Fall 2017 Update

Click here to read our latest newsletter to supporters and find out about the new community-owned truck as well as education sponsorship progress. Our annual fall fundraiser will be held online this year, with more details coming in October. Thank you for your continued support and interest in ETB projects and the community we work with!


Link: http://mailchi.mp/4a0c120e527c/2017-update

Posted in Events, Newsletters | 1 Comment

Fall 2016 Events

View the full events list with all current information on our Upcoming Events page.

Click here to view the events list in our shareable newsletter format

Eyes to Burma’s Fall 2016 Events

Ashland, OR

Thursday, September 15, from 7 to 9 pm

Benefit Concert with LOVEBITE
@ the Unitarian Center, 87 Fourth Street
$30 advance, $35 door
Sponsored by New Bohemia Productions, LOVEBITE, and ETB Board members

NY Blues Hall of Fame guitarist Jeff Pevar, vocalist Inger Nova Jorgensen, and their soulful funk rock band LOVEBITE will perform a benefit concert for Eyes to Burma in Ashland, Oregon. Opening with a duet by Jeff and Inger, LOVEBITE will be performing original music and select covers. Danceable space will be ready for those feeling the groove. Click here to read more about the band.

LoveBite benefit v5

Tickets are available at The Music Coop and Hilltop Music Shop in Ashland and on our new online shop: www.eyestoburmagiving.org. Online ticket purchasers can pick up their tickets at will-call at the concert.

Ashland, OR

Sunday, September 18, at 12 pm

Presentation with Q&A
@ the Unitarian Center (RVUUF), 87 Fourth Street
Free and open to the community
Sponsored by RVUUF and ETB Board members

Fred Stockwell and ETB Board member Kara Q Lewis will share updates on ETB’s projects with photo and video slideshow. Q&A from long-time ETB Ashland supporters creates in-depth discussions about poverty, humanitarian aid, and how to make a difference.

ETB Fred Kara Talk 2016

San Francisco, CA

Friday, September 23, time TBA

ride high foundationMeet & Greet
@ Dubbelju Motorcycle Rentals, 274 Shotwell St
Sponsored by Dubbelju Motorcycle Rentals Himalayan Roadrunners Motorcycle Tours via Ride High Foundation

Fred will talk and share slideshows of ETB projects to Ride High Foundation friends. Himalayan Roadrunnersmembers visit the community and see ETB projects first-hand in Mae Sot regularly. Fred looks forward to connecting with their supporters Stateside.

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From Fred, June 2016

Hello everyone,

The rainy season is upon us. We were all getting a little panicky leading up to it. A lot of the houses are in bad shape. Due to limited funding, ETB has had to be selective and repair houses only for the children that are going to school. We want to keep the students dry during the school year.

DSC03408 smWe’ve managed to get 14 houses rebuilt. Many others in the community have been paying for their own supplies, like plastic sheets and roofing. In May we got some help from visiting donors who bought poles and building supplies.

As an organization, ETB starts at the bottom and works its way up, starting with assistance to the most vulnerable, including children and elderly community members. Among our sponsored Children’s Development Centre students, several need full support: help with daily breakfasts, house repairs, and emergency rice assistance throughout the year.

We focus on getting kids into school with the dedication to making sure they’re supported as best we can. Not just paying the fees, but helping these families with things as they come up throughout the school year: housing repairs, emergency food, homework help, shoes, bags, school supplies, breakfast assistance.

DSC03444 crop sm

This year, we have 21 students sponsored and attending CDC. There are more students who wanted to attend CDC but the school is very full. We also helped get three students into nearby Good Morning School thanks to funding from Aussie Friends of Eyes to Burma.

DSC03447 sm

DSC03326 smOur CDC students all went for their exams at the end of the last term. At the top of their classes were Phyo Phyo, Ei Ei, Dyae Sone, and Wai Yan. Over half of our sponsored students did very well. Those who didn’t do as well struggled because they weren’t doing their homework regularly. One of the big things we want to do this year is to approach the teachers at CDC and invite them to provide homework help at our community center on-site two or three nights a week.

Overall, the students are all doing very well. Their English is good, but we need to get them into more Thai lessons. We’re really working hard to help students build life skills. If they have Burmese, English and Thai, they’ll have more than I do! They’ll have a better chance outside the garbage dump.

This is a generational change, a long-term process, where we’re helping these children gain an education and experiences to expand opportunities off the garbage dump. The students who are part of our sponsorship program are so happy and empowered as a result of this support.

School sign-ups were a busy time mid-May. Students need to arrive for registration wearing a uniform, with their hair dyed black and cut short. Some students’ parents dye their children’s hair for them; others we take to a local hair dresser. There are three days of sign up. Thanks to a donation from Wendy of Canada we have enough school bags, and we went and bought more school uniforms after students took their placement exams and completed registration.


The dump is now run by a recycling center from Bangkok. The city is involved as well, knowing that it’s important to update the garbage dump. There is going to be a modern recycling center set up over the next several years. They approached ETB, saying they’d been watching us for six months and really appreciated the work we do.

They want to keep the work force together and lend some support. To start, they told ETB they wanted to help supply water. They have a large water tower on site that they said ETB and the community could utilize. What we’ve done is supply the materials for community members to run small pipes from the tower to as many parts of the community as possible. Right now the water is for washing and cooking. We ran tests in January with the help of Solidarite International to find out about potability. The tests came back saying it was potable, but community members noticed a smell to the water so we’re going to get it tested again.

For those areas that we couldn’t reach pipes to, we deliver water to them.

DSC03402 sm

But, this is only half the community. We had to help re-settle 20 families from one area to another area because they’d been asked to move by the land owner. We spent a few weeks helping them move to the new location, which the factory secured for them to live on. We hope this situation will be better for them.

DSC03406editraw smTransportation:

Transportation is one of the most important things we provide. We still only have the one truck, which like me, is getting pretty old. It recently went into the shop for its annual overhaul. We put on side bars and now we need to get a top for it for the rainy season, to keep passengers dry.

The truck is getting worn out. We use it for everything: clinic runs, trips to the market, errands, taking students to and from school.

We hope to buy a second truck, a small Ford or Toyota, to use as a bus for the community.


Dyae Sone’s mom is in the TB clinic and we’re helping take care of her. The clinic is 15 miles from the dump.

We’re helping a young woman who has a baby with a broken leg. Mae Tao Clinic got the baby into the hospital for surgery. Now he’s back at MTC and we’re helping the mother and grandmother with transportation and food.

A personal health note: In February, I had to have a pacemaker put in. The procedure was done in Chiang Mai and I go there periodically for check-ups. I feel more energetic now.

We’re also helping to support Ei Ei and her little sister. Her mother is sick and we want to help Ei Ei stay in school and get her little sister a regular meal every day as well as helping the family meet other basic needs. We do the same for two other CDC students. It costs us a bag of rice a month, $15 a month, which we supply in 5 kilo sacks every several days per family. Not all the families need this kind of assistance. But some do and it’s part of helping from the bottom up. This approach is really successful.

Finally, a lot of the initial expenses we’ve had over the past years have been eliminated or reduced. Many families are able to afford their own rice and work tools, which ETB buys from local merchants and sells at cost, subsidizing in some cases.

The fact that we’ve managed to get the work tools to the community and improved the general conditions means they’ve gotten stronger and are earning more money. When their health is better, their income improves. They’re becoming more independent and gaining dignity by paying for their own necessities. They’ve got the tools and security of ETB, that if they get sick, they’ll be looked after. If their house falls down, they’ll get help, like with transportation to get the building materials which they can now afford for themselves in many cases.

Some of these families are going to have a difficult time when the new factory starts up. We’re already talking about getting them back to Burma, exploring what that would look like and if it’s possible. If some of these families, with their children with better educations, go back to Burma, the students now have skills in English, Burmese, Thai, computers. They’d be at the top of the work force.

The community members are thinking for themselves. We’re getting there. It’s your input that’s helped, not just financial help. Everything you’ve contributed has created this. Thank you.

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Do No Harm: A Project Manager’s Message to Volunteers

By Dr. Lavinia Allary, Ph.D.

Click here for the article in its published format on
The Fulcrum,
“How Not to Be a Voluntourist”.
The Fulcrum is the independent English-language
student newspaper at the University of Ottawa.

