Monday, April 28, 2014

What Time Is It, Mr. Wolf?

The following blog comes from Vevve Biagioni:

After graduating in Business Administration in May 2013, I volunteered for eight months at the headquarters of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome as a communication expert. My role was to design a strategy for my team to effectively communicate to its target audience in different countries.  Working for an agency of the UN greatly expanded my view of the world and I decided it was time to explore that world further.

I knew that living in new settings overseas would make me more flexible and open to different cultures as well as enhance my ability to communicate and work in different environments.  My first stop was Nepal where I volunteered for three months with an international NGO that specialized in giving microcredits to women. Nepal wasn´t the first developing country that I had travelled in, but I found the life style very different from the others I had experienced. In the house where I lived, we didn´t have hot water and often no running water at all. We mainly used water in tanks, probably collected from a river, a well or a fountain.  We had no power for 12 hours a day so there was really nothing to do at night but have a quick dinner and go to sleep early. 

Working at a local level gave me a real understanding of the challenges facing NGOs operating in countries like Nepal.  For example, our ability to work efficiently was often hampered by long power cuts and the lack of access to basic tools such as computers. The microcredits had to be manually recorded in collective books.  Most of the women applying for loans to set up small businesses didn´t know how to set up the businesses and had no easy access to the internet.  Some were living in remote villages where their start-up and operating costs would never have been covered by whatever meager sales and profits they could hope to achieve.  

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Me in Nepal

Before leaving Nepal, I had an interview with Evelind about volunteering at Warm Heart.  I almost didn´t make it when my passport was stolen a few weeks before my scheduled departure.  After some frantic efforts on my part, I miraculously managed to recover my passport and soon found my way to Chiang Mai.  Strangely enough, my first impression was that Thailand is more progressive in many ways than my own country, Italy, which is currently in recession.  

Of course compared to Nepal, life in Thailand is really easy.  I can take showers and recharge my mobile and any technological device at any time of the day. We often forget how important and precious these simple acts are until we don´t have them.  What I enjoy most about living at Warm Heart is the opportunity to interact with the Warm Heart kids.  Warm Heart reminds me of an institute where I used to stay every year for three months from the age of five to cure my asthma.

One of my first Warm Heart activities was finding something interesting for the WH kids to do after school.  I came up with the idea of playing “What time is it, Mr. Wolf”, a game I read about online.  I had never played it before, but it seemed a good game for the children to have fun while practicing a bit of English. The kids would ask me (Mr. Wolf) what time it was and if I answered “dinner time”, then I would chase them and whoever was tagged would become the new Mr. Wolf.  They loved this game and it was really sweet seeing them get all excited, running around trying to catch each other.

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Playing “What Time Is It, Mr. Wolf?” with the WH kids

I was assigned to the woven and sewn products microenterprise in the first week, but it took me a while to get to grips with everything.  Evelind needed me to support her in coordinating all the different activities.  Not only did I have to refresh my basic business knowledge, but I had to familiarize myself with the different products.  Before I could do a physical inventory of the stock, I had to use the color cards for each style to distinguish each color and learn the color names.  Fellow volunteer Kelly helped me take pictures of the scarves and also modeled them for me.  I uploaded the photos of a new style and a new delivery of an existing style into Dropbox so that others could have access to them.  The challenge was that the colors in the photos did not always look like the real colors. 

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Color assortment for Prism silk scarves

Most weekends I bring some scarves when I go to Chiang Mai and hand them over to Karen, our volunteer retail sales rep.  I´ve also joined her in visiting the stores that carry our scarves and have learned more about our target market, the positioning of our merchandise and the sales strategies of the stores.  Whenever possible, Karen and I have made suggestions to the stores about improving the display of our scarves.  After the visits, we write up the feedback received and evaluate our sales to help us forecast future needs.

