Children of all ages in rural Takeo Province, Cambodia now have alibrary and books to call their own.
Children of all ages in rural Takeo Province, Cambodia now have a library and books to call their own. (Photo courtesy of Caitlin Ishigooka)

LONG BEACH - One sign came when she couldn't enter the existing library because the floor was covered with six inches of rice that had been put there to dry during harvest season.

Another was the selection of volumes, such as the organic chemistry textbooks, in English, that a well-meaning but obviously clueless charity donated to the rural school in the poor farming community.

Still another was the abundance of books in French and English, but the paucity of books in Khmer.

So, Peace Corps volunteer Emi Caitlin Ishigooka from Long Beach jumped at the opportunity to create a new library when approached with the idea by the director of the Cambodian school where she was teaching high school English.

A 26-year-old UCLA and Poly High graduate who will attend USC graduate school in public administration in the fall, Ishigooka recently returned from a two-year stint as one of the inaugural group of Peace Corps volunteers assigned to Cambodia.

While she has come back to the U.S. with the usual bucketful of stories about life in a village with no running water, strange encounters with the local fauna and edible delicacies such as fried tarantulas, it is the library she built in her second year abroad that has the most meaning.

In the truest of the people, by the people and for the people tradition, Ishigooka says that from the outset she wanted the students to be the driving force.

"From the beginning they had a major say," Ishigooka said. "They gave me the titles and subjects that interested them. I did keep one Norton Anthology, though."

Ishigooka applied for a grant from the Peace Corps, eventually raising about $3,500, including $300 or $400 from the students and the families themselves.

Once a new non-produce storing building was found, students began cleaning and decorating the new facility, including painting a large mural of the world on the wall.

Students at the school where Peace Corps volunteer Emi Caitlin Ishigooka raised funds for a new library decorated the space with a large mural of the
Students at the school where Peace Corps volunteer Emi Caitlin Ishigooka raised funds for a new library decorated the space with a large mural of the world. (Photo courtesy of Caitlin Ishigooka)

"With the grant money, we were able to get books for all grade levels," Ishigooka said. And they were able to get them in Khmer: novels, history, poetry, even an edition in translation of Harry Potter.

The library was also outfitted with a listening center to help students with languages and other learning areas.

For Ishigooka, as important as getting the actual volumes, was giving the students a sense of ownership and responsibility for the library.

This included students volunteering to staff the library, setting schedules and actually be there during operating hours, along with maintaining the facility.

"This was built by an incredible group," Ishigooka says.

The best part, was "to see students make it their own. Now the student librarians are leaders and role models. And in the process we were promoting volunteerism, which for a Peace Corps volunteer is pretty phenomenal."

As she sits at a Starbucks near the Traffic Circle and begins to renew her relationship with coffee, finds a job, visits with friends, checks text messages, prepares for graduate school and negotiates with her mom for use of the car, the 26-year-old is very much back into the hectic flow of life of an young American woman on the upward career and educational track.

But a part of Ishigooka will always be in Cambodia, beyond the retainer a rat absconded with.

When Ishigooka looks back, she hopes she left something lasting and tangible.

"The kids are are so proud and took such good care of (the library) that I'm confident years from now it will still be there and be a big part of the school and community," Ishigooka says.

greg.mellen@presstelegram.com, 562-499-1291