I like to travel and discover new places and new cultures. I also like to do volunteer work whenever it’s possible. Just like many other people, I dream of a better world. But after so many years of doing all this, I finally got to understand that something was really problematic. I’ve fallen into the trap of “voluntourism”.  The aim of this article is to raise awareness about the negative impact of voluntourism in the field, and it is intended for an audience of volunteers and researchers who work with vulnerable communities.

I spent three months this summer [2015] in Thailand and worked, or more precisely, thinking I was working, not for one, but for two NGOs. My experience was very enriching for me, I got to better understand social and political issues in the region, I got to make new friends, better understand the Thai culture, got introduced to the exquisite Thai culinary art, did some nice projects with children and for children, and I got to visit very beautiful places. I experienced all these things. I did. The kids I worked with and worked for? I don’t know.

etb article photo 2To be sincere to you and to myself, I am not sure my presence made any difference. Spending a week in the field with a deeply involved project manager, who only had harsh words for me – so I thought at the moment – was a wake-up call.[1] My voluntourism experience that week turned out to be a descent into the hell’s flames for my Ego.

I have heard multiple times three words from NGO staff: “Do no harm”. But it took me three months to realize their meaning. Why on earth would I do harm? Why would people doubt my real and sincere intentions to help them?

This deeply involved project manager helped me answer these questions and even more, at the end of this experience. “Why are you here? Are you like them? Just look around this little city here. There are more white western female volunteers and paid humanitarians than locals and beneficiaries altogether. We have an army of humanitarians here. Did you come to join this army? Fine, you will spend your week with me, if that’s what you want, even if I don’t trust you or think you’ll be of any help here. A week… you need to spend a full year before you get to understand what on earth is going on here, lady! It takes years of hard work and commitment to really make a difference in somebody’s life, so don’t start already to feel good about yourself thinking you’ll do something good here!…”

And with the next occasion he continued his tirade: “…So you say you have a PhD in Human Rights and International Relations? Oh! You came down here to do research on us, publish your books and go to conferences pretending you’re an expert… We’ve seen these academics, journalists and photographers around here, but we’ve never seen some of the money they make selling their books being put back into our projects… Look, I have medical emergencies here every day, I carry dead babies in my own truck, but I have no money to buy better god dammed equipment! Nobody really cares!…”

truck 1

Behind these words there was a cruel truth for my ego: this man was so right. Asking for some guidance back home from a friend who also works in international development, he just laughed at me:

“Sure he’s right! And you were lucky he accepted you there. In my case, I’ve never accepted volunteers in my field projects. They just mess up the place and the people. They go there with their cameras, take pictures of hungry people and naked kids, and the next day they’re gone to their next destination, probably to the beach so they can forget how emotionally hard the previous day was. You know, those communities are not a zoo!”

What started like a tremor turned into an earthquake that week. I was deeply shaken in my beliefs, my intentions, and especially in my ego. And my mentor just kept pouring at me his frustration with us.

“You know, people who come here are not bad people. I will never say that. But they have a problem they should do well to address. They fantasize in their innocence about helping others when in fact they avoid dealing with their own problems back home. They fantasize of saving the world like Christ or like Superman and they come here looking for a meaning to their own lives. Looking for self-esteem and looking for love. It’s all about their own needs and not about the people here. They come here to take not to give. And when they finish taking, they leave. This is why we don’t welcome volunteers and paid humanitarians altogether. This is why communities don’t trust them and don’t care about their intentions to help. And young people are the worst. They just come here for parties and drugs. You see that note over there on the door of our respectable doctor?” And he pointed towards a disturbing message written in a medium level English on the door: “Sorry, white people are not welcome here.” “It’s not racism,” he said, “It’s a way for this doctor to say that he doesn’t want to sell drugs to the volunteers who come here.”

It’s not just that I was feeling terribly useless despite my strong educational background and work experience, I was also starting to feel ashamed. Ashamed to be associated with these young foreigners, ashamed to be white, ashamed to be a volunteer. Nothing prepared me back home for this difficult moment.

Back home we are encouraged to go overseas and do volunteer work as much as possible. It’s good for your CV, it’s good for your career, it’s good for your life experience. There is something very wrong and very disturbing with the idea of some parents today encouraging their children to leave their comfortable life and get “exposed” to poverty and poor people in the world so that they could come back home alcohol-free, wiser and with some clearer idea of what they want to do in life!…

We don’t know back home that they know all about this in the field. They know it all because they are poor but not stupid. They won’t tell you what’s in their mind like my angry mentor did, but they will avoid getting into a real encounter with you, from heart to heart. They will let themselves be photographed, they will smile for you, they will be nice and polite for you, they will let you play and teach English to their children. They will accept the circus we make of them. But we will never get to know what they really have in their heart. And without knowing them and knowing their needs, there is no way we can help them.

etb article photo 1These people have been harmed by volunteers and other humanitarian dreamers. Children have been heartbroken when their white friend left and never brought them to America. Community projects have been cancelled when volunteers had to leave back home. Mothers have been left to deal alone with their financial problems and broken dreams when donors pulled out their funding for their children. Information retrieved from community members got distorted by the media and created a negative impact on people and harmed their relations with local authorities. Academics have used communities as a pool of information for their own papers and never have given back the credit for their ideas to those communities. All kinds of researchers have showed up pretending to help just so they could get access to communities and better research complex social issues, hoping to publish something that will bring them fame and money.

Do no harm. Now I understand the meaning of this three-word message I received in Thailand during my voluntourism experience. I am writing this article for a public audience, not just to share my own experience, but also as an awareness message. Our volunteer humanitarian impulse can do a lot of harm to the people we think we help. Please do your research, address your own personal needs and get some good training before you engage in a humanitarian experience abroad.

Make up your mind before you leave if you’re doing this for yourself or for the others. Make up your mind before you leave if you want to do tourism, have fun, have a nice CV, and a nice Facebook page, or do some real and sincere volunteer work, without the fuss, the social media exposure or your publication plans in the background. But don’t do both. You will harm not just communities but you will also harm the image and the credibility we have abroad. There are already enough insecure places for western white people in the world. Do not create new ones. Be the change.

truck 2Project managers will understand that sometimes volunteers are young and inexperienced. They will encourage young volunteers in getting the exposure they need to help them find their own answers and career path in life. But they are also expecting you to be fully engaged with the project. Be ethical in your work, professional in your attitude, responsible for your own actions, respectful with the people you will meet overseas, open to their needs and ideas and don’t judge the culture that will receive you. Just don’t do voluntourism.

[1] People and places are not named in this paper in order to protect communities and field projects. Dialogues are not accurately reproduced but reconstructed based on real conversations. I assume the sole responsibility for the content of these dialogues.

Lavinia Allary holds a PhD in Political Science with the specialization in International Relations from the University of Ottawa, Canada. Her research interests are migration, human rights, migrants’ labour rights, slavery, child labour and corporate social responsibility. Working with different NGOs and UN agencies, she has gained an extensive understanding of these issues in Europe, North America and South-Eastern Asia. Also holding a License in Law, she hopes in the near future to serve the migrants’ cause not just as a researcher and policy analyst, but also as a human rights lawyer. She recently published her first book, “Less Than a Human: The Politics of Legal Protection of Migrants with Irregular Status“.


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2015 Highlights


20 Students sponsored and attending Children’s Development Centre (CDC). Weekend classes on-site in computers, Thai, and music. Saturday English lessons in Mae Sot.


With workers from the community, we built two new houses and provided roofing and other housing materials at cost or for free to families in need.


ETB provided clean drinking water for the entire community and Sky Blue School. Community members assisted with water delivery.


ETB brought water to families in hard to reach areas. Also, provided nails and tools when families needed to relocate houses.

Continued providing 24/7 transportation to Mae Tao Clinic and offering on-site first aid as needed.

Buddha Land
Irrigation pipes put in by community members. Gardens started growing!
New community center built on the land, with a new toilet and cane ball field. The new community center is for classroom use, community meals, temporary housing in emergencies, and a gathering place.
Teachers from Adolescent Reproductive Health Network. Students from Passport Restaurant (also known as Hospitality and Catering Training Center). Students from Naresuan University in Phitsanulok, Thailand.
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January 2016: Suz and Geoff, Part Two

From Suz and Geoff of Aussie Friends of Eyes to Burma

Facebook post on January 27, 2016

suz and geoff final post jan 2016Aussie Friends. We’ve now left Mae Sot and, although a short visit this time, we’re happy we had the opportunity to see how things are going. It’s not all positive, but overall things are progressing well given the current circumstances.