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Visiting Chiang Mai retail outlets with Karen

Another project I´m involved with has been set up by Britta, a volunteer from Holland, who will be coming in June.  She wants to develop business in bracelets to be made by some of the local women who live around Warm Heart.  Nichola and I have done some advance research for her, visiting local bead suppliers, estimating the cost of raw materials and analyzing her future competitors already established in the market. To test the products that Britta has designed and plans to make, I wrote and conducted a consumer survey in Chiang Mai to determine buyer preferences of our target market.  I unfortunately found Asian tourists to be less willing to answer the questionnaire than westerners, but Karen, who is from Mainland China herself, helped me with translation.

Doing consumer marketing survey for Britta´s bracelets

I´m now entering my final weeks at Warm Heart.  I believe the organization´s strength lies in its involvement in multiple projects in different contexts made possible by the diversity of its volunteers who come from different backgrounds with a variety of professional skills and experience.   Volunteering here has been a great opportunity for me to integrate my existing knowledge base with those of my colleagues.  I´ve learned to overcome initial prejudices and to welcome the challenge of finding new ways to work effectively as a team member.  I consider challenges not as problems but as opportunities for growing professionally and I believe the other people at Warm Heart share this philosophy.   

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With the other WH volunteers

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Corporate Fundraising

The following comes from Michelle Cheng:

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost three months since I spent three weeks at Warm Heart.  I felt fortunate that Evelind accepted me despite my short stay.  Also my background in the corporate world is not what they usually encounter in prospective volunteers.  In the past, I´ve always enjoyed working with NGOs but usually as a donor or fundraiser.  This time I wanted a first-hand experience – what is it like to live on-site in the middle of all the NGO craziness; to understand how the funds are spent and what the priorities should be; and to learn how I could contribute personally.  In the back of my mind I was thinking that after I retire, I might do something similar to Michael and Evelind but I have to admit, I now doubt that I´d have the emotional stamina to stick it out.

My first impression of WH was that it is really in the middle of nowhere!!  After discussions with Evelind and Josephine about where I should stay, I bit the bullet and decided to learn to ride a motorbike.  I managed it without getting myself killed and actually enjoyed the 30-minute daily commute between WH and Pradu volunteer house.  

My first day in Thailand…

I come from a business and strategy background so I was naturally fascinated, like many volunteers, by their microenterprise projects.  After hearing about the challenges facing the various projects, it seemed that the only ones that were running viably were the sewing and woven products and biochar.  The rest seemed to be dealing with various roadblocks.  So at first I wasn´t sure how to make the best use of my three weeks.  I then ran a mini-brainstorm session with Michael and Dada to try and get my head around WH’s main focus and priorities.  Is WH a Children’s Home?  Or is it about the microenterprise projects?  Is WH a provider or an enabler to the communities they serve?

I also started asking questions around what is the most critical roadblock or issue at WH.  Almost everyone said emphatically that funding is the main issue.  WH has a board of donors who have been the main financial contributors to the Children’s Home.  Getting continuous funding from them has become increasingly difficult as the board wants to see results and impact.  Because of several obstacles, WH has only just started to gather this data and it is still at a preliminary stage. 

I then started thinking about how else could WH get funding?  Most NGOs have a very strong and established fundraising platform as it is the main engine that keeps everything running.  At WH, this doesn’t really exist.  Or it exists, but only on a personal outreach basis through Michael tapping his personal network.  But how sustainable is this to keep a grassroots operation running for the next five years and more?

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Brainstorming…

My main project work while at WH therefore became setting up a Corporate Fundraising platform.  The ultimate goal is to have at least three to five corporate sponsors to contribute in a number of ways, whether through direct donations, through staff exchange or other educational initiatives, or through engagement with WH´s different microenterprise projects. 

If WH is serious in working with corporate sponsors – in my humble opinion, we really have no other alternative – then there are a number of things we will need to carry out before we can approach the corporations.  I developed a Corporate Fundraising Guideline which outlined what those requisites are.  I also prepared a presentation template for Michael and Evelind to interact effectively with both Thai & multinational companies.  The template covers WH’s background, how we are growing, what we need, and what we are specifically asking for from the companies. 

