Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Thank You, Warm Heart

The following comes from former WH volunteer Anne Bannister:

In 2012, I spent the fall of what was my junior year of college serving as official photographer and director of Public Relations/Communications for Warm Heart. 

This past May I graduated from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, with a BA in Studio Art and a minor in Communication Studies.  Less than a month later, I landed a job as a digital producer for a non-profit education advocacy organization in Austin, Texas, called Raise Your Hand Texas (www.raiseyourhandtexas.org).

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Graduation day with my parents Shala Mills and Mark Bannister

The job description was everything I wanted in a job but had been unable to articulate when asked that dreaded question, “So what do you want to do after you graduate?”

It read: “Raise Your Hand Texas, a non-profit, non-partisan public education advocacy organization, seeks a digital producer to lead the creation, curation, and editing of compelling storytelling designed to increase affinity of and support for public schools across Texas.”

It got better: “The perfect candidate will be part news reporter/journalist, part documentary/short filmmaker, part writer, and 100% narrative storyteller – an imaginative dreamer who can execute.” 

While working for Warm Heart, I had fallen in love with the idea of using photography as a means to share stories, in order to create empathy and inspire action.  Here was a chance to do that again in support of the five million children enrolled in public schools across the state of Texas.

When I applied for the position, I thought it was a long shot.  I had seen friends struggle to find work after college.  I was prepared to put out countless applications, to be interviewed, and then rejected, or to hear nothing back at all.  I was thrilled when Raise Your Hand Texas contacted me and scheduled a phone interview just five days after I had sent them my resumé and cover letter.  Four interviews later I received a call offering me the job. 

During the interview process I was told that the search committee would not normally consider someone who was just graduating from college, but that my resumé had stood out. The two achievements that had caught their attention were my video production experience working for the Southwestern University Admission Office and my time spent with Warm Heart.

My new job has been everything I hoped it would be and more.  It is challenging but exciting and I learn more with each day. My colleague Charlotte and I have been working on a series of videos profiling Texas school principals who have received sponsorship through Raise Your Hand Texas to attend a summer leadership institute at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  I have been inspired by the stories of the principals we have met, their steadfast commitment to helping their teachers grow, and the love they exude for their students.   

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Filming a video of Principal Semmler of Briscoe Jr. High School 

Here´s the link to a finished video for the “Leadership and Innovation Profiles” series:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DcAO1zjS5jY&list=PLh7ExDG5kpf_MSrtggRoONT81EeoXkyIv

Looking back, I am incredibly thankful that I was given the opportunity to work for Warm Heart. I am confident that I learned more in those six months than I did any other semester of school.

While volunteering at Warm Heart, I learned about Thai and hill tribe cultures and built a small Thai vocabulary.  I witnessed true poverty and what it can do to families. I learned about microenterprise and social entrepreneurship. I watched as the government blocked projects and funding disappeared. I learned about public health initiatives to provide basic treatments to villagers living in remote areas.

My camera came everywhere with me and I took over 8,000 photographs.  I helped to build a sponsorship program to support the boys and girls living at the Children’s Homes.  I was pushed outside of my comfort zone and grew in ways that I am still discovering.  I am forever changed because I lived, took meals, and played games with the children at Warm Heart.

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With Attitaya and Nipa

In addition to everything else that it did for me, I want to thank Warm Heart for helping me to land my first salaried job.  Volunteering does pay off!

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Getting a hug from Cafe

Saturday, September 13, 2014

So Much to Learn

The following comes from Georgie Snape who just completed a short stay at Warm Heart and who is already planning a second visit next year:

When I arrived at Warm Heart I was blown away by its beauty. Not just the stunning scenery, quaint little villages and winding roads which stretch on endlessly into the valleys beyond, but by the beauty of the people.  

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Beauty of Phrao

I had been teaching English in Hanoi since February 2013 and had visited Thailand many times, so I was familiar with the Thai people who are generally very friendly and welcoming.  But the people of Phrao took this friendliness to a whole new level: I was greeted with a smile on every face and regularly offered gifts and warm exchanges. The local staff and the Warm Heart kids really made me feel welcome.

I also joined a fantastic group of motivated, focused and friendly volunteers from all over the world, the USA, Canada, UK, France, Chile, China and South Korea. The diversity of people working here and the wealth of their skills and experience all helped to make my volunteering experience at Warm Heart so magical.

