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March 1, 2013
Kay Wolf surrounded by grateful Cambodians

KAY WOLF is surrounded by grateful Cambodians at the joyous dedication of The FordHarrison School in a rural village.

A Florida lawyer’s summer daydream builds a Cambodian school

By Jan Pudlow
Senior Editor

Sipping wine at the beach last summer, Orlando lawyer Kay Wolf was reading an inspiring book and had an epiphany that would lead to building a school in a rural village in Cambodia that bears the name of her law firm: The FordHarrison School.

Working on writing an article on educating women in Third World countries, Wolf was rereading the best-selling book by husband-wife Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn: Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.

Wolf focused on a chapter about Bernard Krisher, who retired from Newsweek and founded World Assistance for Cambodia, and is quoted as saying it’s easier to educate girls than rescue them from brothels. Krisher created the foundation that helps donors build schools in the poorest areas of rural Cambodia for $15,000 each.

Wolf thought: “I could raise $15,000! What a great opportunity for the firm!”

“I’m sipping wine, reading this, and I could not let it go,” Wolf recalls with a laugh. “In my buzzed stupor, I sent an email to my partner and said: ‘We need to do this.’”

That day at the beach, she didn’t hear back from Lash Harrison, the founder and managing partner of FordHarrison, a labor and employment firm of 170 lawyers in offices all over the country.

Later, when Wolf, a partner at the firm, met with Harrison face-to-face and gave him her zealous charitable sales pitch, he told her: “Go for it!”

Wolf took off with a passion, on a mission to raise $15,000 within the firm. Fundraising included $10 tickets to wear jeans on Fridays, bake sales, silent auctions, cocktails for a cause, online Scrabble competitions, and a lunch-and-learn brown bag event. The Chicago office came up with a self-policed “swear jar.” A pace-setting group of 10 lawyers matched donations for every equity partner who donated an hour of billable time, and $20,000 was donated directly from the firm.

Wolf’s goal was wildly surpassed.

“It’s amazing what you can accomplish with a little bit of education about a social issue and a lot of arm-twisting,” Wolf joked.

The firm raised $86,000 ­— enough to build a school, buy six computers and solar panels to power them, a satellite connection for Internet access, a printer with ink cartridges and paper, a digital camera, shelves filled with books, a deep water well with water filter, and school supplies for 420 children.

They also were able to hire a computer teacher for five years, who will help the children learn English, at a salary of $3,200 a year, instead of the usual Cambodian teacher salary of $600 a year.

“Oh, my God! I was overwhelmed with gratitude and pride at my firm,” Wolf said. “And had Lash not been supportive, this couldn’t have happened. I was so excited about the possibility of what it would mean, the number of kids we would be able to reach. And I was particularly grateful we are able to continue funding for the school.”

The logistics of turning her inspired idea into reality had a few serendipitous moments. At the end of Kristof’s and WuDunn’s book, there is a section of how people can help.

“I contacted Bernie Krisher by email and he contacted me immediately,” Wolf recounts. “He’s in Toyoko, and his daughter, Debbie Krisher-Steele runs the foundation now. I have had 15 or 20 conversations with her.”

Half the Sky tells the story of how students at a private school near Seattle, The Overlake School, also built a school in Cambodia in 2002 through World Assistance for Cambodia, and the faculty member who led the effort was now living in San Francisco. While Wolf helped her daughter move to San Francisco in August, she connected with that former Overlake teacher. They spent an afternoon together, and he answered all of Wolf’s questions and assured her the foundation was well-run and her law firm would not regret this charitable project.

In October, Wolf had an opportunity to meet Kristof when he came to speak at Rollins College.

And on January 3, the grand opening of the FordHarrison School actually happened.

Wolf, her legal assistant Amy Cook, and Los Angeles senior associate Michelle Abidoye and her husband all traveled to Cambodia to attend the dedication and officially turn the school over to the country’s Ministry of Education.

To get to this rural village in the Prey Veng Province of southeastern Cambodia, they had to ride a ferry because there was no bridge, and they are in the middle of nowhere.

“When we drive up in a van, there are 420 children, in their little white shirts and shorts, standing in two lines leading to the entrance of the school,” Wolf describes.

As they walk the path between the rows, the children are smiling and clapping so loud it creates joyful thunder.

“It was hard to hold back tears,” Wolf says.

Special scarves were wrapped around the lawyers’ necks, and the dedication ceremony began as Buddhist monks blessed the generous visitors who brought the village its first school.

“We are on our knees and Buddhist monks are throwing rose petals and water on us, and saying words we couldn’t understand. I’m sure it was a good thing!” Wolf describes with a laugh.

“Then I got to do my little speech about why we had done the project and what a difference education makes. Because my mother was a schoolteacher, I grew up believing that education is the key to financial independence and stability — both of which are desperately needed in Cambodia.

“I told the children we were lawyers and had been through 20 years of school. And that gives us an opportunity to afford a comfortable living and, more importantly, work for justice for our clients and our communities. I said, ‘You can do this, too. Education is the way. Work hard. We are depending on you for a better future,’” Wolf said.

The next stop was to a huge market, where they bought sports equipment for the kids and gave each child school supplies and textbooks.

“You would have thought we’d given them the latest iPad. The children were so excited,” Wolf said.

“It took me a week to process it all. I had never seen such poverty and squalor. You think, if I were to quit my job and move there, I couldn’t make a dent. But if there is a way to solve those problems, first of all, it’s through education. They have to do it themselves. They have to develop a workforce of leaders and thinkers. And this is how it has to start.”

For more information, go to www.cambodiaschools.com. Under the Rural Schools Program, you will find the FordHarrison School as donor No. 544. Kay Wolf is happy to be contacted about her experience at kwolf@fordharrison.com.

[Revised: 11-22-2014]