I compiled a preliminary list of some companies for us to approach in Thailand and we have already begun conversations with the Peninsula Hotel and Tetra Pak (Thailand).  Tetra Pak was a personal contact of Dada´s and the discussion is moving forward and looks promising.  Obviously the goal is to gradually achieve a long-term partnership.  Corporate fundraising is something that I believe WH must start on today but it’s going to take a while before we will see any real traction as relationships take time to build.

For short-term fundraising, the idea of crowdfunding had already been discussed before my arrival.  Crowdfunding really is the most effective way to get a wider network to donate for a cause.  Together with Dada and Michael, we worked out the target amount to raise US$20,000, the story angle and then, after some research, chose Crowdrise as the most suitable platform for our event.  I´m grateful to my friends who contributed so generously.  Collectively we have achieved 80% of our target!

Just want to sign off by saying it’s been an amazing experience working alongside Evelind and Michael who have shown me that there are people in this world who are committed and who so graciously give to people in need.  I was also fortunate to work closely with two other passionate volunteers, Dada and Josephine.  Our paths are different and we come from different places in the world, but all of us found ourselves drawn to WH.  Hope our paths will cross again at Warm Heart or elsewhere!

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My last day with Sam, Jenny and Dada

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A World of Beauty

The following blog comes from Nichola Lord:

After graduating from the University of Southampton in Fashion Design, I decided I didn’t want to go straight into a company where I’d be expected to learn to work in specific ways to fit a particular job niche.  Instead I wanted to learn from the world and have the unfiltered experience of working ethically in different environments before continuing in my main area of interest which is sustainable fashion.

Throughout my studies and in whatever work I’ve undertaken over the past few years, my other top priority is being able help people.  Ideally I want to meld my two worlds – whether I’m helping to preserve the environment or helping people, I want to use my designs to promote awareness of the vulnerable.

To design and to create is to be influenced by the different cultures and experiences I find myself exploring when I travel and the people I meet along the way.  Everything affects my design work: “I smell with my eyes, taste with my nose and see with my ears”. 

After working and saving after university, I embarked on my first volunteer experience in Kenya, a short but intense five weeks which were truly amazing.  I lived with the Masai people in the Ngong Hills – made famous by the film Out of Africa – where I learned beading and began a women’s empowerment project.  The project name OMWA was the acronym for Orlasiti Matonyak Women’s Association, Orlasiti being their village name and Matonyak meaning “strong workers”.  I’m happy to say the project took off better than I anticipated and I hear has been carried on by later volunteers.

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…with my OMWA sisters…

Back in England twiddling my thumbs, I soon began planning my second adventure.  The decision to travel with my partner in Thailand for a year was a tough one because I’m really close to my family but, in the end, everyone understood and accepted my decision.  Volunteering at Warm Heart certainly sounded like an opportunity I wasn’t about to let pass.

Thailand, Land of Smiles, is how it is known.  First impressions of Chiang Mai – what a place, not quite a breath of fresh air due to pollution from the cars.  But my senses were soon working overtime, ingesting all the scenery, the multitude of shops and food choices, and enjoying the easy-going lifestyle, that I soon forgot about those clouds of smoke pouring out of exhaust pipes.  

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…sights and tastes of Thailand… 

After arriving at Warm Heart – my first time in a collective songtau transport – everything began well.  Opening discussions about what I wanted to achieve during my time here were met with enthusiasm and more ideas.  Then I learned how to ride a motorbike, another first.  But my luck changed when I hit a dead dog in the road on one of my first nights in Phrao. 

There I was, moaning to local medical volunteers about a possibly broken knee.  Luckily my boyfriend, who speaks fluent Thai, was on hand to translate.  After a few days, I got back on the horse-powered machine, but decided not to ride in the dark anymore and to go no further than the nearby Simpson restaurant.  My knee slowed me down for a few weeks but I was still able to lead the Monday afternoon English classes and go on some hill tribe visits.  In the office, I helped other volunteers with some Photoshop work.  Finally I mustered enough confidence to get back out and do my own project work. 