Unfortunately, due to prior commitments, my time here has been short, but I feel I have achieved a lot. Besides teaching nine classes a week and developing my own English teaching program and syllabus for the Warm Heart staff and children, I also devised a teacher training program so that less experienced teachers can be trained by other  volunteers. This way, English teaching at Warm Heart will be more consistent and maintained at a higher standard.

Before I agreed to volunteer with Warm Heart I wasn´t very interested in teaching English because that´s what I do as paid work. I also wanted to try something new. Turns out I absolutely loved teaching at WH. I realize I have a skill which I can share with many people, for free, and my contribution will have a lasting impact on the rest of their lives. Purely the fact that it wasn’t my job made it fun and enjoyable, and seeing the children enjoy learning was so rewarding and inspiring.

Highlights included recording basic conversations with Joy, one of my students, in order to practise everyday English and encouraging the boys´ group to practise speaking English. By the end of the lesson they could have a conversation about a set topic without any written prompts.  It was always fun having the younger children crowding around my laptop, eager to learn English through the Disney English Program. This program uses clips from Disney movies to demonstrate basic English vocabulary and sentence structures which the children would repeat and copy without prompting. One day I tried to take my laptop away to do some work and was met by fifteen mortified faces… so the laptop stayed where it was!

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English teaching with Joy and other WH kids

As part of my exit strategy I wrote a report with suggestions on how to improve the English program here at Warm Heart.  One suggestion was giving the children their own space for study – the building is currently being built.  Another involved getting access to teachers with higher qualifications and a greater experience by reaching out to UK universities and the internationally recognised CELTA program (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults).

I hope to return next summer to run a second project which will be part of WH´s public health program.  I am a trained drama facilitator/workshop leader and I´d like to work with the children to build their skills.  Hopefully they can learn to deliver workshops on HIV and AIDS to the wider community, in particular the local schools.  I have initiated contact between Warm Heart and my UK university (Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts) in the hope that we can set up an exchange program to train children in workshop facilitation over an extended period of time.

Outside of the classroom, other highlights have been:

1) Eating in local restaurants and making friends with the owners. They taught me some basic Thai phrases such as “takeaway”, “Can I have the bill, please” “What’s your name,” “Breakfast, lunch and dinner,” and the most important ones, “Coffee, tea, pork, chicken, rice and fried”!

2) Driving motorbikes around the nearby countryside with the other volunteers and taking a bath in the local hot springs!

3) Weekend trips to Chiang Mai and two trips, one by motorbike and the other on foot, staying with local Thai families high in the mountains of northern Thailand. This was a priceless opportunity to meet friendly local people and have an authentic introduction to Thai life.

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Olib, my fantastic tour guide

4) Helping the Beef Dairy Division of Animal Science at the local agricultural university to plant napier grass shoots in a WH field. These shoots will grow to be about three to four feet tall and are very nutritional, so they can be used as fodder to feed the cows for a whole year and are a much welcome source of feed for local villages’ cows.  Who knew handling poo could be so rewarding?!

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Michael photographing grass field planting

5) Last but not least is the memory of reading the mini-bios of each of Warm Heart´s nearly 40 kids. They don´t have many material goods, but they´re the wealthiest people I know in terms of love, happiness and positivity. They each have a life motto which is always optimistic and promotes reaching for opportunities with both hands. What particularly struck me was one boy’s ambition to travel the world, which is what I am lucky enough to be doing right now. The parallels between his world and mine became all too clear, and I hope that one day, he too will achieve his dreams.

As for me wanting to try something new, I have been washed in a stream by a local Thai family, tried off-road motorbiking, met people from all over the world, lived in a place that doesn’t have street lights, immersed myself in a new culture and planted a grass field.  In terms of personal and professional development I have now created my own learning program, managed volunteers and shared my skills. Not bad for three weeks work!

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Dinner in the mountains

I thought I was coming here to teach.  Instead I am going away having learned as much, if not more, than I taught.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Habitually Cooked Drunk Pig

The following comes from Eric Weber who is completing a three-month stint at Warm Heart:

I was the first to arrive at Warm Heart from this summer´s volunteer group.  I decided to immediately travel up to Phrao on a Friday which meant most of the Thai staff were away as well as Michael and Evelind.  So I had an incredible introduction to the place where I would be staying for the next three months.  At first the WH children were timid, but within the first night, I had Ying, Busaba and Pim hanging on my arms while I battled Milo and Coco in two-way ‘Rock-Paper-Scissors’ and we all watched an American movie dubbed in Thai. There was no one to speak English to, no formal introductions – the perfect start to a journey I knew would change my life.

