Chenda Chhi – Founder, President Emeritus & Chairwoman of Board of Directors
Chenda is originally from Battambang, Cambodia. As a child, she attended an all girls’ school; she was a top student in her class and was excelling in her studies. Sadly, during her second year in high school, when she was fourteen, the war between the Cambodian government and the Khmer Rouge ended. Along with many other Cambodian children, her childhood came to an abrupt halt after the Khmer Rouge took power, and began their “social cleansing” by killing anyone with an education. Cambodia suffered one of the world’s worst genocides; nearly half of its population was killed in four years. The Khmer Rouge soldiers took Chenda from her family as they did all children older than 12. She was forced to work in rice fields and build water dams in remote areas with little food or sleep, and no medicine or shelter with other young children. Pretending to be illiterate, with her head most often shaved, she managed to survive the executions. Most of her childhood friends, and nearly half of her close relatives were killed or died from starvation, hard labor and diseases. In her immediate family, her father and youngest brother died trying to escape the regime.
In 1979, Chenda escaped the Khmer Rouge and came to the United States with her mother and sister as a refugee; she was reunited with her older two brothers who had escaped three years earlier. The Chhi family came to the U.S. with just the clothes on their backs, settling in Lincoln, Nebraska, with the kind support of a sponsor family, the Howe family. Chenda attended high school learning English as second language and graduated with honors and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in duel majors, computer science and mathematics, from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
Upon her college graduation, she went to work as a computer systems analyst for Peter Kiewit and Sons, Inc., a fortune 500 company in Omaha, Nebraska. She moved to San Jose, California’s Silicon Valley, in 1988 to work as a software engineer developing test software for Heads Up Displays (HUD) at Kaiser Aerospace and Electronics Corporation (later bought by Rockwell). There, she met her former husband, Robert Smead. The couple has three children, Joseph, Zachary, and Emily. She went back to college to complete a degree and certification in interior design and in liberal arts at West Valley College, one of the top interior design programs in the San Francisco Bay Area. She started her own interior design firm, Chenda Design LLC, in 2003, working on high-end custom residential projects. To support her philanthropic projects in Cambodia, she also designed, fashioned and sold jewelry pieces. In 2015, she founded Coral Tree Education Foundation, Inc. and devotes a majority of her time working on the foundation.
Her heart is always with children: less fortunate children all over the world, especially those in her first homeland, Cambodia. These children, 40 years after the Khmer Rouges Regime, are still suffering in the worst human conditions. In her adopted homeland, the United States, Chenda also supports other charitable foundations, was a member of the Rotary Club, and volunteers to help special needs children.
In 2005, through several NGO’s, Chenda started her philanthropic work in Cambodia. She has served as a Vice President of Public Relations for the Cambodian Education Excellence Foundation and she served as an Advisor to the Harpswell Foundation, and has donated to the Harpswell Dormitory for College Women.
Chenda was honored to receive a Gold Medal along with other awards from the government of Cambodia and was granted an audience with His Majesty King Sihamoni, and received His Majesty’s endorsement for her humanitarian work in Cambodia.
With the over ten years of experiences she gained working with NGO’s, Chenda is now devoting her efforts to bring a workable and an effective model for better educational programs and practical skill development to the children of rural Cambodia. With her compassion, hopes and dreams for a better life for all children in Cambodia, Chenda wants nothing more than to see these children have a chance for a better life just as she did.
Please find in the links below some of the information about Chenda’s philanthropic work in Cambodia and the letter of endorsement to Chenda from His Majesty King Sihamoni: