It is 7.30am and Somphet Phongphachanh is already in tears. The trigger for her emotion is a reminder of the previous day’s encounter with a girl forced to live far away from home so she can attend school. The girl, Mome, had herself broken down as she explained how her family could not afford her daily transport costs to a distant school, obliging her to leave home to continue her education.

Mome, 15, who now attends a boarding school for ethnic Laotians, is the beneficiary of a scholarship from Room to Read, an educational charity that the FT is supporting in this year’s seasonal appeal. Though Mome’s circumstances are not ideal, she is flourishing at the school, which caters to girls from groups with a high risk of dropping out. Her ambition is to be a doctor.

That may sound far-fetched. But Somphet, now Room to Read’s country director, achieved exactly that. The daughter of an illiterate mother, she became a doctor after winning a scholarship to study medicine in neighbouring Vietnam. She returned to Laos in the 1990s but her real love, born of the opportunities she had received, was education. She gave up medicine to work for a Japanese educational charity before moving to Room to Read, whose operations in Laos she helped establish.

The Laotian education system is so thinly spread that some schools are designated “complete” to distinguish them from the thousands of others that cannot offer a full complement of classes. Many “incomplete” schools teach children in multi-grade classes, where pupils from different age groups are taught together. “Some schools hardly have any textbooks. They say: ‘Somphet, this is the only textbook we have,’” she says.

Somphet, like all local Room to Read staff a native of the country she works in, was attracted to the organisation by its low overheads and insistence that it work only with committed communities. “We want our libraries to be run by the communities themselves,” she says.

In just five years, her organisation will have established nearly 700 libraries, built 140 schools and put more than 800 girls on long-term scholarships. At one school, where Room to Read worked with villagers to build new classrooms and a library, Somphet’s visit prompts a small religious festival. A priest chants over a floral display lit with candles and the villagers tie dozens of lucky threads around Somphet’s arms. She is then presented with sliced-up chicken and banana spirit. When the ceremony is over, Somphet stands and gives an impassioned speech, talking for a good 10 minutes. The women mop their reddened eyes.

When it is over, she turns to the FT and translates. “They want me to be president,” she says with a shrug of the shoulders. “But I tell them: ‘Somphet is too busy.’” It goes almost without saying that she is in tears.

David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor

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