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Being silly with Ying and Busaba

My initial project was working with sustainable agriculture. I joined Thai staff P’Jiang, ‘T’, Loon Doon and volunteer Helen Wieffering to develop a way to increase biochar production.  The biochar project has been ongoing and I picked it up at the point where the two instruments for burning, the FU2 and the Merry-go-round, were modified and ready to pump out highly carbonized corn cob and rice husks.  We first converted previous yields of biochar into nearly a ton of organic fertilizer to enrich Warm Heart’s farms and test the effects of biochar on these plots.  Although the sample sizes were small, I was amazed to see the quality and quantity of harvested corn planted with biochar fertilizer. 

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Biochar shed and rack

Protecting our corn husks from adverse weather conditions was our next mission since biomass only burns effectively under dry conditions.  With the rainy season quickly approaching, we built a shed large enough to house a week’s worth of corn husk from downpours. After weeks of battling harsh rains and experimenting with different ways to work through it, we were forced to submit to Mother Nature.  Looks like the project is a dry season endeavor.  But with the biochar site more developed, future Warm Heart volunteers will be able to produce large amounts of fertilizer to test, sell and introduce to village farmers.

Another project was filming and editing a movie for Warm Heart donors.  This ongoing work was continuously influenced by everything I experienced over the course of my entire stay in Thailand.  Interacting with people on an intimate level while not being able to verbally understand each other forced me to come up with new ways of communicating.  There were many things that the native Thai speakers wanted to say that they could not possibly express which resulted in frustration. Working through that initial frustration was a challenge for both parties but extremely rewarding.  Making my interviewees feel comfortable, allowing them to relax and explaining the same question or idea many times differently to create maximum understanding, helped bring out precious thoughts.

Not only was interviewing people that I have spent a great deal of time with informational, it was also an amazing tool allowing me to go beyond the superficial.  By asking specific questions, I was surprised by where the interviewee would go with a question about how they perceive their role at Warm Heart.  Observing my environment through a different lens (literally) was another way for me to take in everything that has been happening around me. On the day-to-day it’s easy to let beautiful details slip by, but by capturing them on camera, or simply by being more aware because I was looking for nice shots, I was more in tune with my surroundings.

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Spicy Thai salad and curries

My most memorable experiences were the everyday happenings that were all new for me. Monday morning market in Phrao with N’Pan and the girls made me really appreciate how they plan a week’s worth of food for 40 kids, 10 volunteers and whoever else happens to show up for dinner.  I was their personal bag handler.  I love the array of smells and chatter at the market where everyone knows everyone and you receive smiles from every direction. I also enjoyed eating out with volunteers from all over the world, learning and laughing together. 

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At Phrao market with N´Pan and Aom

Witnessing traditional rituals like feeding the spirit houses was a real revelation.  Of course, tasting new and interesting food – bamboo worms, cow skin, lap (spicy raw pork meat), frog and crocodile – were also unforgettable experiences.  English translations of Thai dishes on menus were always amusing: Whore´s Dust and Habitually Cooked Drunk Pig were the most hilarious. Last but not least, memories of playing with the children after school and on the weekends will remain close to my heart forever and have me considering the possibility of teaching in the future.

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Loon Doon performing a spirit house offering

My original goal when I decided to travel to Thailand and volunteer with Warm Heart was to learn about a new culture and connect with people.  Here at WH I have been introduced to people who are more concerned with spending time with loved ones, laughing and never taking life too seriously, rather than material wealth and making money.  Certainly there have been plenty of challenges, like failed projects, daily unforeseen obstacles and frustrating adjustments to language and cultural barriers, but these provided me with new ways to learn about the community we serve, the nature of NGO work and myself.  I will leave WH with a plethora of exciting, constructive and funny experiences to remember and share for the rest of my life.