Interesting to note, we’ve never been to northern Thailand in ‘winter’. Initially the weather was pretty nice – warm enough for us not to require a jacket. How quickly things change! It is seriously cold at the moment and this change in the weather has given us a real insight into the challenges faced when the weather is cold – and that’s not even factoring in the rain which has created even more issues.

Whilst we were able to go back to our guesthouse each night and have a hot shower, the people here are not so fortunate. It’s cold water regardless of the time of year. That being said, at least now they have access to water ‘on tap’ with the installation of the new pipelines to areas of the dump that previously was tanked in.

This is all thanks to the new owners of the recycling plant and ETB is very grateful for their assistance here. It takes a huge weight off as there were times when the tanks were empty and we had to wait for the ‘water man’ to truck in more – not so good in hot weather when demand is high.

The new owners have recently approached Fred and opened discussions about moving around 30+ families to another parcel of land the plant owns as they need to develop the area that the families currently reside on. As you can imagine, this created a level of panic within the community, but it looks like negotiations are moving forward positively and the families will be able to relocate in the near future. That being said however, the cost to relocate these families is significant as there is only so much of their current housing that can be re-used. ETB is going to have to dig deep to assist here with bamboo and thatch for roofing – which unfortunately depletes the already limited funding we have for 2016.

With the world currently struggling to cope with global refugee issues, charitable dollars are harder to come by, and our overall funding is down on past years. From our discussions with Fred, assessing the situation for ourselves and knowing the challenges that are about to be faced by ETB, we can see that our plan for increasing the numbers of children into CDC in the new school year may have to be put on hold and the money we brought over this time channelled towards ensuring that the 20 students currently in CDC are able to remain there. This is the most important factor. Ensuring those that are in school can stay in school and continue their education. We’re hoping however that as we get closer to the new school year (June 2016), the situation will improve significantly enough so that we are able to provide an education for more of the kids who wish to start school, but we probably won’t know this until closer to the time.

There are a number of financial challenges pending, one of the major ones at the moment being the significant drop in the global oil price, thus creating a massive reduction in the requirement for recycled plastic. As recycled plastic is a large component of the community’s income, this has affected their ability to support themselves – with most now relying on the lesser requirement for recycled glass and cans to bring in money. This has created further challenges for Fred and ETB, but that’s why we are here in Mae Sot, and we are working to assist those in need as much as possible until their situations improve.

It’s difficult sometimes. Just when you think you’re on top of things and have a plan moving forward, things change, and you find yourself having to reassess to ensure that those most vulnerable are safe, have shelter and food, and access to clean water and medicine. This is the current situation and we must work with it.

These are the challenges ETB face, but they are challenges that can be overcome with time and patience. We’re moving forward and have made huge inroads, but sometimes issues arise that mean we’re not able to concentrate on those programs we were hoping to push forward with – ie education. It will happen though Aussie Friends, we just may find that it’s a little slower than we originally anticipated.

As always, we do appreciate your ongoing support as does Fred. You may not realise it, but you are directly changing lives. We’ve seen it first hand.

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January 2016: From Suz and Geoff

From Suz and Geoff of Aussie Friends of Eyes to Burma

Facebook post on January 23, 2016:

Today has been a little less hectic. It’s Friday and today is the weekly school ‘casual / sports’ attire day. The kids love Fridays – don’t we all! It’s the end of the school week and they know that they will have 2 whole days to have fun, attend the weekend education classes and generally just run amok around the dump.

We dropped the kids off, then met up with Fred to put the truck in for a service. This poor truck has seen better days, but it still keeps on going. One day we hope to have enough funding to purchase a second hand songthaew so the truck can go into retirement, but that will require more funds than we have at the moment. One day….

The morning without the truck has meant that we’ve had time to review notes, fix computers, discuss future planning and generally get our heads around all the proposed changes. There’s lots planned in and around the dump, but as always you never know if all the plans will come to fruition. Fingers crossed they do as it will mean a much brighter and better future for the community.

This is one of the better parts of our time here – seeing the community embrace new ideas and opportunities. From where we were 4 years ago (although this has been running for 8 years in total now), to now is truly inspiring. We have no doubt that some of these kids will become leaders in their chosen career paths.

We’re about to head out to pick the kids up from school, then will finish the day off checking that everyone is ok. It was so exciting yesterday when we finished off one of the pipes bringing water directly into the dump for the community to use. You cannot imagine the looks on their faces when they realised that they had access to ‘magic water’ – a never ending supply from the tap. This is something that we’ve hoped for and it’s finally come to fruition thanks to the new owners of the dump site. We had to laugh though, one diligent family has already stockpiled 20 buckets of water – just in case the ‘magic water’ supply runs out. It makes you realise just how much we take for granted. These families never expected to be able to access unlimited water whenever they wanted – just by turning on a tap. Brings a smile to your face.

Well, the afternoon was manic! From the time we arrived back @ the dump after the school pick up until about 20 minutes ago, we’ve been running! We are so lucky to have 3 doctors working @ the Mae Tao Clinic who are also volunteering their afternoons @ the dump. Geoff spent the afternoon with 2 of the doctors & one of the kids who can translate really well making ‘house calls’ around the site whilst Fred & I split up & attended to various other tasks. It was as usual a great learning experience.

Tomorrow promises to be another interesting day ….. stay tuned!

PS: the photos might not look like much, but they’re pics of the new fences, water tower & pipework – super exciting!

Posted in Mae Sot Volunteers | Leave a comment

January 2016: Cassim’s Letter

I am a final year medical student, from the UK, who was volunteering in Mae Sot at the Mae Tao Clinic (providing free healthcare to the migrant population), and I had the pleasure of meeting Fred whilst he was doing his charitable work. He very kindly invited me to join him to see the work he does. Little did I know, the visit to see Fred’s work would be a life-changing experience.

Initially, I was astonished and appalled to see the living circumstances of the community in Mae Sot who Fred serves; they live and work within the dump site – as you can imagine, teeming with insects and bad smells. Nevertheless, it didn’t take me long to realise the community was filled with some of the most generous and most content-looking people I’ve come across in a long time. The kids on the site were playing with our old rubbish, kicking around a flat football, cutting leaves with an old tin lid and creating a make-shift shop with empty rubbish cans, leaves and twigs. It didn’t take me long at all to realise the safe environment, clean water facilities, social structures, transport and supplies were largely thanks to the work of Fred; it’s very obvious that the community appreciates his work immensely. However, what struck me the most is unlike other charities, Fred doesn’t come and just make changes, Fred directly works with them in order to help bring about the most suitable changes, and only changes the community there wants and would, therefore, productively utilise.

Another valuable lesson I learnt from Fred, which has since influenced me (and I’m sure this lesson will always stay with me) is how rapidly and efficiently he acts. In times of disaster, such as when floods were affecting Mae Sot, Fred isn’t the sort to wait around but instead he immediately acts with the most sincere intentions for the well-being of aiding the community.

The work Eyes to Burma does is remarkable. After witnessing all of the above, I felt a strong impulse to donate towards the cause and when mentioning this to Fred his response stays with me. So far, other charities I’ve expressed a desire to donate to would prefer to take the funds into their own hands or into a particular pot; however, Fred instead told me how I can use that money myself to help that community and he highlighted how all 20+ kids there are in need of new school uniforms. That’s exactly what we did, Fred took me and the kids into town and I purchased all of them new school uniforms – I certainly can’t forget the joy in those lovely young children’s faces, a truly wonderful experience.

Thank you Fred, and thank you Eyes to Burma. I wish you continued on-going success.

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October 2015: Suz and Geoff

Suz and Geoff of Aussie Friends of Eyes to Burma share their experiences volunteering for ETB. They stepped in and managed projects in Mae Sot with the community and ETB staff while Fred was in the United States for two weeks. Needless to say, they learned an incredible amount about themselves, the community, and the challenges and rewards of working with this vibrant community. The issues are complex and difficult to describe, but as Suz and Geoff’s story shows, it’s like life anywhere. There is happiness and progress as well as ‘reality checks’ and extreme problems that need time, patience, and commitment to help the community overcome them. Thank you, Suz, Geoff, Joe, Nawe Win, our students, and community helpers.