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my early weeks at Warm Heart… 

Every Monday and Tuesday without fail, my partner and I conduct all-day Art Therapy sessions in a village twenty minutes away called Longcott. The students – Beer, Foam, Cow and NitNoi – all have different disabilities.  Every week we give them new tasks with pictures and collages which suit their various special needs.  It is sometimes quite emotional hearing their stories, but we also share many laughs and really enjoyed our days together.  Even though our time is short, it has been a real privilege to be part of their lives.  Beer is now a good friend and we hope to have found him a little job producing postcards to help with physio for his hand.

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Art Therapy students hard at work

The rest of my week is spent liaising with Kru Noi, who is both afterschool tutor for the Warm Heart kids and who cuts for Ladies Design, the small sewing coop that we partner with.  Since last year, Warm Heart has been making laptop and tablet sleeves out of recycled rice bags for a U.S.-based online retailer.  The sleeves are quite complex, with lining, Hmong hill tribe trim and bulky industrial zippers, and have been a challenge to make to export standards. 

An integral part of the sleeve design is capturing the most interesting graphic elements in the rice bag of which there are different designs.  I produced a much simpler pattern for Kru Noi to use. In the past, she used a roughly measured pattern and estimations and although she did pretty well, all things considered, I hope my contribution has made her work easier and quicker. I also left folders archiving my patternmaking steps for future reference. 

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Kru Noi using new pattern to cut laptop sleeve pieces

As a former fashion design student, visuals are my thing and I created visual boards for each Art Therapy student.  Using the marketing research collected during visits to beading suppliers for an upcoming volunteer project and by other volunteers from our Chiang Mai retail store network, I also created inspiration boards and colour charts to help visualise what our data had concluded.

In my final weeks here, I intend to create patterns for a rucksack and a yoga bag.  My goal is to help create an overall “look”  for all Warm Heart products.  Hopefully having a consistent brand image will help us sell the Warm Heart story and product lines.  

My time in Phrao is nearing an end.  I’ve introduced my English Sunday roasts to my newfound Asian friends and experienced other international cuisines.  I am satisfied with my work here and feel I’ve gained both ethical and ethnographical knowledge.  The culture of northern Thailand is irreplaceable but the southern beaches are beckoning – a different dialect, a different world – so soon we must go.  

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Being a Part of Warm Heart

The following blog comes from Kelly (EunSun) Chung

Last summer I was looking for a new experience so I volunteered at a small NGO for two months to teach Korean to American teenagers.  I made many friends and learned a lot about teaching and volunteering.  The NGO was small but everybody enjoyed their jobs and worked really hard to help the students. I was so impressed by my experience that I decided to look for another volunteering opportunity.  I thought that maybe volunteering would help me find what I really want to do in life.

Then at the end of last semester, I decided to participate in a competition about coming up with ideas on how to develop my hometown of Bucheon (very near Seoul) through small changes.  I was one of the winners: my idea was to develop our traditional street markets by making products like traditional Korean handicrafts and organic food.  The government agency that sponsored the competition then asked me to learn more about how to develop small business in and with other countries.   

During my research, I came across the Warm Heart website.  I was very impressed by their work with the children, the elderly and the handicraft microenterprise so I decided to apply for a placement.  My family and friends were very supportive about my decision to volunteer in Thailand.  As I had never lived abroad or travelled on my own before, my parents were of course worried but they always encouraged me and reassured me that I would have a great experience.  Before I came, I myself worried about many things; my biggest concern was language.  I knew I would have to speak with the other volunteers in English so I practiced my English by joining an English-speaking group and hanging out with foreigners every chance I got. 

When I first got to Chiang Mai, everything surprised me.  I couldn’t believe how many motorbikes and cars there were in the streets – everything was so chaotic and different to Seoul.  At the same time, I could see that Chiang Mai was a pretty big city.  But coming to the Warm Heart complex was so different, so calm and quiet – it’s like time has stopped here. 

I’ve surprised myself by adjusting to daily life at Warm Heart quite well. Learning to ride a motorbike was a challenge but I’m proud to say that after practising on the sportsground at Warm Heart, I soon went on the main road and was toodling back and forth to the volunteer house in no time.  Eating Thai food and living with so many animals and insects was also new and uncomfortable at first, but because it’s so peaceful here, I’ve learned to cope.  I get stressed out easily by life in Korea – the traffic, the crowds, the constant exposure to media.  Although life in the Phrao valley can maybe be a bit boring, I love being here.    