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With fellow Warm Heart volunteers at Pai Canyon

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Life-Changing Experience

The following blog comes from Mauricio Villarreal who is completing a three-month stay at WH:

Since the first day when Evelind picked me up from Chiang Mai, I never doubted that I had chosen the right organization to achieve one of my longstanding dreams – visiting Thailand and volunteering in a rural community.  On the drive back to Warm Heart, she introduced me to a 19-year-old Thai girl born with HIV that WH supports financially, she bought food for a woman who is raising her nephews and nieces who were abandoned by their parents and she delivered charcoal to families in need.  It was a regular day for Evelind, but not for me.

Everything that I have encountered at Warm Heart has opened my eyes.  That feeling has deepened first as I met the Thai staff, WH kids, and the people in the community that we serve and then as I became involved in different projects.  Warm Heart is involved in so many ways in the community that it takes more than a single stay to understand.  Only Michael and Evelind know everything: taking care of around 40 kids with an assortment of problems, and helping disabled people and needy families is certainly not an easy task. Although WH has only been in existence for a few short years, already over 200 people depend on it directly.

Earlier this year, I took marketing courses at Stanford University in California and I wanted to apply what I learned to my WH project work. First I worked on WH’s communications strategy, leading the design and implementation of a social media plan to build our presence on the web. I analyzed the target audience, defined our brand´s voice identity and wrote up an operational manual.  I also developed a tool to track key performance indicators.  

Four weeks after rolling out the plan, I´m proud to report that we have exceeded our initial goals, increasing our audience on Facebook and other venues by 70% and generating awareness worldwide for potential new volunteers and donors.  I wanted to create tangible results for this organization so I´m really pleased with our achievements so far and the help that I received from the other volunteers.  Another volunteer will be taking over from now but he will have a detailed plan and operational manual so we will be able to maintain a consistent message with our audience. 

I also worked on enhancing WH´s Public Relations.  I reached out to my undergraduate university in Peru and gave an interview about WH and my volunteer experience.  The interview was published in the university website reaching about 15000 students plus alumni and staff at http://fresno.ulima.edu.pe/sf/sfgr_bd001.nsf/OtrosWeb/bol2014100/$file/MVILLARREAL.html.  I also did a lot of research, sending out dozens of emails and posting on blogs, looking for interesting tie-ups.  That effort resulted in me getting an interview with a high-profile Peruvian magazine which should reach thousands of readers; here´s the link for that article (in Spanish): https://asiasur.com/ediciones/edicion-165/ on pg. 24.  Again, my goal was to increase global awareness of WH and to attract new volunteers and donors. 

In addition to my two main projects, I was always up for new challenges and experiences such as making visits to disabled people that WH works with in the community and spending time with our children. Witnessing the pure joy they radiate despite very difficult circumstances inspired me and gave me a new perspective on how to enjoy life.  Last but not least, it has been very satisfying learning how to get things done despite the language barriers. 

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Enjoying the simple things in life - playing with the kids

Volunteering abroad in a rural community with a different culture has allowed me to develop valuable skills can’t be learned from working in your comfort zone.  Facing new challenges has now become part of my life and my view of the world has greatly expanded.  I´ve become more flexible, I´ve learned to appreciate what I have in life and I´m more open to living and working in different cultures.  I have also learned a lot working with a multicultural team of volunteers and local staff – even my English has become more fluent.  This has definitely been an enriching, life-changing and hands-on experience that I would like to repeat someday.  

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With fellow volunteer Stéphane

I will also never forget the many great moments that I shared with the other volunteers in these past three amazing months.  Our weekend trips, waking up at three in the morning to watch the World Cup games, working out in Warm Heart’s gym surrounded by the beautiful green countryside, the 15-minute daily moped commute from the volunteer house, and nights at the Crocodile karaoke restaurant are just a few of the moments that come to mind.   

I can´t believe that I almost missed my trip to WH due to the military coup in Thailand and the travel warnings.  Turns out that life in quiet Phrao wasn´t really affected by the anti-government protests, martial law and nationwide curfew.  Unfortunately my time here is coming to an end.  But I leave Warm Heart changed in every way, both personally and professionally, from my daily living routines to my greatest aspirations and dreams.  