Click here read on Suz and Geoff’s blog.

Where to begin.

It’s difficult if we were being honest.  We want to share our experience, but these are human lives were talking about, people like you and us. We all feel the same things, have the same issues, share the same experiences; just in a different part of the world and on a different scale.

Let’s go back to the beginning some four years ago when we first came across Fred and Eyes to Burma (ETB). Our friend Megan was looking to undertake some volunteer work in Asia so we set about looking for places where she could do this.  Do you realise that you can do this quite easily, however, in many cases you have to pay for the privilege of working with orphaned children or refugees? Seriously. To this day, we’re still not sure how much of the ‘payment’ to volunteer actually makes it to those that need it most.

Many people have good intentions when coming over to countries such as Thailand and Vietnam to volunteer, however, just swanning in, throwing a few dollars around, building a few houses, promoting a religion or teaching a few classes, isn’t going to cut it in the long term. Don’t get us wrong, the intentions are good, but the reality of life in these communities is far different and a few weeks isn’t going to change their world.  Once you leave, life reverts.  You have to be in it for the long haul if you have any chance of making a difference.

We digress.

We found a small organisation in Mae Sot, Thailand looking for people to assist with teaching, caring and assisting with the wellbeing of around 35 orphaned Burmese children. A local couple had taken on this massive responsibility and needed some support.  This organisation was completely volunteer based and just required a commitment of a minimum of 30 days; longer if possible.  Megan contacted the organisation and they were happy to have her come on board.

Whilst she was living in a guest house in Mae Sot, Megan met Fred, an English/American gentleman who had himself some four years earlier stumbled across a Burmese community living on the rubbish dump in Mae Sot, and decided to stay on and see if he could be of assistance. So, when Megan wasn’t required at the orphanage, she spend her time with Fred getting to know more about him and what ETB did in Mae Sot.

That was four years ago.

Four years on, Geoff and I (and Megan) have travelled back to Mae Sot at least once a year to see for ourselves how things are going and, this year, Fred has allowed us the honour of keeping his work going whilst he travels back to the USA for a couple of weeks to raise more funds.  It is an honour and it takes a lot to be accepted into this community.  You have to be prepared to commit, be prepared to learn and be prepared that your way of doing things may not be how it’s done in this community.  That being said, no two days are the same, and that’s why we love spending time here. We’re gaining a wonderful insight into a different culture, different personalities, a different life.

Eyes to Burma is a totally voluntary, non denominational, humanitarian organisation that is here purely to help this community be what it wants to be. It does not put caveats on the provision of support, it does not hardline the community, and it certainly does not push any form of religion onto these families. No-one has the right to push their agenda on to someone else, and it’s because of ETB’s stance on this that it has been so successful in building a solid relationship with the families that live on the dump. This organisation, and Fred in particular, is well respected and loved. He is a part of their family.

So, back to our experience.

You might think that living in small timber huts on or around a garbage dump, surrounded by flies, dogs, pigs, geese, chickens, dirt and dust; picking through rubbish for recyclables to earn about $1 a day is a pretty miserable way to live. For many people it would be, but for the families living here, this life is better than where they came from.  It’s safe.

Once you get past the fact that they live on a rubbish dump, you really start to see that life here is no different to life anywhere else.  We have responsibilities and so do they. There are social issues; the haves and have nots, the neighbourhood disputes. There is the good and the bad – it really is like any other community around the world.

We were lucky enough to have 2 full days with Fred before he headed off.  As we have been to Mae Sot a number of times before, we just armed ourselves with a notebook and set about making sure we knew where to go, what to do and how to do it.

At the end of the day, most things just come down to common sense.  It’s not rocket science, but you do have to be mindful of the cultural differences – both Thai and Burmese.  The population here is a mix of both cultures, so you have to check yourself before you speak.  If they’re Thai, they like to be spoken to in Thai, if they’re Burmese, they like to be spoken to in Burmese.  Can be a little tricky on occasions, but we’ve managed pretty well so far.

There have been so many ‘farang’ through Mae Sot all claiming to be here to ‘save the world’, so it’s easy to see why ‘white’ people are treated with caution.  The Thais and the Burmese are friendly and will welcome you, but you have to earn their respect. This is their home.  Don’t come here telling them how to live or who to pray to – you won’t get very far – and quite rightly so.  Again, agendas.  If you come here for the right reasons and are prepared to work with them on what they want, then you will fit in. Don’t get us wrong, the community will look at new ways of doing things, but you cannot force it upon them, you can only suggest and let them decide.  It all takes time.

Probably the best start to our day is taking the kids to school.  There are currently 20 kids of all ages making the 10 minute trek (via Fred’s truck) to school every day.  You might ask yourself – are they clean when they go to school?  Of course they are!  This community takes great pride in their appearance, so they always try to look their best, the kids especially, when they’ve finished working.  Swear they outshine us most days!  We were sweaty dustbowls by late afternoon (the heat here is not conducive to good hair!).  To put it into perspective, think of how you look when you’re working in the garden, digging around, planting, sweating. Well this is how the community looks when they’re working, but when the day is done, they clean up, just like we do.  Sure, they live around dirt, dust and rubbish, but that doesn’t mean they’re filthy.

The kids usually sing Burmese songs on the way (which we just loved) and, once they are at school, we generally head back to the dump as there is usually a clinic and/or a market run that we need to do.  A few times a week, some of the women head into the market to stock up. This is something that wouldn’t have occurred a couple of years ago, however slowly but surely employment opportunities are improving and the community are now able to buy many of the items that were once supplied.

The markets are the place to do serious shopping.  Everything is so fresh. You can pretty much buy anything within a few streets – and the pricing, well it’s best to take a local as ‘farang’ prices are usually dearer!  We’ve seen ute after ute loaded up well beyond capacity with produce and goods heading for Burma where it’s sold the next day – beats us how the ute actually copes with the weight.

That being said though, Fred has negotiated with many of his suppliers so regardless that he was away, we still received the benefit of his pricing.  To give you an example, a 40 kilo bag of rice costs 520 baht. In Australian dollars, you’re looking at around $20.  This rice will feed a family for quite some time, but remember, pretty much every meal revolves around rice, so it’s a staple that is in constant demand.  We’re always at the rice wholesaler!

There are quite a number of small shops on the site now, so you can imagine how much grocery shopping is done to stock these shops up each week.  The truck is fully loaded a couple of times a week transporting all manner of food items back to the dump where it will either be used by the family who purchased it, or sold through one of the shops.  Way back in the beginning, this really didn’t happen.  The community here were reliant on the goodwill of others to survive.  With time, support and encouragement, there have been mini businesses popping up all over the place, and there is definitely room for more entrepreneurs – maybe bicycle repairs, clothing repairs, vegetable and fruit growing, water sales, a small takeaway, recycled materials design and sales – the list goes on. Many of the kids are developing new skills, so we have no doubt that there will be other businesses coming to the forefront over the next few years.

 Our day continues with whatever else is needed.  There could be people looking for assistance with minor injuries or illnesses, water deliveries, purchasing of goods that are subsidised by ETB, clinic returns and dealing with issues that arise – which are different every day. We are lucky to have the assistance of Joe, ETB’s translator/teacher, as he has a great understanding of who’s who in the community.  As with any community, you have those that will try and see how far they can push the envelope.  Over time, Fred and Joe have worked out who those people are, so it’s much easier to keep on top of.

We’ll try and find some time for a break either mid morning or early afternoon (doesn’t always happen!), before heading back to pick up the kids from school and then making sure that everything is ok before we head home for the night.  We usually start around 7am and, if we’re lucky, we’re home between around 5.30pm, but it’s usually between 6-7pm.  The latest was around 8pm, but that was the night of the Burmese markets and we had a few ‘trips’ to make.  The Burmese markets are the ‘go to’ markets for the community each Friday or Saturday.  The place is packed with locals meandering around, meeting up, listening to the music pumping whilst buying produce, clothing, manchester items and so much more!  It’s cheap and a great place to pick up many of the items that the community use every day.  It was just as much fun for us as it was for those that wanted to go in.

The days are long, but time just flies as you’re always busy.  You’re on call 24/7 but, honestly, you just don’t mind as it’s the welcome of the community, the chatter and laughter of the kids and the genuine warmth you feel when you spend time at the dump that makes it all worthwhile.

