DAVENPORT -- Somnieng Hoeurn is the very model of a modern Buddhist monk.
He's gentle, modest and wears a long orange robe, but he also carries a laptop and cell phone and communicates with his Cambodian nonprofit organization each night by Skype video-phone.
Mr. Somnieng, 28, is an organizational management major at St. Ambrose University and executive director of the Life and Hope Association (LHA) in his native country. LHA is dedicated to helping children and young people by alleviating poverty and ignorance.
“I just want to do as much as I can for people,” Mr. Somnieng said Tuesday. “No matter where I am, I have to be a resource.
"I have to do something. That is my nature,” he said. "I like to educate people, to help people."
At 15, he became a famous novice monk because he was the youngest monk at his temple. In 1999, he was appointed by his provincial government to be an HIV/AIDS coordinator, funded by UNICEF and his temple. He presented prevention and education programs, and fought for more health care and less discrimination.
In 2003, Mr. Somnieng met actor Jackie Chan, then a UNICEF ambassador, and the Cambodian prime minister who praised the monk's work. About the same time, he started his own center for HIV programs in southwest Cambodia.
To spend more time with the thousands of members at his temple, he handed off directorship of the group in 2005 and founded LHA at his temple.
Mr. Somnieng's home province is one of Cambodia's poorest. After Pol Pot's genocidal regime and civil war, the region was “left in ruins,” according to LHA. Orphans wandered alone, homes and villages were razed, and “corpses fouled the rice fields and roadways,” according to LHA's Web site, www.watdamnak.org/lha.
Its first program was “Food for Education" funded by the Rice for Cambodia Foundation in Australia, Mr. Somnieng said. The effort supplies food to children in exchange for them staying in school.
Today, LHA has a staff of 25 and five programs, including vocational training, a junior high school, academic and housing scholarships for girls. It also has an orphanage providing children with a safe home, food, health care and education.
“Those are very, very good projects,” Mr. Somnieng said.
“The sewing training school is very successful. All of our girls have a job," he said. "It's providing life skill training, being a good mother, a good member of society.”
All suffering comes from ignorance, he said. By improving children's education, their living conditions also improve.
He came to St. Ambrose at the suggestion of Jon Ryder, a LeClaire dentist who visited Cambodia in 2005.
“He wanted to invest to help Cambodia,” Mr. Somnieng said. “He was looking for a way to help me for my education.”
Dr. Ryder paid for Mr. Somnieng's stay here from late 2005 through June 2006. Mr. Somnieng returned to St. Ambrose in December 2007 to continue his education, which will be put to use for LHA. On full scholarship, he expects to earn his degree in 2010.
He starts his LHA work at 8 p.m., when it's 8 a.m. in Cambodia. He also is part of a planned healing and meditation center in Rock Island and has held prayer services at the Potter House cottage for local Buddhist families.
“I have learned a lot from this country -- the way people live, the way people manage things, the way people run business and the culture of the people,” Mr. Somnieng said.
“I will do my best to share with the people of the United States,” he said. “I just come here on behalf of human beings.
"The meditation center, I am not intending to serve only Buddhist groups," he said. "Yes, I will try my best to help them to recover their culture. At the same time, we have to share something not just with the Buddhists. We would like to see everything for anyone who needs.”
According to Mr. Somnieng, anyone can utilize the Buddhist philosophy of using the mind to aid physical health, with prayer and meditation.
“This is a chance and opportunity to change our negative emotion to positive,” he said. “We all need to learn something that would be useful for our way of life.”
“We are very lucky to be born as human beings,” he added. “We are not using this special gift from God in the right way. In this country, those gifts should be used to help the less fortunate. When we help others, that's what God wants you to do.”
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