living the faith
Changing society one girl at a time
The Rev. Frederick Lipp was all set for a comfortable retirement writing children's books after 38 years as a Unitarian Universalist minister. Then a friend's photo album of a trip to Cambodia changed his life. A picture of a woman selling birds on a street corner caught his eye. According to local custom, for a few coins one could buy a bird, make a wish, and set it free and one's wish would be granted.
With that story, the children's books that Lipp intended to write took a different tone. One of the first became a story about the birds, The Caged Birds of Phnom Penh (Holiday House, 2001). It also prompted Lipp to visit Cambodia, a country still recovering from the brutal Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s.
In Cambodia Lipp witnessed extreme poverty and heard stories about young girls forced to work hard gathering rice or sold into the sex trade to support their families. He also learned that Cambodian girls are commonly taken out of school at twelve or thirteen for arranged marriages or to help with family income.
Back home, he found that many people believe that the secret to changing a society is to educate its young women. “If you want to change the world,” says Lipp, “you educate the young women. They are the ones who will have a greater awareness of health care, family planning, the environment, the importance of education, and they are the ones who will teach others about these things.”
Determined to help Cambodian girls, Lipp established a nonprofit foundation, the Cambodian Arts and Scholarship Fund, in 2001. Spending $20,000 of his own money for trips to Cambodia, he began seeking motivated girls and sending them to school. More than 200 girls from lower grades to university are in school now because of the foundation, which is run by volunteers in the United States, plus several paid staffers in Cambodia. A donation of $360 pays for a girl's schooling for a year, including food to support dependent family members.Lipp's carefully planned retirement now consists of raising money, talking and preaching about the foundation, and making trips to Cambodia. His original plan to write children's books is still intact, but now they're multicultural books, many about Asia.
Lipp, 66, ordained in 1964 after completing a B.D. at Meadville Lombard Theological School, served congregations in Beverly, Massachusetts; Tulsa, Oklahoma; West Hartford, Connecticut; and Portland, Maine. First Parish, Portland, named him minister emeritus after he retired from there in 1997. In retirement he served a congregation in London for two years. He and his wife, Kitty, now live in Whitefield, Maine.
In April, Lipp prepared to make his fifth trip to Cambodia in June, this time to plan the reconstruction of a Muslim school destroyed in fighting in the 1970s. The school, in a remote part of Cambodia, is the one project the foundation is supporting beyond the education of individual girls.
Lipp admits he worries about safety in this age of terrorism, not only on international flights but on the ground in Cambodia. “We know that al Queda came to the school we're going to visit and told people not to work with us,” he says. “The Muslims refused them, but still, it's scary.”
And it's important to continue. “We're responsible now for more than 200 kids,” he says, “including fifteen in university, some of whom are training to be doctors.”
There is more to the story about the caged birds. Lipp discovered in Cambodia that the women train the birds to fly away, but then return to another cage so they can be sold again and again. In his book, Lipp gives that story a different ending. The girl he writes about, wanting to make a wish for her family's survival, picks a new, untrained bird from the cage. And it, of course, flies free forever just as do the girls that Lipp's foundation is sending to school.
Donations may be sent to the Cambodian Arts and Scholarship Fund, P.O. Box 18186, Portland, Maine 04112. For information visit www.cambodianscholarship.org.