A student-led organisation wants to prove that small acts of kindness can have a great impact in addressing education inequality.
IT BEGAN with a newspaper article. In January 1993, a Malay-language daily published an account of a struggling mother, Kelthom Abdullah.
Living in a run-down kampong house in Kelantan, the then 33-year-old Kelthom had the challenge of raising six children on her own.
Detailing her troubles in an interview for the newspaper, Kelthom’s chief concern was that she could not afford to pay her children’s schooling expenses.
While many readers may have sympathised with Kelthom’s troubles, a few Malaysian students all the way in the United Kingdom (UK) were inspired to do something about it.
After running a donation drive to help Kelthom educate her children, the students decided they wanted to do more.
These turn of events led to the start of Projek Kalsom, a programme aimed at educating and motivating secondary schools students living in rural parts of Malaysia.
After running its first motivational camp in Jerantut, Pahang in 1994, Projek Kalsom is still going strong two decades later.
The idea for a week-long motivational camp was first mooted by Linggi state assemblyman Abdul Rahman Mohd Redza, while he was still a student at the London School of Economics and Political Science, in the UK, in 1994.
A small group of students supported this idea, and collaborated to run the first camp that year itself.
The camp snowballed into an annual affair, travelling to different locations across the country and attracting more interest from potential volunteers.
This year’s camp was held in Kuala Nerang, Kedah in August, and drew a total of 132 student participants.
The project has a fairly tight selection process for volunteers; out of the 196 applications made to Projek Kalsom this year, only 42 students were selected to be facilitators.
While initially being driven by mostly Malaysian students based in the UK, the project now also attracts Malaysian students studying in countries such as the United States, Spain, Poland, Egypt and even those within the country itself.
There is also a clear selection process for the Form Four students who attended the motivational camp. Aside from coming from families with a household income of less than RM3,000, participants also had to have good grades (five As or more) and be active in co-curricular activities.
Currently, Projek Kalsom is locally registered as an independent student-led organisation under the moniker of Kelab Belia Kalsom.
Projek Kalsom’s current director Mohd Zulikhwan Ayub was also quick to point out that the project has also been endorsed by the Youth and Sports Ministry as well as Education Malaysia.
“I have been with the project for the past three years, and I dare say that there hasn’t been a single moment I don’t cherish.
“We try not to just inspire the students (who attend the camp), but also hope to inspire the volunteers,” he added.
Mohd Zulikhwan, who is a medical student at the University of Aberdeen, UK, added that the four main “pillars” of Projek Kalsom have been revamped to widen the scope of the programme and meet the current needs of students.
These pillars are namely the development of academic and non-academic skills; promoting the usage of the English Language; exposing students to post-secondary opportunities; and nurturing the “Kalsom Spirit”.
“The Kalsom spirit means to have the driving force to encourage people to make a difference in our society.
“I am proud to say that all our volunteers have this spirit – our Whatsapp group chat is always buzzing with messages from volunteers discussing ways of helping the students!” he said.
Aside from its staple camp, Projek Kalsom has also branched out to include other programmes to maximise its impact.
Last year, the project initiated the Kalsom Commonwealth Cultural Programme (CCP) to widen its volunteer pool to include non-Malaysian students and encourage “community tourism”.
Established with the help of the Bristol Commonwealth Society based in the University of Bristol, UK, the CCP this year saw six participants spend a week in Kuala Lumpur and Penang, before they stayed on for the Kalsom motivational programme.
Volunteers under the CCP were also tasked with carrying out the newly introduced English Enrichment Programme at three schools in Penang, namely SMK Permatang Tok Labu, SK Stowell, and SK Bukit Tembaga.
The three schools were selected based on their need for English Language coaching, as well as their willingness to update the Kalsom committee on their progress over the course of a year.
The programme saw 128 Year Five pupils and 126 Form One students carrying out activities on word usage and public speaking to encourage their interest in the language.
Meanwhile, the Kalsom Scholarship Workshop targeted Form Four students from high performance schools to raise awareness about the tertiary opportunities available to them.
Conducted for 994 students from several schools in Perak, the workshop was structured to help students think about their career options and various forms of scholarships available to them, as well as how to conduct themselves in scholarship interviews.
With Kuala Nerang being his hometown, Mohd Zulikhwan shared that this year’s motivational camp was especially poignant for him.
“I come from a less fortunate background just like them (the participants),” he said.
“This is the first time that we had the camp in an area that was really far from any big cities – in fact, there’s barely any mobile network coverage there!
“The education gap is also very noticeable there, with most of the schools being in either Band Four or Five (on the lower end of the Education Ministry’s classification of school performance standards).
“What we hope for is that our simple act of kindness will touch the lives of others, and continue creating a chain effect.”
He added that his personal motivation for his continued involvement with the project was the progress made by students, however incremental this may be.
“There was a girl who couldn’t even speak a word of English.
“But on the last day, she asked for a microphone and sang ‘I Won’t Give Up’ to all the facilitators.
“That’s the kind of moment that gives us a sense of fulfilment and accomplishment,” he said.
Making a difference