Gentle heart behind
a beautiful scarf
By Châu Mai, Emerson College
Boston – Whenever he goes out, Jacob Daniels almost always puts on a silk scarf .
The supermodel look-alike owns tons of scarves of different color patterns. They come in blush red and black, autumn blend, earthy brown and white, turquoise and coral, orange pink and blossom, jet black, sea green and violet.
He wraps and stores his exquisite scarves in transparent plastic bags. All are neatly arranged on multi-tiered shelves in a spacious room in his Wayland house.
The 6-foot-1-inch Connecticut College graduate is the heart and soul behind Cambodian Threads, an online company trading Cambodian silk scarves. He does not sell scarves for a profit but for a better education of poverty-stricken Cambodians outside Phnom Penh.
Every sale helps purchase basic school supplies for ten children in the underdeveloped island village of Preah Bangkong in the Kandal province, where the scarves are handmade, and other rural Cambodian communities.
The idea to start a holistically fair trade business in the way that brings back education initiatives in Cambodian villages struck Daniels when he was an English language instructor at the Phnom Penh-based Pannasastra University of Cambodia in the fall of 2007. Fair trade is a system of exchange seeking to create greater equity and partnership in international trade. It creates opportunities for economically and socially marginalized producers, supports safe and empowering working conditions, ensures the rights of children and respects cultural identity.
“I saw the need for education reform and the amount of poverty around Phnom Penh. I’ve never seen poverty like that before,” said Daniels, who chose to travel to Cambodia right after his graduation in government because the Cambodian culture was rapidly changing and “that was fascinating to me.”
“The children were walking around picking up trash. They didn’t have shoes on. They barely had any clothes on. It was pretty shocking.”
“It hit me hard that these children don’t have near the amount of access to opportunities as my peers and I were fortunate enough to be offered in theU.S. I had a great desire to help foster their growth,” recalled Daniels, who grew up in a multi-generation business family in the suburbs of Boston.
Daniels’s aspiration to bring a better education – and a better life – to underprivileged Khmer children inspired his best friends in America to join his efforts to give birth to Cambodian Threads and the Cambodian Threads School Supply Initiative in late 2009.
“I was so thrilled to know that he thought ahead to what he could do to help people in Cambodia not just to start a business to make money,” said Amy Rosse, of Sudbury, his mother whose late mother used to teach Daniels about “education as the roots of change.”
“He has actually gotten in touch with the artisans and was able to put together the concept of selling scarves in the States and using the money to help people in Cambodia,” Rosse said, as recalled the period her son shuttling between Phnom Penh and Preah Bangkong, located 20 miles southeast.
It was a sunny Monday morning in June 2010, when Daniels and Cambodian Threads’s donation team crossed the mighty Mekong River on a crowded ferry to Preah Bangkong.
Once again, they bumped up and down on Honda motorbikes through dusty paths on the village, better known as the “Silk Island.” Traveling with them was 400 notebooks, 800 pens, 7 maps and 20 boxes of chalk. These basic supplies were what students in Preah Bangkong needed.
In its fifth donation since early 2010, Cambodian Threads targeted some 350 students at the Preah Takov Primary School.
“More than 1,000 students in my village and Samareav village of Takeo province have benefited from Cambodian Threads School Supply program,” Naysim Heng, a daughter of the Heng family who produces scarves and the program’s coordinator, said in a phone interview.
The donation of world globes, world maps, rulers, calculators, notebooks and pens was just the first step.
In March 2011, the Cambodian Threads Scholarship Fund was born. At the time, Daniels was teaching English in Vietnam as a Fulbright scholar.
“Cambodian Threads offered partial scholarships for 60 students in their beginner class. We are working on the next project,” Venerable Kou Sopheap, a Pannassasstra University lecturer whose English Tuition Initiative is sponsored by the Cambodian Threads Scholarship Fund, said in an email interview.
This Khmer monk, to whom Daniels used to teach English before he went to study at the Troy University of Alabama, started his project last year for students of 6-13 years old in his village to study English on weekends. Sopheap, the coordinator of the Cambodian Threads Scholarship Fund in Cambodia, said the fund has also offered full scholarships for 10 Preah Bangkong students to complete their one-year specialized English program in Phnom Penh.
Not content with just funding students to learn English, Daniels also orchestrated the Volunteer English Teaching Program right after completing his Fulbright program in Vietnam.
The goal, according to John Prokos, a Connecticut College graduate who is the English Program Volunteers manager, is not to teach students grammar or extensive vocabulary but to expose them to the rhythm and feel of natural English, to get them excited about learning a foreign language, and to familiarize them with opportunities that will come from English learning.
“I noticed a boost in the students’s motivation from working with us, many students would become more interested in school, and the possibilities of what they could do in the future and this is the true benefit of the Cambodian Threads’s projects,” said “Teacher John”, of Winchester.
Prokos said the program in its the first summer attracted almost 100 kids, double the number they expected, and more than ten volunteer teachers from America, Germany, Australia, Canada, England, Austria and South Korea.
But the Volunteer English Teaching Program in Preah Bangkong is not the ultimate goal for Daniels.
“The goal would actually create situations where students can develop not only skills but also the leadership quality, help their family and their community, and move that in the right direction,” said Daniels who can speak some Khmer, Vietnamese, Laotian, Indonesian and Italian.
Cambodian Threads’s CEO said the scholarship fund would seek two intelligent and motivated students graduating from the village high school to study at a university in Phnom Penh. One will study English and the other information technology. While they are studying, they also have an obligation to come back to the village to teach younger students the skills they are learning. By the time, Cambodian Threads hopes to provide better technology to the students, such as computers. After graduation, the scholarship students will continue to teach and help the community.
Back to America since September, Daniels has joined his best friend Steve Patton, the company’s co-founder in charge of U.S operations, on Cambodian Threads promoting trips. The childhood duo, who and other two partners have not ever gotten any compensation for their work, continues working on Cambodia Threads’s next plans, among expanding English training programs in Cambodia and getting a non-profit status in America.
In these last days of 2011, great news came to Cambodian Threads. Its fair trade practices won recognition of the Washington-based Fair Trade Federation. Not only enhancing Cambodian Threads’s credibility, the FTF membership helps expand its customer reach because the socially responsible company can join FTF members only events such as trade shows that have more buys of retail shops. “More than that, it gives our customers confidence in our company because the FTF symbol is synonymous with the idea of trade without exploitation,” Daniels said.
“Why do you wear a scarf all the time?” – a friend asked Daniels, who passed the Foreign Service Exam in November. He didn’t hastily reply but raised the jet-black scarf closer to his face and gently smelled it.
“I love to wear scarves. I think it is really comfortable. It gives me a lot of confidence to wear my products. It reminds me of being in Cambodia.”
Next year, the young philanthropist will return to Cambodia.