Continued from June 2015: Kara, Part One…
One of my most treasured experiences was seeing teens and children make art and teach each other friendship bracelet patterns, painting, drawing, crochet, and more.
Donating art materials over the course of the school break was part of my independent project to conduct art classes. The youth who came to the community center were interested in learning to use the materials and exploring on their own. Then, ETB staff person Nawe Win and another teen stepped in and led students in painting and other art activities. Like children anywhere in the world, their creativity was wonderful to see. I have hundreds of the students’ drawings and paintings that I look forward to sharing with the Ashland, Oregon, community this fall at ETB’s fundraiser and celebration on September 27*.
Watching students teach each other was incredibly gratifying for me. For example, with the friendship bracelets, I started out teaching one pattern to three students, then independent from me, those three students taught another group, which started a domino effect of students teaching students. Within a few weeks, over two dozen children, some as young as 4 years old, were showing me the bracelets they’d made on their own. I was beyond impressed.
Also, Nick and I put together and shared with the students many educational videos, from language learning to hair styling. In one instance, after watching a how-to video for a complicated braided up-do, two teens sat down and started practicing. The result of one student’s first try is in the photo to the left.
Then, through Fred’s introductions and my own networking, I met, and in some cases got to collaborate with, several organizations and individuals also working with Burmese communities in Mae Sot, including:
Sky Blue School, Children’s Development Centre (CDC), Yaung Chi Oo Workers Association, Adolescent Reproductive Health Network (ARHN), Mae Tao Clinic, UNHCR, SAW and one of their Mobile Medical Clinic doctors, Solidarite International, Team Rubicon, Shanti Volunteer Association, Help Without Frontiers, Borderline, and Passport Restaurant.
I enjoyed learning about other organizations and working with them on projects for the community. The people I met were very kind and helpful, sharing their knowledge and experiences either with me or the community depending on the situation. Borderline Cafe helped us bring two groups of students from the community to take cooking classes. An ARHN volunteer familiar with ETB’s work introduced me to ARHN staff who led two sex education classes at the ETB community center. The CDC teachers and staff I met and worked with were very welcoming and appreciative of ETB’s work with our students.
See the photos and captions below for more about some of the other groups we worked with while I was there.
The largest part of my work for ETB and the community involved assisting with emails and communications, picking up supplies in town, and helping with CDC new student registration as well as managing the daily meals at the community center.
I also helped with a few first-aid cases, which was a unique and valuable experience. The two first-aid cases that I took lead on showed me (1) how much my mom taught me about taking care of others when they’re sick, (2) thanks to Tarja’s and Fred’s lessons, how to take care of a healing burn and care for a cut so it heals quickly and without infection, and (3) that taking care of someone involves teaching them to treat their condition themselves, with you as their assistant.
The project I learned the most from was education, in particular helping Fred, Joe, and students’ families with the registration process for new students attending CDC. We ended up helping enroll 16 students, which included assisting a Sky Blue teacher who handled the transfer process for three of his students who had graduated in March.
There are now 20 students from the community attending CDC, 16 with full or partial ETB support and 4 whose families can afford to send them on their own. This is a supremely important achievement for the community and for ETB.
The process required many steps, including: community meetings; transporting 15 families to MTC where they worked with the Committee for the Protection and Promotion of Child Rights (CPPCR) to get birth registration paperwork started for their children; taking student photos; transporting students and parents to CDC for new and old student registration days; buying uniforms for 18 students (that was a crazy day ~ thankfully we had excellent helpers, some of last year’s CDC crew, Hani, Pisi, and Bye Sone); and, working daily with Nawe Win and Joe to refine the daily meals.
It was hard work, but it was incredibly rewarding ~ seeing Ei Ei’s radiant smile on the first day of school made everything worthwhile.
For some background, Sky Blue School, located next to my-pohn, goes from pre-school to 4th grade. When students graduate they have the option to attend other schools in the area to continue their education. However, CDC is near enough to my-pohn that it allows students to live at home, while the other options are boarding programs. Through the headman, many families let us know they wanted their children to go to CDC. Keeping families together, supporting education, and working with the community on what they want are all part of ETB’s mission. It was exciting to help bring it all together.
Next, what I will remember most are the people I got to know in the community.
The friendships and connections I formed with people there are incredibly important to me, and I do not take them lightly. They were extremely kind, open, and giving. Some of the women always made sure I’d eaten.
In observing individual community members working and living their lives, I was struck by their resiliency, resourcefulness, creativity, and work ethic. It is not an easy life. Another thing I saw and was impressed by, although I shouldn’t have been surprised, was the variety of skills among community members. People were working or donating their skills within the community as shop owners, hair cutters, roof makers, house builders, artists, gardeners, electricians, and more. As Fred told me many times, it’s a village; it’s a society like anywhere else, with rich and poor, everyday problems, successes, entrepreneurship, and people with specialized skills.
In several cases, I saw ETB’s direct impact, how past projects developed into sustainable ventures. When ETB began buying thatch roofing several years ago for housing projects, a few community members saw the profitability in making their own thatch, like the woman in the photo to the right. In other instances, ETB provides tools and supplies for people to get started with their own businesses, including laundry, a beverage and fruit stand, and vegetable and flower gardens.
In the coming year, I look forward to: seeing our CDC students’ progress over the school year; the weekend students continuing their language, music, and computer lessons; the families with their own businesses continuing to grow and be successful; the young people on the garbage trucks, who work hard and help their families, finding other work or training opportunities if they want them; and, more individual community members developing their particular skills and profiting from them (e.g, house and roof construction, cooking, creating beautiful jewelry, growing vegetables and flowers, sewing).
I feel incredibly grateful to have worked with ETB and the community. I learned about life’s realities and raw human strength and caring, more so than I had from my previous life experiences. My heart was deeply touched by people’s kindness and openness toward me. I felt the camaraderie of the community, and that was my reward for the volunteer work. When a group of guys from the community yelled ‘Hey Kara’ from the top of a garbage truck in Mae Sot while I drove by on my motorbike waving, I felt like part of the team. It was very difficult to leave everyone and stop helping with ETB projects in person.
I want to share my gratitude for all the hard work and community support done by Fred, Joe, Zulu, George, Headman Oo Zaw, Nawe Win, Moon, our students, their families, the builders, and the many other community members and outside supporters who make ETB projects happen.
I saw first-hand how ETB walks a difficult path, assisting with basic human needs but being careful not to create dependency; serving so many while on a small budget; and, constantly moving forward, even through difficult situations. This approach works because it’s the right thing to do and it’s done as a community. We’re all in this together. And, there’s nothing more gratifying than seeing community members’ successes, when they are not just surviving but thriving, through their own work and abilities.
Finally, I want to share one more thing. While in Mae Sot, I became hyper-aware of what I threw away. Walking through the piles of garbage at my-pohn and also knowing that my friends were picking plastic out of what I was throwing away changed my perspective and my behavior. Nick and I ended up collecting our recyclables, eventually selling them to a plastic seller at my-pohn and donating the earnings to a family. Also, we composted our fruit and food leftovers, used reusable containers for restaurant leftovers, reused plastic bags, and brought our own bags as much as possible when shopping. Even though I am back in the US, I’m going to continue limiting how much I throw away.
*Save the date: September 27, 2015, for ETB Love Day, when people around the world will be celebrating the community’s and ETB’s progress over the year and fundraising for continuing ETB’s work. Fred will be in Ashland, Oregon, for a week to reconnect with Ashland supporters and share ETB news in person. No matter where you are in the world, everyone is invited to take part in ETB Love Day! Stay tuned for more information…