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One of the best gifts I´ve ever received - a bracelet from Miew

Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Summer with Warm Heart

The following blog comes from Helen Wieffering who´s completing her stay this summer at Warm Heart:

Yesterday afternoon, I walked down to the kitchen to work with our weekly math study group. While the older girls did homework, I quizzed the boys on their multiplication facts and helped Natdanai with a question on fractions. Around us, antsy kids were unloading backpacks, three girls were playing jump rope, Thai music was playing from a cell phone somewhere. It’s always seemed to me that Warm Heart comes back to life when the kids arrive home from school. I love being there to see that transformation - from quiet kitchen to joyful chaos.

Warm Heart kids piling into the pick-up truck

Admittedly, when I first arrived with the intention of teaching, I expected a much different classroom experience. I pictured a small private room, neat piles of paper, structure. The reality is nothing like that, and I’m so glad. Amidst the energy of the after-school kitchen scene, our study groups have a much more open, flexible, and team-oriented feel. Though some days I have to compete for the kids´ attention, on other days, the entire kitchen staff gathers round and takes part in the session.

My goal in working with Warm Heart’s oldest students (ages 14-15) was to bring them up to speed on math fundamentals. At the beginning, many of them couldn’t tell me the product of 3x4 or 2x5 without careful, slow thinking. As Evelind and Michael told me coming in, their students have very little “math sense”, meaning they can complete operations and follow steps, but have little understanding about what their answer means or whether it’s even close to correct. Changing that fact felt like a tall order, but I hoped that with regular study groups and practice I could get them to think about math a little differently.

Multiplication practice with Foo, Songha and Natdanai

Over the course of my time here, we’ve worked hard on multiplication, division and estimation. We’ve done more logic-based thinking with games like Sudoku and KenKens, where I really had to push the kids pause and think. Progress has been slow but substantial and I wish I could stay longer to work with them further. It’s been fun teaching math because numbers are universal; even when we can’t understand each other in words, we can communicate with equations and examples.

The same is not true in the English sessions which are held about once a week. I remember meeting with the group of girls – Joy, Arm, Aoy, Mint – on my first day and asking them all sorts of questions, excited to get to know them and receiving only blank stares in return! While conversation is still out of reach, I’ve tried my best to work with them on vocabulary and speaking practice. If anything, it seems to me they’re a little less shy about approaching English now - more open to making mistakes and learning from them.

Views from a motorbike ride around Phrao

Apart from teaching and tutoring in the afternoons, the earlier part of my day has been left open to help out with other projects. I spent June and most of July working with Michael and Eric on Warm Heart’s efforts to make and test biochar as a sustainable fertilizer for farmers in the area. We spent a lot of sweaty days in the sun, shoveling ash and compost, mixing the ingredients into the final product. When the rains came, we built a shed to keep the corn cob dry and we strategized about the best system for producing biochar in bulk. Despite our best efforts, the late-July season proved to be too wet to continue burning – so we’ve set aside the project for now. I hope future volunteers will get involved with fine-tuning this process and testing the fertilizer; there’s so much potential left here.

Playing with yo-yos one rainy afternoon

In my last few weeks, I’ve been involved in a team effort to make a video about Warm Heart. As I prepare to leave, it’s fitting for me to think about what Warm Heart means and how best to capture it. We interviewed Nit on her last morning before she headed to Bangkok for university, and we talked to Aom before she, too, leaves for a graduate program on a hard-earned scholarship she recently won. I’ve loved getting to know all these characters that make Warm Heart what it is, through building sheds with P’Jiang, tutoring with Koon Noy, and listening to Michael’s crazy stories.

Each day here means a new set of complications and unplanned events, but often these lead to the best surprises. I’ve unexpectedly found myself at a Buddhist ceremony in a forest temple and gone hunting for mushrooms in the woods with PJ. We’ve ridden in the bed of the pick-up truck with 20 Warm Heart kids, careening down the highway, on a Saturday adventure to climb a waterfall. There are days when it’s frustrating to find out that certain plans can’t be accomplished or that new roadblocks have arisen, but I’ve had to learn to take it in stride. Somehow, everything important always gets done.

Making offerings at a Buddhist ceremony

I’m struck most by Warm Heart’s strong sense of community and their commitment to building support networks in Phrao. Reaching out to people, in ways both big and small, is I think what Warm Heart does best. I’ll be sad to say goodbye to everyone here, including all the volunteers I’ve gotten to meet and work alongside this summer. I can’t wait to see where they’ll take Warm Heart when I’m gone, and to follow all of Warm Heart’s ventures in the future.

 

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