May 4th, 2021 05/04/21 | Community Stories

Finding A Voice

After overcoming a childhood stammer, CCF student Koiy Vannak will now speak at a global UN conference - and he fundraised to pay for his place

Once Koiy Vannak would have struggled to address a handful of people in a room.

A stammer as a child left him severely lacking in confidence to use his speech to voice his views and feelings.

But now he is set to take part in debates at a global UN conference for young leaders after beating more than 26,000 applicants from around the world to be chosen for one of the limited seats at the virtual event this month (May).

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I am so happy to be chosen and so excited to learn new things

— Koiy Vannak

As the conference is in English, Vannak will be using a second language throughout.

And on top of that, Vannak, 17, set up a fundraising campaign to pay for the $47 entry fee required to secure his place.

He did all this on his own initiative without telling anyone at CCF, or his family and friends.

“I didn’t really expect to be chosen when I applied so I didn’t tell anyone about it, so they wouldn’t be disappointed if I didn’t make it,” explained Vannak.

His reticence to be more open was understandable.

The United Nations has so far received 26,685 registrations from more than 158 countries for 2,000 spaces for the Asia Youth International Model United Nations (MUN) Virtual Conference, which brings together youth leaders to debate current issues, network and learn from each other.

So it was a long shot that he would be selected at all.

“I am so happy to be chosen and so excited to learn new things,” said Vannak.

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Vannak outside the family’s rented home

Among the skills the young delegates learn is public speaking - an idea that would once have caused Vannak to avoid the event at all costs.

“I have had some struggle with my speech since I was young,” said Vannak.

“Sometimes, I felt so desperate when my speech did not do as I expected. I was always concerned about my speech and it holds me back when my speech is a burden to me.”

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Vannak front row left in the early days of CCF in 2012

Vannak received professional help as a boy to cope with the stammer, which was exacerbated at times of stress, such as speaking in public, with CCF arranging speech therapy. Without assistance, his family would not have been able to pay for treatment.

“CCF sent me to see the doctor and it helped me a lot,” said Vannak, a Grade 11 student at CCF’s Neeson Cripps Academy (NCA).

“I try to improve my pronunciation every day and I am making progress.

“Now I am confident and steady but I will always be concerned about my speech.”

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Vannak speaking at a CCF event
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Donors helped me and I am really thankful for their interest in me

— Koiy Vannak

Vannak is excited at the opportunity to virtually meet other bright young people from around the world but admits to some concerns about whether his nerves - and speech - might get the better of him.

He knows that he won’t just be representing the NCA but CCF and his country at the event from 28-31 May.

But his attendance looked in doubt before it had even started when he realized a $47 payment was needed to guarantee his place.

They [the organizers] sent me an email to pay the fee. I was really anxious because I cannot afford the fee,” said Vannak.

“I knew that I really needed help to secure the place. The fee is too high for me.”

Undeterred, he did some research and came across the fundraising platform, GoFundMe, set up a page, which can be viewed here, and has already exceeded his target.

“Donors helped me and I am really thankful for their interest in me,” he said.

Vannak said that he intends to donate any funds left over after he pays the entrance fee to his community to help buy supplies for residents currently living under COVID lockdown restrictions.

He also wants to establish a CCF MUN event afterwards to give other CCF students the chance to take part in a similar event but on a smaller scale.

CCF has given Vannak a chance to travel before. He has been to the U.S. for the Tony Robbins Global Youth Leadership Summit (GYLS) and Hong Kong, and in 2019 travelled to Hungary to take part in the International Final of the World Robot Olympiad as one of two CCF teams.

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L: TOP: Vannak showcasing the LEGO Robotics kit

Vannak lives with his mum and dad, and two brothers in Steung Meanchey, one of the most impoverished parts of Cambodia in the heart of where CCF works.

Both his brothers, aged 12 and 10, are also CCF students.

Vannak’s parents, who worked as garment factory workers when first arriving in Phnom Penh from the countryside, had little opportunities for schooling when they were young. His mother was born in Svay Rieng, one of the poorest provinces in Cambodia.

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Vannak with his parents, brothers and grandmother

On the walls of the family’s rented rooms are rows of framed CCF awards that Vannak has won during 10 years with CCF, including monthly best student awards and one for being a good community leader.

He proudly pointed out one of the first ones he ever received, a Best Student Award for 2010.

“I had only been with CCF for two months then,” he said.

“I have between 25-30 awards and I put them all up on the wall.”

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Vannak with his wall of awards

With CCF schools closed along with all schools across Cambodia due to COVID, Vannak has continued his schoolwork at home. He studies with a used borrowed laptop, a small ceiling fan whirring above his head when he’s working inside.

His father, a moto taxi driver, and his mother, a former food seller, have been unable to work during the recent lockdown in Phnom Penh. Their house is in a Red Zone, subject to the tightest restrictions, with people banned from leaving their homes.

To get by, the family has been receiving help with food and financial assistance from CCF and the government.

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Vannak will be one of our extraordinary CCF alumni

— Scott Neeson, CCF Founder and Executive Director

Scott Neeson, CCF’s Founder and Executive Director, said Vannak is destined to be one of CCF’s “extraordinary” alumni with an ability for empathy and leadership.

“He’s got such a hunger to not only improve himself but to also impart what he is experiencing to others, not only the people around him but the kids below,” said Scott.

“He’s incredibly articulate in English and in Khmer. It will be interesting to see in 10 years where he is going to be.”

Scott Neeson presenting Vannak with a CCF award

Vannak has indeed grand plans for his future.

First on his list is gaining the highest grade in the 12th Grade National Exam, which gives students access to university. Then, he wants to win an international scholarship to study abroad, both a Bachelor’s and Master’s, and already has experience in what it will take to be accepted.

He recently applied for a scholarship with United World Colleges, a global network of schools and educational programs which offer opportunities for young people to access education with assisted places at schools and colleges on four continents.

“I got to the final round [of the application] but I didn’t make it,” said Vannak.

“It was one of my first experiences applying for a scholarship like that. However, I was in the final round so I feel really proud of myself. It was one of the best experiences.”

Vannak in a classroom at the Neeson Cripps Academy
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The sponsor and donors and CCF invested in me, so I will do my best to repay that

— Koiy Vannak

His ambition is to become a civil engineer, before establishing his own engineering company in Cambodia.

“I also want to open a local nonprofit organisation like CCF to empower local kids, in the same way that CCF has helped me,” he added.

Vannak is aware he’s lucky to have had an organization like CCF supporting his family and his education, without which his life would be very different.

He’s also had supportive sponsors, who live in Australia, and offer communication and encouragement.

It’s partly why he’s so eager to do so well.

“The sponsor and donors and CCF invested in me, so I will do my best to repay that,” said Vannak.

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Vannak in 2015

It’s this attitude which makes Vannak a standout CCF student and young leader, an exemplary role model for younger CCF students to emulate.

Meanwhile, he has the small matter of a final rehearsal for his speech at a forthcoming TEDx Edu virtual talk in Phnom Penh, a local event based on the TED talks.

Vannak’s speech will be on Cognitive Dissonance to Climate Change and will be recorded, with selected students chosen to speak at a TED Conference in New York, likely to switch online.

Whatever the outcome, he’s come a long way from the awkward schoolboy with a stammer who was too shy to face speaking in public.

Written by

Kate Ginn

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