With the WH kids during Chinese New Year

Most of my project work at Warm Heart so far is related to social media networks.  Back home I’m quite involved in social media networking so I thought I would try to increase awareness in Korea about Warm Heart and its activities.  My first task was to create a Korean-language blog for Warm Heart at http://blog.naver.com/sweetkelly1/50190144104 where I post about our activities and projects.  So far I’ve made about 30 connections through the blog, mostly from people who are working at NGOs or who are interested in Thailand. 

Thailand has a lot of Korean visitors so it’s good for them to be able to read about us in Korean.  Maybe we can get some contacts through my blog to help sell our scarves or to recruit more volunteers.  I am also in charge of Warm Heart’s Facebook and Twitter accounts; I post on Twitter every day and frequently on Facebook.  I’m also helping on the Give Our Kids The Future crowdfunding campaign.  I put together a few flyers and sent them to all my friends as well as posted them on my blog.  Unfortunately, so far the results haven’t been good.  I think Koreans aren’t used to making donations online. 

One of my Crowdrise flyers

Back home I take lots of photos and have made videos at university.  Michael liked my photos of the kids so he asked me to take photos of everything – the biochar project, the weaving microenterprise, the hill tribes.  My final job is teaching English to the kids at Pradu volunteer house every Monday afternoon.  At first I didn’t know how to teach Thai kids.  They couldn’t understand me and their English levels were all different.  But now I’ve realized that their biggest weakness is vocabulary and pronunciation so I’m focusing on that and things are going much better. 

Besides my work, I love being with the other volunteers.  It’s great that we can be co-workers and friends at the same time.  Everyone is so passionate about their project and we help each other whenever we can.  I also learn a lot from them.  Next Thursday night is my turn to cook for the volunteer dinner.  I’m really nervous about that because I’m not a good cook and don’t know how to cook Korean food with Thai ingredients. 

Hanging out with the volunteers

What I like most about being at Warm Heart is the people.  I can’t speak Thai but all the Warm Heart staff and kids try to talk to me even if their English isn’t very good.  They love to show me around and are always nice to me and smile a lot.  That’s really broken down the barriers and has encouraged me to get close to them.  In my free time, I love exploring in and around Phrao.  We went to the nearby hot springs which was awesome and one of my English students took us to the muay thai place. 

I’ve met many people in Phrao.  I have really white skin; Thai people love white skin so whenever I go to Phrao town, people always want to talk to me.  My favorite hangout place in Phrao is Doi Chang coffeehouse where I know all the workers who love to teach me Thai.  I’ve learned quite a few words and it’s fun trying to communicate with people. 

With my friends at the Doi Chang coffeehouse

Between spending time with the Warm Heart kids and hanging out with the other volunteers, my life here is full of joy.  Everything is much better than my expectations and I will treasure the memories I take away with me for a long, long time.  

I had a wonderful time with these hill tribe ladies in their village

Monday, February 24, 2014

Gecko’s Feet

The following blog comes from Samantha Neufeld: 

I’m nearing the end of my undergraduate studies in International Development and one of the final requirements is practical studies either in my home country, Canada, or overseas.  I started my research looking at placements in Australia and New Zealand simply because they were faraway destinations and because of their relatively warm climates.  As discussions about development continued in class, I felt conflicted about whether I wanted to work in bureaucratic development which is a top-down approach with inherent power struggles between beneficiaries and facilitators or participatory development where beneficiaries are included at every stage of the process. 

I therefore broadened my search to include southeast Asia and eventually came upon Warm Heart with its grassroots approach which is similar to participatory development.  My many classes and intense hours poring over textbooks gave me a pretty good idea about the theoretical, epistemological and managerial challenges facing any NGO and have been relevant in everything I’m now practicing at WH.  I came in with no expectations, no goals and no projects in mind, which I think initially threw Michael and Evelind, but I prefer to learn how an organization operates and then to be as useful as I can in whatever role they need me for.  I quickly learned that my organizational skills are quite useful here.  Evelind has many different hats and she juggles them ably, but she always welcomes help. 