From four years ago until now, we can definitely see the changes.  The support of ETB has ensured that this community is probably only a short time away from becoming fully self sustainable – the ultimate goal.  Sure, there will always be those that need additional support – single mothers, the elderly, the disabled; but there is employment here, and the ability to earn an income has lifted this community to the point whereby it’s now capable of moving forward with less financial support; ETB are now able to provide more subsidised items rather than having to pay in full for everything.

That being said, the income stream here for many people here is still probably not enough to include sending their children to school.  This is where we believe the future lies for ETB – the financial support of children wanting to obtain an education.  Unfortunately, not all children (even if they wanted to) will be able to attend school.  It all depends on the parents.  Many are keen to expose their children to the ‘outside’ world with the knowledge that an education will bring more income into the family.  However, some parents can’t quite fathom that this would be a benefit to them, preferring instead to have their children pick on the dump with them to earn additional income to support the family.

It’s a long road and, as mentioned above, it takes time and patience.  Eyes to Burma will get there and this fabulous entity has achieved so much in a relatively short space of time – all due to the dedication, persistence and patience of Fred.  Not too many people we know could do what he does all day, every day, 365 days of the year, but it is because of his commitment there are so many families looking forward to a brighter future for themselves and their children.  It really is a pleasure to be involved.

The community are, in the main, really happy.  The smiles, laughter, welcomes and singing confirm that.  It’s infectious.  You just have to smile and wave and you’ll get it back ten fold.  It’s one of the reasons why we love coming here.  They know they don’t have much, but they are living their lives to the best of their current situation – they don’t need the latest technology or the latest clothing to enjoy life, it’s all about spending time together as a family, perhaps a party or two with the local community when the occasion arises, and just knowing that you’re safe.  Watching the kids laughing whilst kicking a soccer ball around the dirt field dodging the large craters that have formed over time brings a reality check.  You don’t need much to get the most out of life.  It’s the simple things that bring happiness.

It’s interesting to note that the kids are only just becoming exposed to the internet.  It’s a big world out there and by opening their eyes to what they can achieve we’re finding more and more that they want to learn and embrace new experiences.

 The kids here enjoy playing games too – football is probably the game of choice for most of them, however most of the kids do not have phones, computers, the latest gadgets or toys – and they’re quite content (for the moment) without these materialistic items.  That could possibly change as they become more exposed to the world, but these are things they will have to fund for themselves, it’s not the role of ETB to pay for these items.

Back to the reality check, there is no electricity to their homes (with the exception of a couple of homes and the community centre – which houses a television operational only by generator power), so when it’s dark, they rely on solar or LED light.  Their homes are constructed of whatever can be found – timber, bamboo, signage that has been dumped, thatch, tyres – anything suitable to keep out the elements.  For the most part, the homes are no longer located on top of the garbage, but they are basic (around 3m x 3m) and can house quite a number of people.  The weather is usually warm so there’s not much required in terms of blankets, but you can imagine in the rainy season how difficult it is to negotiate the path to school, the shop, the dump site itself. Waterproof boots are a necessity as are head lights and picking knives.  These are the types of things that ETB make sure is provided but, again, they are now subsidised freeing up more funding to build on the new programs that ETB have brought in.

Walking is the main form of transport, that and bicycles (oh, and Fred’s truck).  The roads here are getting better, but still have a way to go, so bicycles still bear the scars of being used every day on some difficult terrain. Still, it’s transport and it works.  There are motorcycle taxis that will drop people off, but the dump is about 15 minutes out of town at the end of a long road, so there is no actual passing traffic as such.  Taxis or songthaews need to be called – they can’t just be waved down.  This is why most people take advantage of Fred’s truck into town.  Quite often though they will make their own way home (something that would never have happened a few years ago), so sometimes it’s a challenge to track down who has come back under their own steam – would hate to leave someone at the clinic!

On Buddha land, the land that has been leased by ETB, some of the people who live here are establishing vegetable gardens.  This is being actively encouraged by ETB as a way of developing skills, providing food for the community and food that is able to be sold to gain an income.  The rainy season has made the gardens a little soggy, but they’ve started to be cleaned up and readied for planting again.  This initiative is one that can be easily transplanted (excuse the pun) to another area should the lease on the land expire.  It’s one of the enterprises though that is bringing more income into the area.

From our perspective, it’s the education of the kids that will be the catalyst for breaking the cycle for these families.  If the kids are able to secure employment in a role which pays at least the minimum wage (but potentially higher), they will be in a position to support their families into the future and not rely on picking rubbish to earn an income.  This is something that has always happened in our world; you obtain an education, you get a job, you look after yourself.  In the cases of poverty all over the world, but especially in countries with a lower socio economic population, it’s not quite that simple.  Yes, families tend to stick together but they also have a tendency to follow in the parents footsteps.  In this case, if the parents pick rubbish, the kids pick rubbish.  ETB can see the potential in these kids and are providing opportunities to learn new skills.

We’ve seen first hand the improvement in the ability and knowledge of the kids.  It truly made us smile as we held conversations with kids who only a few months ago couldn’t speak much of the English language.  They love going to school and a poll of the kids saw many of them citing English as their favourite subject.  These kids are like sponges – always asking about new words, new things they’ve seen or heard about and about how we live.  They don’t forget either! It’s because of this we know that the work that is being done by Fred and ETB is having a massive impact on the lives of these families.  From the living situation they’ve come from, here is safe and here provides opportunities that they would not have received if they had stayed where they were.

There are and will always still be issues arise; the politics of who they are, their religion and living where they live creates challenges for Fred every day.  It’s taken years to gain the trust and respect of this and the broader Mae Sot community, but Fred has achieved that and moving forward we can only see more positive outcomes.

That being said, funding is still a challenge.  We know there is so much poverty in the world, so many people displaced by war, so many people battling crippling illnesses and so many trying to escape violence.  We know you can’t help everyone and there are only so many charitable dollars that can be given.  However if you were looking for a charity where every dollar that is provided goes directly to helping the people it supports, then ETB is it.  All of ETB’s supporters, including Fred, are volunteers and self funded.

Our time in Mae Sot was fantastic, and to see for ourselves how far this community has come has solidified why we are involved with ETB.  It truly was a worthwhile experience and gave us a reality check.  You don’t need much to be happy, but it helps if you have an education, and it’s the simple things in life that can make you smile. We’re looking forward to returning.

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2015 Ashland Events

Here are Eyes to Burma’s 2015 events in Ashland, Oregon. Local Board members and volunteers in the Rogue Valley organize these events to support ETB’s humanitarian projects by raising funds, 100 percent of which go to help the community at the Mae Sot rubbish dump. We thank all of the local individuals and businesses who donated to these events. Your support is invaluable and greatly appreciated.

Because Eyes to Burma is a direct aid organization, every dollar donated goes a long way, and we are proud of our global network of supporters in 19 countries.

Want to share this information with friends and family? There are multiple ways to get the word out. You can share this blog post, forward a copy of this e-vite to your mailing list, and join the following Facebook event pages: Benefit & Celebration, First Friday Meet and Greet, and Gabriel Mark Lipper Artist Reception & Benefit.


Tabling with ETB Board members @ Rogue Valley Growers & Crafters Market 
Tuesday, September 15, from 8:30 am – TBA

band du pays benefit eyes to burmaBenefit & Celebration
@ Dana Campbell Vineyards
Sunday, September 27, from 5 – 8 pm
$25 general, $10 students (Please note: Ages 21 and over only)

Jazzy American classics performed by Band du Pays, a swing dance lesson by Cori Grimm, amazing raffle and auction prizes, Nguyen Street Food ($6-$12/plate), wine by Dana Campbell Vineyards ($7-$8/glass), talks by Mae Sot volunteer Kara Lewis and Fred Stockwell led by Jeff Golden of Immense Possibilities

Jefferson Exchange Interview @ Jefferson Public Radio 
Tuesday, September 29, between 8:30 – 9 am

eyes to burma students making artFirst Friday Meet & Greet
@ Ashland Art Center
Friday, October 2, from 5 – 7:30 pm
Free event

Meet ETB founder Fred Stockwell and ETB Board Members while viewing art by students from Eyes to Burma’s education projects, which include on-site weekend lessons, daily meals, and sponsorship. You have the opportunity to make your own art that will go back to Mae Sot and be shared with the students.

