe again.

“It has transformed the hopes and dreams of the entire village,” he says. Danny Spitler, who owns Oak Craft Inc., a cabinet manufacturing business in Peoria, Arizona, expected 50 to 60 kids to sign up for the school’s first registration. More than 90 showed. Two weeks later, there were 120. The school couldn’t hold that many students, so the thatch hut was replaced with brick buildings. A library was constructed. A new grade was added each year.

For a boy named Phalla, school has made all the difference. If not for education, the sixth-grader might well have become just another casualty of village life.

Ashley McDonald, a volunteer who taught Phalla, recalls his ever-present smile and eagerness to learn. From his front row desk, Phalla was quick to ask and answer questions. He studied hard for his weekly English test, competing against his best friend for the best score. McDonald worked with Phalla to hone his English. She encouraged his love of drawing and accompanied him on outings. “I used to take him and his friends for ice cream, and he’d ask for a balloon to take home to his little sister,” she says.

Where the volunteer left off, a benefactor took over. A Spitler School donor pledged to pay Phalla’s school costs through to a university degree.

Acts of generosity have been many since the school’s founding. What started with donations from the Spitler family evolved into a donor base of more than 100 people.

In 2006, the Spitler School Foundation was created. In addition to supporting the school, it has supplied rice to villagers during shortages, distributed mosquito nets to prevent disease outbreaks and rebuilt a main road that was all but impassable during the rainy season. More recently, the foundation accepted a government request to take over administration of a faltering school three miles outside Ang Chagn Chass.


The look of confidence

Meanwhile, the Spitler School has become a destination point for travelers. Visitors come away amazed by the students’ behavior, the Spitlers report. Neatly clad in their blue-and-white uniforms, they are respectful, focused. The teacher talks; they listen.

But it is seriousness of purpose and not fear of discipline that motivates the children. Gone are the wary looks seen in the earliest school photos. These have been replaced by relaxed, confident expressions. Says Danny Spitler: “They just seem to have more of a spirit of optimism about them.”

Danny and Pam have been back to Ang Chagn Chass twice since the school’s founding. They were hailed as heroes. Villagers lined the streets to applaud the couple as they passed.


The reception was gratifying, and humbling, Danny Spitler says. Adds Pam: “The parents and the children they just honor us like we’re so special, and we don’t feel that way about ourselves. We feel so lucky that we found this village that we could do something for.”

It’s precisely this attitude that makes the Spitlers special, says Mortensen, who is now serving as Division 12 lieutenant governor of Kiwanis’ Southwest District. In contrast to people who always find excuses, Mortensen says, Danny and Pam find possibilities.

For years, Pam worked as a hospital volunteer. Now she devotes time to a Phoenix school’s reading program. Dan’s charitable work include “Kid’s Day at the Fair,” an annual event sponsored by the Phoenix Kiwanis Club. The fair opens early to allow children with severe disabilities to experience the animals and rides.

For Pam and Danny, the chance to help the children of Ang Chagn Chass is their “Kiwanis moment”— the point when members can see clearly the positive difference they’re making in others’ lives.

The Spitlers didn’t have a grand plan. They just seized opportunities. “Anyone can make a difference,” Pam Spitler says.

This story originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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