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 will be published soon in the university website reaching about 15000 students plus alumni and staff.  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 be published in mid-September and reach thousands of readers.  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. 

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.  

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.  

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.

 

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.  

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