Fred Stockwell to talk @ Temple Emek Shalom
Saturday, October 3, during 10 am – 12 pm service

Fred Stockwell to talkRogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
Sunday, October 4, at the end of the 10:30 am – 12 pm service

gabriel mark lipper benefit eyes to burmaGabriel Mark Lipper Artist Reception & Benefit
@ Modern Fan Studio
Wednesday, October 7, from 6 – 8 pm
Free event

“They are us. We are them. All part of the human family.” View large-scale fine art portraits by Gabriel Mark Lipper that ask us to question our assumptions about worth, value, and human connection. Mr. Stockwell will share updates about news and progress from Mae Sot. Wine provided by Linda Donovan Wines.

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June 2015: Kara, Part Two

Continued from June 2015: Kara, Part One

Nawe Win leading a painting project where students copied her painting on the wall of a motorbike

Nawe Win leading a painting project where students copied her painting on the wall of a motorbike

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*.

Student art on display at the ETB community center

Student art on display at the ETB community center

Friendship bracelet making among students

Students making friendship bracelets at the ETB community center

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.

Braid by Ei Ei

Braid by Ei Ei

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.

Students enjoy learning to cook new dishes at Borderline Cafe

Students enjoy learning to cook new dishes at Borderline Cafe



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.

Kara and Shi Ko at the ETB community center

Kara and Shi Ko at the ETB community center

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.

ETB education project

ETB-supported CDC students’ first day of school 2015. Not pictured: one of ETB’s sponsored students and three students who attend CDC on their own

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.

Families at Mae Tao Clinic in the CPPR offices working on birth registration paperwork

Families at Mae Tao Clinic in the CPPR offices working on birth registration paperwork

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.

Most people work at night when the garbage trucks come in two waves, first around 8 and again after midnight

Most people work at night when the garbage trucks come in two waves, first around 8 and again after midnight

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.

The woman in the foreground makes this thatch roofing. We're helping deliver it to a family who's rebuilding their house.

The woman in the foreground makes this thatch roofing. We’re helping deliver it to a family who’s rebuilding their house.

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.

This family's garden is already making a profit, selling chilies. Soon, they'll be selling flowers and more vegetables. ETB donated the seeds and we are all excited about the many gardens started on Buddha Land.

This family’s garden is already making a profit, selling chilies. Soon, they’ll be selling flowers and more vegetables. ETB donated the seeds and we are all excited about the many gardens started on Buddha Land.

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).

A small group of ETB weekend students created and practiced dance routines and songs to perform for the community in a joint birthday and going-away party, for a community member and for me, respectively. Their creativity, organizational skills, and community-building abilities floored me.

A small group of ETB weekend students created and practiced dance routines and songs to perform for the community in a joint birthday and going-away party, for a community member and for me, respectively. I loved seeing their creativity, organizational skills, and community-building abilities in action.

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.

The builders, the headman, a translator, and Fred look at the structure of the new community center and classroom being built on Buddha Land

The builders, the headman, a translator, and Fred look at the structure of the new community center and classroom being built on Buddha Land

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.

Woman uses sickle to dig through the debris and look for sellable plastics

Woman uses sickle to dig through the debris and look for sellable plastics

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.

ETB benefit in Ashland, Oregon, 2014

ETB benefit in Ashland, Oregon, 2014

*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…

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June 2015: Kara, Part One

Kara and her boyfriend Nick are ETB board members from Ashland, Oregon, who have volunteered for ETB from the US since 2012. Kara, accompanied by Nick, recently finished a five-month volunteer work position with ETB in Mae Sot. With a background in photojournalism and education coordination for an arts non-profit, she was excited to utilize her skills and work directly with the community. 

From Kara, May 26, 2015:

Photo by Pisi

Photo by Pisi

“I’m writing this from inside the house of a family whose daughter is getting married. For the past fifteen or more minutes, various family members and friends have been coming up one-by-one to the wedding couple, dipping strings in food and drink laid out in front of them, and then tying the strings around the young man’s and woman’s extended wrists. Next the couple moves outside and three monks are invited to sit at a table inside. Fresh food, tea, and coffee are brought out for them.

Photo by Ta Twe Sho

Photo by Ta Twe Sho

Many people from the community have been here to eat and take part in the festivities. Romantic pop music is playing loudly from a speaker system set up in the home, attached to a battery. There is delicious pork stew, fish soup, and rice that’s served to everyone, including ETB’s CDC students who were there eating when I arrived at 7:30. It’s casual dress for some, but men from the couple’s families are dressed finely in button-down shirts and stately longyi and the women look beautiful in colorful scarves with longyi and skirts in a variety of patterns. People are invited to put money into a bowl resting in front of the wedding couple next to a large bouquet of roses.

Photo by Ta Twe Sho

Photo by Ta Twe Sho

I’ll type these notes up later on a computer, and I hope when I do I remember the music (‘My Heart Will Go On’ played a couple times, a song Moon, an ETB translator and community member, said she really liked), the laughter, the kind offerings of pink-frosting cookies and tea, one of the women from the community cheerfully teaching me phrases in Thai, and the general bustle of party preparations and chatter.

I feel very humbled and honored to be here and to feel so welcome.

Preparing these notes to share with you, I am reliving the happiness I felt during my time working with the community at my-pohn* and volunteering for ETB.


Drawing by Bo Bo


*’My-pohn’ is my phonetic spelling of what people call the rubbish dump in Burmese, which a few people translated into English as “garbage bin”


Two community members by their house, which they have to move in order to make room for new ground for the garbage trucks to dump on. ETB helped, providing water, nails, and roofing material.

Two community members by their house, which they have to move in order to make room for new ground for the garbage trucks to dump on. ETB helped, providing water, nails, and roofing material. (Story continued in next photo and caption.)

My five months in Mae Sot feels difficult to describe. It was a challenging emotional journey that was important to take. It gave me more perspective and a better understanding of the complexities surrounding the issues of poverty and human rights. I worked with, and learned from, people with diverse skills and talents, from first aid to teaching to house-building, and who also possessed great emotional strength and fortitude as well as a deep commitment to helping others.

I am excited to have the opportunity to share some of the highlights from my experience, including getting to know people in the community, working with Fred and Joe, seeing community-based projects in action, and being in awe of community members’ kindness and talents.

Neighbors came together and helped each other move each one of their houses at a time in the row that had to move back to make room for more garbage to be dumped.

Neighbors came together and helped each other re-build the houses, which were moved about 15 feet from their original locations. They only requested help with water, nails, and roofing, which Fred supplied as needed over the several days it took to do the moving.

To give readers some context, I was in Mae Sot from late January to the first week of June. For most of the time I was there, it was “summer vacation” from school. Many in the community were working agricultural jobs in addition to collecting plastic and preparing for the rainy season. ETB was focusing on the water project in addition to several other priorities, including: handling emergencies, assisting Sky Blue School with transportation, working with the community on school registration, providing daily recreational and educational offerings at the ETB community center, and getting ready for the new school year, including managing daily breakfasts for CDC students.

To start, I want to introduce some of the people I met and worked with on the ETB team.

ETB has Burmese staff, including people from the community, and local volunteers, like our English teacher in the city. There are also people who support ETB from afar, including Canada, US, Denmark, and Australia, and they visit ETB and the community each year to make donations, volunteer, and see the progress made. In January and February we also had a couple short-term volunteers from abroad.

Continue to Part Two for more highlights…

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April 2015: Suz and Geoff

From Suz and Geoff of Aussie Friends of Eyes to Burma

April is a pretty hot and humid time of year in Mae Sot and, even though the Thai and Burmese families that live in Mae Sot say it’s hot, they never appear to perspire as much as we ‘farang’ do. I swear there is something wrong with me! It’s so easy to dehydrate and you need to keep up the water. Note to self….

Suz, Aussie Friends of ETB

Community members and Fred delivering water to an ETB tank.

Interestingly though, even the families living on the dump are not immune to dehydration – it’s easy to forget to drink water and before you know it, you’re unwell. It’s something that seems simple, but could end up quite serious, and this is where Eyes to Burma comes in. ETB takes great pride in being a non profit, non religious, humanitarian organisation assisting wherever possible – even with something as simple as dehydration.