Immediately upon arrival, I got assigned my first mini-project which was updating the biographies of the 40-something Warm Heart kids for the Sponsor Me program. It had been over a year since the last time they were interviewed and many of the kids needed a sponsor for 2014. Interviewing children takes a special skill which I frankly lacked, but I was game to try.  Every day after the kids came home from school, Nit and I rounded up a few to interview.  Our goal was to sit them down for at least 10 minutes to ask as many questions as possible.  But the kids were so full of concentrated energy that all they wanted to do was run off and play. Some days were particularly difficult when a kid was having a bad day and just said “No” to every question.    

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Tanggua who couldn’t stop giggling…

Luckily I always had Nit to fill me in on whatever she knew about each child’s personal story.  Some of the answers were tough to hear, like when a child didn’t know where their mother was or the date of their birthday.  My initial reaction was to delve in and ask more questions, but I would restrain myself and quickly move on to the next topic in case I was getting too personal.  Overall, it was easier to talk to the girls since both Nit and I are female.  All the boys were quite shy about opening up and the older girls were also quite modest.  One of the funniest answers came from Nong Danai who said that white girls inspire him.  Another answer that I really remember was one girl said she wanted to be a farmer because her aunt needed her. 

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Attitaya who wanted a new picture for the Sponsor Me section of Warm Heart’s webpage

The children’s biographies need to be updated every January.  I highly recommend this mini-project to any future volunteer because it’s the best way to get to know all the children on a personal level. I see the other volunteers walk around and none of the children quite know who they are, but they all know me which is really rewarding as they bring such a smile to my face. 

With the one mini-project done, I was quickly named the new ‘volunteer coordinator/project manager’.  This title involves regularly listening to Evelind spitting out information about tasks that we need to do next and making sure things are written down, organized and completed in a timely fashion.  Our first priority was completing the volunteer housing on the WH complex. With accommodation currently scattered in several rented locations, it made logistical and financial sense to have housing on-site.  That means that future volunteers can enjoy the full experience of what Warm Heart has to offer including hearing the cow bells in the distance at night and the roosters crowing at dawn.  When I arrived, the two houses were still barebones and needed to be completely fitted out.    

One thing I quickly learned was to always have a minimum of two plans, if not three, since Plan A rarely works.  From deciding on the location of the kitchen, to forgetting to put exterior electrical outlets for the fridges, or looking for velcro in Chiang Mai and Phrao – each task involved hurdles and reworked plans. The refrigerator saga was a concrete example of what we went through.  For two weeks we were told that someone was repairing the two secondhand fridges.  Then just when we had volunteers scheduled to move in the next day, we found out that they couldn’t be fixed after all. So we had no choice but to move to Plan B which, unfortunately when budgets are so tight, meant buying new ones. 

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Newly occupied volunteer housing

I’m proud to say that volunteer house two is now complete and house one is nearing completion. Three volunteers are staying there already and so far reactions have been good: everything is nice and new, it’s easier to roll of bed to get to work instead of facing a cold ride on a motorbike and it’s great to be near the kids.  There is still a lot to be done – two more housing units, a clean fish pond and a communal barbeque area – but I’m sure that everything will get done one day and be great.  I’ve enjoyed learning how to get things done despite the language barriers which is always one of my favorite parts of travelling.  I also learned that velcro is called gecko’s feet – the Thai language can be quite metaphorical.  

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View from outdoor kitchenette

Warm Heart has now restarted their volunteers’ dinner every Thursday night and it’s my turn to cook this week.  This is a great way for the volunteers to bond and tease each other about their cooking abilities.  Sitting around a table with comrades, people that will hopefully become life-long friends, is an experience to remember. Warm Heart has its bumps and bruises, but what’s to show if there aren’t a few scars? Those scars are proof that both the volunteers and the local communities where we find ourselves have managed to work through their problems, however difficult the journey.  

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