The summer I turned 16 changed my self-serving ways. I planted my humanitarian roots in Thailand. Thailand is a corner of Utopia, whether you’re amongst the bright lights of Bangkok or overlooking cascading acres of rice paddies in the agrarian north. Separated into 76 provinces, each region rivals its neighbor in natural beauty. Known to the world as “The Land of Smiles” Thai people are hospitable and warm-hearted, they captivated me in a soul-crushing embrace.
The plan was to backpack with Rustic Pathways guides through the northern mountain ranges unreachable by car from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai and along the way help in the schools and orphanages teaching English. I traveled from Florida, to Singapore to Bangkok, to Chang Mai and still had 120 miles to go in a “song thaeo”, an open-air truck. However, this isn’t a story about misty mountaintops and secluded waterfalls. This is a story about the children with round brown eyes that will make you drop your plans and fasten your heart to theirs for a lifetime.
Schooling in mountain rural regions of Thailand is considered necessary, so even with few schools; a great effort is made to send one’s children. Often time’s due to the far commute children live at school year round. The conflict between Thailand and Burma, and the refugees from the Vietnam War renders many children orphans. Consequently the schools become make-shift orphanages, housing more children than they can accommodate. These children face the brunt truth of insufficiency, downright poverty, and plausible threat of human trafficking.
We arrived our support base camp, www.rusticpathways.com and visited Baan Rai and Banjomjang Schools in Mae Sariang. Home to ethnic minorities that compose of the Hill Tribe culture, these tribes are Karen, Hmong, Lahu, Muser, Lua and Lisu.
I volunteered at one orphanage there which haunts me to this day. It is nestled in the crevice of a mountain. This school could be nonexistent to the rest of the world. It was a small dilapidated, one-room schoolhouse with missing boards in the walls. The Karen Hill Tribe students, ranging from 3 to 12 years old, welcomed us with Sawat dee kha greetings and song and dance. The clothing the children adorn indicated the region of tribal area they came from. For many this is the only remains of their legacy. We were instructed to teach Basic English in small groups. Restless play broke out and I learned that sharing a culture had to be communicated with physical play, and laughter to even approach the territory of understanding.
The smiles amongst the extreme poverty tugged at my moral upbringing and I knew my service hours would not end with our visit. Currently this peaceful country lost their smiles as the “red shirts” take a political stand. I’ve started a non-profit project called Bracelets for Benefits to raise money for the orphanage. With the help of Rustic Pathways traditional bracelets are imported from tribal regions and I sell them here to American students. These bracelets are simple colorful threads woven together to create strong patterns. 100% profit is sent to the Hill Tribe school director to determine how it should be spent. My dream is to return as a study abroad student once in college. Presently I hope to engage a pen pal class from New Zeeland in the project. Students helping Students, no matter what village they are from, are like the threads that make up the bracelets. Alone we are simple, tied together we are amazing!
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