Since ETB started over 7 years ago, the Burmese community living here have come a long way. They still hold their traditions and beliefs in high regard, but they’ve taken on some new ideas, balancing them in perspective to how they wish to live.

Suz, Aussie Friends of ETB

One of the homes on Buddha Land, ETB’s rented land next to but away from the landfill.

We’ve seen first hand the difference. From our initial visit three years ago to now, there have been so many positive changes. Families still require assistance, but the help now is different. No longer worried about basic necessities, ETB’s working on the next step. This includes education for children wishing to attend school after Sky Blue, training programmes for those looking to earn a living outside of picking rubbish on the dump, sex and health education, community farming for sustainability and profit; and improving the living conditions for those wishing to stay working on the dump, but not wanting to live on the dump itself.

Once again though, these changes and new programs will not happen overnight, they will take time and they will require the community to come on board and to assist in the facilitation of these changes. Careful management is required however – it can’t be a short term fix, but a long term solution.

CDC students getting school books

ETB’s CDC students going through their new text books.

To date, the education program is going well and it’s the girls especially who are really embracing school and language lessons. The results so far have been inspiring. Some of the kids are able to speak three languages – Burmese, Thai and English. No mean feat. ETB has determined that it costs less than AUD$650 per year to ‘school’ one child who goes to Children’s Development Centre (CDC). This includes the cost of their uniform, shoes, books, transport (including a bike), daily meals, and other education costs. Pretty inexpensive in the scheme of an education, but quite a cost when you take into account the number of children looking to take part. Regardless, it’s important ETB continue to educate as many of the kids as possible.

ETB community center in progress

The new ETB community center in progress. It will double as flood relief if needed during the rainy season.

Fred has negotiated to lease some land adjoining the dump and this land has been earmarked for a new community centre, playing field, vegetable and herb gardens (for community sustainability and profit), and space for families to live (if they wish to). It’s a fabulous space with a water body along one side – perfect for watering, and some of the gardens are looking fantastic. The only challenge for this land will be during the rainy season. The water will rise and the land (and one access point) will become flooded and, quite possibly, impassable. Fred is working with the community in an attempt to minimise this as much as possible, but only time will tell. At the end of the day though, this new space is a definite move in the right direction, especially from a ‘bringing the community together’ perspective.

Another major step forward is that many of the families are now in the position of being able to purchase (subsidised) products including rice, batteries, headlights, knives, ice etc. The self sustainability vision shines through here and it’s great to see. No longer is ETB having to 100% fund these items, thus freeing up dollars to put towards other initiatives such as education and health.

Community member, and ETB staff person, Nwe Win braiding Suz's hair.

Community member, and ETB staff person, Nwe Win braiding Suz’s hair.

Without question, the organisation is here purely to help. It doesn’t impose its beliefs or will onto the families living on the Mae Sot dump, it doesn’t provide aid with a caveat, it’s just there to provide support wherever and whenever it is needed.

Although we only had a few days this visit, the difference is astounding. It’s difficult to clearly articulate just how much has been achieved, but without a doubt the donations that the ETB supporters provide have, and will continue to have, a massive impact. From 2012 (our first visit) to now, we cannot believe just how far this community has come. It is extraordinary, inspiring and truly wonderful to see and we cannot thank the supporters enough, especially our Aussie Friends. Your ongoing support is immeasurable.

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A Day in the Life of ETB

Recently we sent a newsletter to our supporters on our mailing list that takes you through a day of ETB’s work that touches on almost all of ETB’s projects, with descriptions about each event that give you more information about our approach and philosophy.

ETB Day in the Life email excerpt

ETB Day in the Life email excerpt


Click here to read the email.


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March 2015: From Kara

Kara is an ETB board member and is currently volunteering in Mae Sot, helping update the ETB website and working with Fred and Saya Joe on education projects.

I first learned about Eyes to Burma from a talk Fred gave at my workplace in Ashland, Oregon. My boyfriend, Nick, and I were already planning a trip to Thailand later that year, in December 2012, and we wanted to visit and see if we could help with anything while we were there.

In a whirlwind five days, we helped build a shelf in the community center and take a child with an infected cut on her leg to the Mae Tao Clinic. It was a life-changing week, which propelled us to continue volunteering from home over the next two years.

I called Fred on a regular basis starting in January 2013 to get his updates and put together information for ETB newsletters. We worked with the ETB board on annual fundraisers. Also, Nick taught Fred how to use Dropbox in order to upload photos and videos of ETB’s projects.

My perspective on Fred and his work is one of immense respect. Since I’ve known him, he puts almost all of his time and energy into working with the community, and he’s stayed with the work, even through very difficult times, over the past 7 years.

2015-02-22 21.34.51

Three weeks ago, the community brought a respected monk from Burma to Buddha Land, the property ETB rents for people to live and recreate, and invited us to attend this special community-led event.

I value ETB’s approach: build a safety net of essential needs (transportation to Mae Tao Clinic, clean water, emergency food assistance), listen to the community about what they need help with, provide tools people need to do things for themselves, engage in continuous problem-solving, support community-led events, help individuals and families start their own businesses, provide educational and recreational opportunities that give students and youth connections to life outside the dump.

It’s more complicated than that and involves setbacks, sweat and frustration, and some heart-breaking situations. ETB’s methods are not perfect, nor is Fred a saint (he loses his temper when he sees waste and injustice and he does not have patience for some things), yet he is extremely honest and open. And regardless: Hard work is being done by our team and for the right reasons.

Fred appreciates when I tell him about the positive changes I notice in the people I met two years ago to what they are like today. But, he says, there’s a long way to go, a lot of responsibility and many problems to keep working through. Instead of sounding overwhelmed, like I feel when I think about things too much or get sad when I see the hard realities of life there, he sounds resolute:

“There are no easy solutions. It takes time, consistency, hard work, doing the right thing, and respecting the culture and the people we’re working with.”

With everything we’re doing, I am learning from Fred the importance of caution and respect for every individual in the community. He’s taught me to listen and watch to see what the students are interested in learning and doing, to not make promises I can’t keep, and to always consider a project’s cost, or a supply purchase, based on its long-term advantages and whether it will truly benefit someone or a group of people (and to make sure that I’m getting the best price). The latter is both for the benefit of the community, so ETB donations go as far as possible, and to respect the money donors entrust to ETB.

Now, I’ve definitely made mistakes and unintentionally done the opposite of all those things since coming here in January, although rest assured my expenses have been with my own money; but, it’s a completely different world here with different stakes and situations than I’m used to. It’s a learning process.

The woman in the foreground makes this thatch roofing. We're helping deliver it to a family who's rebuilding their house.

The woman in the foreground makes this thatch roofing. We’re helping deliver it to a family who’s rebuilding their house.

I feel very grateful for the work ETB does as well as for the work being done by countless other individuals and organizations assisting vulnerable communities in and around Mae Sot, including those who also work with the community at the dump. A very short list (that does not include everyone) are the donors and teachers of Sky Blue School, Mae Tao Clinic and its many programs (like Children’s Development Centre, CDC), SAW, Help Without Frontiers, Borderline Cafe, Yaung Chi Oo Workers Association, The Border Consortium, Solidarite International, UNHCR, and so many more.

While I’m here for the next couple months, I’ll be working with Fred, the community, and ETB’s invaluable teachers and helpers, Joe, Zulu and George. I look forward to updating ETB’s website with current information about ETB’s work, including our clean water and education projects.

Filling the water tank at Sky Blue with three of the many helpers who are eager to do the water runs with Fred.

 “I wanted to do something, but didn’t know what to do. I was faced with the common dilemma: Do I give a fish so they can eat for a day? Or do I teach them to fish, so they can live forever?”

“They know how to fish,” he realized. “They just don’t have the right equipment.” – Fred, October 2009 article

ETB’s Thai teacher leading a Saturday morning class. The chairs and large white boards were donated by a school that closed nearby.

“All of these experiences have helped me realize that medical aid and education are the most valuable things that can be provided to people.” – Fred, October 2009 article


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September 2014: From Sophia

Sophia is a French medical student who was in Mae Sot working with an organization that organizes medic training for Karen people.

sophiaI was initially in Mae Sot with a charity working at the clinic doing medic training (I am medical student in France) and one evening I met Fred at the Canadian restaurant in town. He offered to show me his work, so the next day after I had finished teaching he picked me up. He had just gone to rescue a small group of people from immigration detention, and we were off to pick up a group of kids from the CDC school and then go to the dump.

