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Williamsburg woman starts foundation to support Cambodian school

  • Students attend class at the Sangke School in Chrung Popel, Cambodia. Submitted photo

  •  Alexandra “Zanny” Merullo, right, started the A&Z Foundation with a fellow expatriate from Germany. Submitted photo

  • The Sangke School teaches math and Khmer, the Cambodian language. —Submitted photo

  • The Sangke School has two pit toilets and no electricity, leaving the students and teachers to endure the extreme heat without any fans. Submitted photo



For the Gazette
Sunday, July 08, 2018

On her first drive in Cambodia, Alexandra “Zanny” Merullo fell in love.

Merullo, 20, of Williamsburg, traveled to Cambodia in January to do volunteer work and explore the region. After touching down at Siem Reap International Airport, she got to her hostel in a tuk tuk, a popular mode of transportation in Asia comprised of a cart attached to a motorbike.

Along the way, she saw goats and cows wandering through the streets, a monk walking barefoot, and a family of four piled onto a motorbike. She passed by markets with unfamiliar tropical fruits and smelled the odor of fish sitting out in the 90 degree weather.

“That drive was definitely an experience of culture shock, but it’s where I first started falling in love with the area,” Merullo said in a recent interview from Cambodia.

Merullo was only planning to stay a month, but after just a few weeks, she extended it until April. Once she came back to Williamsburg, Merullo said that she was “pretty miserable” being away from Cambodia.

“What I missed the most was the spirit of the people. Americans have so much, yet so many Americans are depressed,” Merullo said. “Cambodia is a Third World country, but the people here are the happiest I’ve met.”

By the end of May, Merullo permanently moved to Siem Reap and co-founded a charity called A&Z Foundation that supports the Sangke School in Chrung Popel, a small, impoverished farming village six miles from the Vietnam border.

Merullo started A&Z Foundation with an expatriate named Alex Kütt from Germany, one of the first people she met once she arrived. Kütt’s wife attended Sangke School, which brought Kütt and Merullo’s attention to the poor conditions of the facility.

About 500 students ages 5 to 17 travel from 20 neighboring villages to attend the school, located on a bare plot of land. The building has two pit toilets and no electricity, leaving the students and teachers to endure the extreme heat without any fans.

The students are only taught two subjects, math and Khmer, the Cambodian language. Very few students go on to high school since knowledge of English is necessary. Because of this, Merullo said that the charity’s first work of business will be to donate textbooks in science, history and English so that more students have a chance to pursue a high school or even a university education. They also plan on purchasing materials for the students to help them take exams in an easier way at the end of August.

Merullo said that A&Z Foundation has partnered with Angkor Tiger Football Club, a professional soccer team in the area that will donate 50 soccer balls to the school. Eventually, Merullo said they hope to hold a charity soccer game with the team. The foundation has set up a Facebook and GoFundMe page to raise awareness of its work.

When she’s not fundraising for A&Z Foundation, Merullo teaches English to elementary students in Siem Reap, spends time with other expatriates, bartends at a hostel, and is working on a book about her experience in Cambodia.

She said that being away from home is difficult, but that she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but Siem Reap right now. “My family is supportive because they know I’m really happy here,” Merullo said. “But at the same time, every time I call them they tear up a little bit. That might be the toughest part.”

As far as how long she plans to stay there, Merullo said, “As long as I can maintain a happy lifestyle. I think it will be a few years.”