Haiku Death Battle logo photo courtesy of Stephen Smith

[Update March 11]: According to the organizers, this year’s Haiku Death Battle raised over 900,000 won for the school in Cambodia. Click here for photos and comments from the evening. – Ed.

This year's poets. Image courtesy Stephen Smith

This year’s poets. Image courtesy Stephen Smith

The 3rd Annual Haiku Death Battle is set for 8 p.m. on March 9 at Haebyeon Concert located along the Seohaean Coastal Road(*) in Jeju City.

On Saturday night, 16 brave combatants will battle with words in a “literary fight to the death.” Poets will perform original haiku verse in front of a panel of randomly selected judges to determine who will be crowned Jeju Haiku Champion.

All proceeds from the 5,000 won per person cover charge will go to sponsor Kok Chan Primary School, which is located on the outskirts of Siem Reap in Cambodia. The money raised will help purchase basic supplies for children and contribute to ongoing efforts to provide each student with clean drinking water and a nutritious, daily breakfast.

“Everybody skips breakfast, so teachers really want to feed them in the morning. The main incentive is to keep the kids in school. If they offer a meal they know there’s a better chance the kids will show up for class,” said Ko Jung Suk, programming coordinator for Scholar’s Choice International (SCI).

While researching local charities Haiku Death Battle host, Stephen Smith, was won over when Kenneth McLeod, President of SCI, replied to his email in thoughtful haiku:

In time I believe
Loving, caring attention
Will sustain the school

Event host Stephen Smith at last year's 'Haiku Death Battle'. Photo courtesy Chris Dwyer

Event host Stephen Smith at last year’s ‘Haiku Death Battle’. Photo courtesy Chris Dwyer

“I wanted a charity with a connection to Jeju. It sparked my interest when I heard how SCI sponsors an impoverished primary school with Jeju allocated funds and volunteer work,” Smith said. “It seemed fitting to support a school in need since the Haiku Death Battle is a ‘literary’ event.  Finally, when I reached out to Ken and he responded in dashing haiku form, there was no doubt left in my mind it was the perfect cause for our event.”

SCI operates an English hagwon on Jeju and partners with sister schools in Canada and Cambodia. They have a unique business model that donates a portion of their Korean students’ monthly tuition to support Kok Chan Primary. In addition, McLeod includes leadership training in a curriculum that encourages Korean students to partake in community and international outreach.

“Our business model integrates some of the role model needs that children desperately require to see today; that is, if children don’t see adults doing good deeds, as part of our natural fabric of life, how are they supposed to believe in doing good themselves?” McLeod said. “We’re now ready to challenge the children with the leadership, and critical skills they learn through academic programs and volunteering to deliver aid to our foster school in Cambodia.”

Through this arrangement, Korean students learn the value of giving back and gain a more realistic world view, while students at Kok Chang benefit in more basic yet essential ways.

“When we first met the students at Kok Chan we were shocked because they didn’t have any pencils, notebooks, or even textbooks. They just used the ground to write. Even teachers didn’t have any materials to teach. That’s [a] public school, but the government cannot help them with teachers’ salaries, materials or any of that,” said Ko.

But pencils and textbooks were merely surface issues. As the SCI team investigated further, it became obvious that the needs of students went far beyond classroom materials.

Kenneth McLeod, second from the right, on a visit to Kok Chan Primary School. Photo courtesy Kenneth McLeod

Kenneth McLeod, second from the right, on a visit to Kok Chan Primary School. Photo courtesy Kenneth McLeod

“Across Cambodia rural areas still have a lot of trouble with clean water. There’s a lot of water, but purification is a huge issue. The children had to bring their water to school every day and of course they were bringing it in recycled bottles filled with dirty water from home,” McLeod said. “The focus this year is to help improve the health of the children, so we installed water filters into the school and next year hopefully clean water filters can start to go in people’s homes.”

For many families it’s a stretch to cover even basic tuition and uniform costs that keep their children enrolled in school.

“Some mothers make 50 cents a day in the rice field, or other parents ride a bike into town and recycle what they can find for 1-2 dollars a day. Tuition with the cost of uniform is about 50 dollars per year which can easily be 1-2 months salary for some parents, so you see the problem,” said McLeod.

Ko said prioritizing the school’s needs is the most difficult part of the outreach for her, “I feel that everything is a priority — food, water, school supplies, shoes. So how can we make a priority list? Sometimes it’s difficult to focus on something specific, that’s why we need to think about it each year and focus our goals.”

Korean volunteers with Kok Chan students. Photo courtesy Kenneth McLeod

Korean volunteers with Kok Chan students. Photo courtesy Kenneth McLeod

The overarching goal is to help break the cycle of poverty by keeping kids in school. “Those children, if they can stay in school longer, will be able to support their family more in the future,” said McLeod. “Especially the women, we want to focus on the females because they manage money much better and if they can get better jobs, the birth rate goes down. It creates a winning situation, but that’s years away. You have to take a long-term perspective and it has to be sustainable.”

While there’s still a lot to be done, a little goes a long way in helping to aid this school of roughly 380 students. “For 60 US dollars we can keep a child in school for an entire year and that’s an amazing contribution,” McLeod said.

For those interested in learning more about McLeod’s project, visit www.facebook.com/SCICambodia. And to support this weekend’s fundraising event, come out to Haebyeon Concert to enjoy an ocean view, drinks and haiku madness in what’s sure to be an entertaining night.


(*) A previous version of this article mistakenly identified the event location as Tapdong. It is further west, along the Seohaean Coastal Road. JWW regrets the error. — Ed.