This was a bit strange for me as I had never seen anything like this place before. I think I couldn’t really speak much the first time.  But at the same time it was great to see how happy all the kids were when we arrived. the kids ran to hop on the back of the truck, and all the adults came up to say hello and sometimes ask for things.

We then went round the dump to drop the kids home, sell batteries and head lamps and check that people were all well. At the end of the evening a family asked Fred if we could go collect their daughter from a boarding school in town. When we arrived at the school there was a discussion between the school head and the parents, but we couldn’t understand why and they didn’t seem to be in agreement. Finally the head mistress explained and the parents agreed to the number of days the child had to go home for as a punishment for getting into a fight.

sophia4So this first afternoon/evening was the beginning of an experience, but far too short for me to understand everything that Fred does, and all the aspects of doing community work. He very kindly offered me to spend more days with him the following week, and as I wasn’t teaching anymore I thought this would be a great occasion. So I extended my stay in Mae Sot by a week!

During the week I met up with Fred every morning after he had taken the kids to school to have breakfast. Our days were always full of different things to do, and generally not sticking to the initial plan. In the mornings I used to help Fred read and reply to quite a few emails, and We then had various things to do, such as shopping for batteries/medicine/head lamps/food, etc.

That week a student wanted to drop out of school and there was red eye all around, so a few kids were taking a couple of days out of school, so we spent a lot of time the kids :)

Overall the week with Fred was an amazing experience.

sophia5After coming home I have had time to think about his work and community work world wide. I think what Fred is able to provide day to day to the refugees is really important. I could see  that Fred could get a lot of things done so easily and fast. I also asked Fred about his long term solution for the people there, as for the moment it seemed to be a lot of day-to-day work.  He said he is working to train the next generation so they would be able to take care of the community in the way he does in the future.

I hope that Fred is well and that things are going well in Thailand at the moment.

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ETB Newsletter February 2015

Our latest newsletter includes a 2014 update letter from Fred, thank you’s to recent volunteers and donors, links to articles about Fred and ETB, and more.

Click here to read more

ETB February 2015 newsletter



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2014 Update and Overview

From Fred:

Buddha Land garden Eyes to BurmaLast year was both difficult and great. We got some people moved on to a new bit of land and we got a bunch of kids in school and taking classes.

Thanks to our amazing donors and supporters, we’ve been able to pay for school uniforms, entrance fees, and school supplies for 10 children attending CDC. We back it up with making sure they get properly fed as well. We have 5 students we support fully to attend CDC, and there are five other students whose parents only needed partial help for them to attend.

Now there’s a list of students who want to attend CDC next year.

Joe leads computer and music lessons at Eyes to Burma community center every weekend The demand for education is so high, everyone wants to get involved. At our community center at the dump, we have English and Thai lessons on Saturdays and on Sunday we have music and computer classes. Also on Saturdays, we take a group of about 11 regular students to English lessons with Zulu. All the kids have advanced really fast.

I had been concerned that weekend classes weren’t enough time but I was wrong. The kids study together and egg each other on, so the ones who aren’t in the classes are still picking up what the other kids are learning. Their language skills are really impressive.

Watching the kids learn and socialize is a wonderful experience. They’re becoming not people of the dump but regular kids who can ask questions of the outside world.

Then, we’ve been able to rent land that’s off the garbage and has become a safe place for families, where kids play and parents grow gardens. At this time we’ve managed to put 8 families there. We’re sorting out irrigation. The pumpkins and boo dte are getting bigger by the day. The people named it Buddha Land and it’s got trees and its own water source.

We’re helping three moms support themselves and their families by buying their initial supplies for their own businesses in flower selling, laundry, and a shaved ice stand. This is proving particularly rewarding as they’re able to support their children better.

There is more enterprise happening across the community, including more shops and little business in sewing, roof making, and small general stores out of people’s homes.

Working on the new clean water delivery system, now a fraction of the costOur programs with clean water, emergency food, first aid, and check-ins of the elderly are continuing on. We recently started a new system for trucking in the clean water that’s a fraction of the cost of what we had been paying and several young people are already learning how to do it.

This year we’re driving all our programs toward self-sufficiency. It is something we have to do and our goal at this time is to teach people to do more things for themselves. Also, as the children get older we’re starting to look for opportunities to get them vocational training, so they can build skills that they can use wherever they are.

We are truly making positive changes in the peoples’ lives. The people are much more confident. It’s incredible to see. I can’t wait to see their growth through this year.

Thank you for your support and best wishes. You need to know that you are making this possible. Your donations and our work at the dump is working to improve these people’s lives.

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September 2013: From Caroline

Caroline is a teacher trainer for CfBT Education Trust, working with English teachers in Alexandria, Egypt.

photo 1For some strange unknown reason I have always been interested in the people who search the garbage for recyclable products to earn a living. I was doing some volunteer teacher training work at one of the refugee camps and staying in Mae Sot in 2011 when I saw this happening there. I just happened to mention my interest to someone and they put me in touch with Fred – he was the man to see regarding garbage in Mae Sot.

Fred was more than happy to talk about his work and take me to the dump just outside Mae Sot so I could see for myself what was happening. This was a whole different set up compared to what I’d seen on the streets. It amazed me that there was anything left to find once the garbage reached the dump. It was great to see the young kids happily playing with whatever they could lay their hands on to entertain themselves and yet, at the same time, harrowing to see the conditions in which the families had to live.

photo 2I was very fortunate to spend more time talking with Fred about the situation and see first-hand the wonderful work he is doing to improve the quality of life for the community there. It was obvious that the people, especially the children, trusted and liked Fred a lot and as a result warmly accepted my presence. Seeing what a real difference he is making meant that I was more than happy to contribute a fraction of my time while I was there helping with administrative tasks for Eyes to Burma (not Fred’s strong point). I also didn’t hesitate in making a few small financial contributions myself and encouraging others to do the same.

In September 2013 I returned for a further three month visit and saw what progress had been made. The situation is constantly changing and Fred is well placed on the ground to respond to the new challenges that arise. I’m back working in Egypt now (sadly my poor Arabic language skills mean that I can’t talk to the people I see on a daily basis here collecting garbage, but I have been known to run after them holding out my empty water bottle and shouting ‘plastic!’)  and am very much looking forward to returning to Mae Sot for a few days in February 2015. Going to visit a garbage dump may not feature in most people’s holidays plans, but for me catching up with Fred and seeing how things are developing will be a great way to end my trip to SE Asia and hopefully there’ll be less tourists than at Angkor Wat (although the dump does get its fair share and not always for the right reasons).

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November 2014: Nigel and Diane from Perth, Australia

photos from Nigel and Diane, Eyes to BurmaNigel and Diane are visiting Fred and spending several weeks with the community at the dump this month. Nigel is posting updates with photos and videos on ETB’s Facebook page. Like our Facebook page to get the news!

From Nigel & Diane:

Today & this evening we saw how helpful Eyes To Burma really is. I can’t thank everyone enough from around the world who support Eyes To Burma.
I told you earlier in the week that we had a surprise for you today.
Fred done something different for the people of the rubbish dump today. He put a lot of planning into this and last night the weather look like it was going to spoil everything. But this morning we woke up and found the weather so beautiful.
So off we went buying more rice, mats, water.
At 10am we went to the Burmese Buddha Temple and pick up 3 Burmese Monks and took them to the new block of land we now have at the dump site.
Here the people cooked food for the Monks and offered to the Monks.
The head Monk gave a talk to everyone and then everyone joined in chanting and receiving a blessing from the Monks..
As I looked round at everyone listening to the Monks, I saw how happy these people were today.
The smiles on their face told us how they were feeling today. After the Monks left everyone was so relax and HAPPY HAPPY. More food was cooked then it was time for Burmese singing and dancing.
On this day no one was thinking of working in the rubbish and the children had a day off school.
When we left them at 9.30pm tonight, they were still cooking and singing.
For Diane & I, this has been the best day of our lives.
Without Eyes To Burma and all the kind supporter we have, these beautiful people would never enjoy a day like today.
I will add as many photos & videos to this page tonight as I can.
Thank you Fred for this magical day. We will all sleep well tonight. 
— in Mae Sot, Thailand.


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