Jason R. Baron ’77 has spent virtually all of his time during the past three decades working as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., at the Justice Department, as Director of Litigation at the National Archives, and in private practice. But something changed a few years ago, and now in addition to continuing to do legal work, he is spending more of his time trying to improve the lives of children, especially girls, in a remote region of Cambodia. We sat down with him to learn about the work he is doing through his charity, The Chelly Foundation.
Q: What inspired you to create The Chelly Foundation?
A: My late Mom (Selma Baron, but known to family and friends as “Chelly”), passed away in December 2012, after battling multiple sclerosis for over 40 years. At the time of her death, she was in the excellent care of the staff of a local senior home in Potomac, Maryland, close to where I live. One of her primary caretakers was a woman named Nan Nop, and I learned from Nan remarkable stories of her youth during the horrific time of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
After my Mom passed, I made a pledge to Nan that I would like to honor my Mom’s memory by doing something to improve the lives of children and residents in Nan’s home village in the Kampot Province of Cambodia. It took a couple of years for me to get started, but The Chelly Foundation was born out of that initial promise — and has gone on to become a large part of my life.
Q: What did you do first?
A: We started with Nan Nop returning to Cambodia to distribute books and other types of school supplies to 600 primary school children in her home village of Snay Anh Chet. The village is situated about 3 hours southwest of Phnom Penh. During that trip Nan laid the groundwork with local school officials for us to build a stand-alone library on the grounds of the local high school, complete with books and computers. From the beginning, Nan’s younger brother Ess, who lives in Phnom Penh, has taken the lead on all activities we have carried out, including the construction of the library and a lot more — and we owe him a large debt of gratitude for making the work of the Foundation his #1 priority.
In January 2016, I travelled to Cambodia to dedicate The Chelly Library – the first of its kind public school library in Kampot Province. Nan and Ess acted as my guides while I was in the country, and they warned me that during the 3 hour drive and in the village itself there were no bathrooms! On arrival at the school grounds on a Wednesday morning, I had what I can only describe as a life changing experience. Hundreds and hundreds of school children, dressed in their black and white uniforms, lined the roadway and gathered around us to participate in the dedication ceremony. It was an overwhelming experience, and left me with a mission to do as much as I could to continue to improve the lives of children in a country that is still struggling to overcome widespread illiteracy, high unemployment, and even the basic necessities of living (such as lack of clean water or sanitation facilities).
Q: What other activities has The Chelly Foundation engaged in since then?
A: The last year has been kind of a whirlwind. After I left the village, 700 children signed up for our free English lessons. We hired an excellent teacher and while we couldn’t accommodate everyone, we have been teaching English lessons to 400 children. We have provided seven four-year scholarships (6 to girls, 1 to a boy), for some of the poorest but qualified students in the village to attend the Royal University of Phnom Penh and other post-secondary institutions, We have given stipends out for job training. We built the first playground at a primary school anywhere in the district, and it has become a go-to attraction for young and old alike! We have built bathrooms at local schools, and are in the process of installing three clean water tanks this year. We have given away bicycles to students who couldn’t afford them and would otherwise have to walk up to 10 kilometers to get to school. We have given away uniforms, school supplies, and computers to another school. There is no end to the things that children in this remote area need to help them live healthy lives and have a reasonable chance of completing their secondary school education.
Q: What plans do you have for the future?
A: We will be starting a major project this coming summer: building out a mango farm on two hectares of land that Nan has acquired. We hope that in a couple of years we will be able to count on sustainable income from two or more harvests of mango fruit each year. Beyond that, Nan and I have been talking about a long-term project: the building of a “Chelly School” – a free magnet school where students will be invited to learn from the best teachers we can find. And we will, of course, continue with all of the other activities mentioned above, and hopefully, depending on donations, we can expand our work to other villages in the Chumkuri District. That’s the dream anyway.
Q: You mentioned other Wesleyan connections to Cambodia you know about. Can you elaborate?
A: One of the great things about getting involved in this project – which is all new to me and which involves a different set of skills than my years spent as a lawyer — is that I have met and am meeting so many good people along the way with real expertise in the nonprofit sector. Naturally, this involves people from Wesleyan. Sue Guiney ’77 and I have talked about the wonderful work she is doing in Cambodia in connection with her creative writing project, Writing Through. I also recently have had a conversation with Hannah Brigham (’17) about the classroom-to-classroom pen pal exchange she has set up with Daniel Kim (’17), called Give Education. I am hoping that students in the village we’re working in will someday soon be the beneficiaries of both Sue’s and Hannah’s projects. I suspect that there are many other Wesleyan alums who have worked or are working in Cambodia, and I’d love to connect with them.
Q: How can I learn more about The Chelly Foundation?
A: Our Facebook page is www.facebook.com/thechellyfoundation, and I encourage all readers of this piece to follow us. I’m excited to say that we are going to have a 2017 fundraiser on September 14 in Manhattan – at the soon to be opened, fantastic Gulliver’s Gate mini-world facility, steps from Times Square. You can learn more details by checking in with our Facebook page or our main webpage. The Chelly Foundation is a 501(c)(3) charity and all donations are tax deductible. Together I know we are making a difference in the lives of hundreds of children in Nan’s and surrounding villages. Please feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org