It was late on Christmas night when the meditation finished. The energy from the hourlong dancing and Sanskrit chanting flowed into charged silence and was now dissipating into the darkness.
Meditation is a twice-daily practice at Baan Unrak Children’s Home in western Thailand, where I had come to volunteer with 20 friends, but it was novel to all of us.
Currently, 112 abandoned, abused, or orphaned youth live at the home. The project has no religious affiliations, but it is operated by the international Ananda Marga yoga foundation, which has community service as a founding principle for reaching enlightenment. The phrase used in meditation, “ba’ba na’m kevalam,” is translated from Sanskrit as “love is all there is.”
Didi Devemala, an Italian woman who runs Baan Unrak, stood in the front of the room to announce the winners of the Christmas card contest. She held up a card depicting an immaculately traced stocking, and compared it with one of a laughing Santa walking in a lopsided winter landscape.
Crossing between roles of teacher, older sister, and spiritual leader, she explained, “When you copy, you are perfect only on the outside. When you create something from your mind, you are perfect from the inside.” The off-balance Santa drawing got first place.
Though this philosophy may never cross into the Japanese educational approach, it still seems an excellent analogy for the learning process. My friends and I had all come to Thailand on holiday from our teaching jobs in Japan, but we were equal parts teacher and student while volunteering at Baan Unrak.
For the past 7 years, Baan Unrak has been the site for a large-scale volunteering project by English teachers taking part in the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program. The December 2006 trip brought 21 current and past JETs to the home. As in past years, we organized Christmas events and taught classes at the associated primary school.
Our vision for a Japan-style sports festival melted into a chaotic afternoon of free play under the December sun. The annual environmental day in town featured a town-wide trash collection with local schoolchildren, as well as a showcase of recycling-themed songs and skits. This year at Baan Unrak, there was the added excitement of the beautiful, new home building, which was funded by a benefactor in Italy.
The Baan Unrak Primary School, down the hill from the home, is in its second year of accreditation by the Thai government. Up to two-thirds of the children at the home are refugees from Myanmar, and have no legal documentation. However, enrollment in a Thai school allows them to stay in the country.
The English, art, and drama teachers at Baan Unrak are long-term volunteers, but short-term volunteers can help with classes and teach about international culture. Our group taught classes as varied as Scottish folk dance, Hawaiian hula and origami.
Baan Unrak is the cornerstone project of Go MAD (Go Make A Difference), a Web-based volunteering network affiliated with the national JET social organization. It was started in 2000 by Angela Peltzer, and is run on a revolving basis by current JET participants.
Though many are also involved in charity projects in their local communities, Go MAD primarily organizes global volunteering opportunities.
Two other Ananda Marga schools have also welcomed groups of JETs on winter holiday volunteer projects. Lauren Messing, a national coordinator for Go MAD, has organized trips to an orphanage and attached school in west Bengal, India, for the past two years.
Though India can be daunting and potentially dangerous for solo travelers, volunteers are safer in a group and can accomplish more. The weeklong “English camp” brought 500 underprivileged children together to do games, English lessons and activities. Unlike Japanese children, who have access to some of the best public schools in the world, children in this area of India have limited school materials.
Learning English with a native speaker is an opportunity that cannot occur without volunteer resources. Volunteers also brought school supplies, small presents, and clothing for the children at the orphanage or in the surrounding village. Small groups of JETs have also traveled to Sunshine School in Laos in order to teach.
Another aspect of these volunteer activities is fundraising. JETs have played a hand in coordinating sustainable forms of income for several of these projects. Jennifer Hobbs, of Hyogo Prefecture, coordinates distribution and sales of cards and woven goods for both Baan Unrak and a group of schools in India.
At Baan Unrak, the children design Christmas cards, which are printed in Thailand and sold primarily by JETs. This serves the dual purpose of raising awareness and crucial funds. At 1,000 yen for 10 cards, they are cheaper than standard stationery in Japan, but generate a heavy profit when the money is transferred into Thai currency. The sales have raised over 900,000 yen each of the past two years, which is enough to cover operating expenses at the school for up to three months.
Several rural schools in India also benefit from the sales in Japan of student-designed greeting cards and handwoven goods. Fashion-conscious Japanese culture coupled with the recent focus on fair trade products make Japan an ideal business partner for the woven products.
Many of the workers in India are single mothers or unmarried women who have no other options for employment. The woven goods are inexpensive for buyers in Japan, but the sales benefit the schools and the weavers in India significantly.
During Golden Week, 15 JETs will travel to Laos for a weeklong trekking adventure in conjunction with a yearlong fundraising project to build a new school. Given the opportunity to visit foreign countries during the public holiday period, they are making the most of it.
Jennifer Willett, a teacher in Nagasaki, heard about Room to Read, a highly-regarded nonprofit organization that builds schools in developing countries, at a JET seminar in May of 2006. She explains: “I was looking for an organization with the right ethos, and Room to Read has it.” She selected Laos as a recipient country, promoted the project throughout the prefecture, and dubbed the project “Laotian Commotion.” The project is looking to raise 2 million yen for the construction and start-up costs of a new school.
Thus far in their fundraising events, JETs in Nagasaki have hosted several parties, conducted a photo scavenger hunt and produced a CD cookbook for English speakers. The biggest project will be the trekking tour during Golden Week, for which each participant will individually raise funds. The trekking group’s efforts will generate nearly half of the money needed for the construction of the school.
Laos is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, and many children cannot attend school because they must work. There is a severe lack of educational resources, and the adult illiteracy rate is about 44 percent. The schools built by Room to Read are funded by outside sources, but are community-operated and generally closed to outside volunteers.
Willett adds: “I feel that a school has more chance of being well used and looked after if the community has had to pull together to make it happen.” As an experienced teacher in England and Japan, she wants to give Laotian students the same chance at an education that her own students already have.
Go MAD gives independent volunteers an opportunity to find reliable project sites that have been visited by another member of the group. For this system to work, it relies primarily on networking opportunities made available through the JET Program. National conferences and seminars are the primary venues for recruitment and distribution of information.
All of the volunteers involved in these projects have their own motivation for participating. Some love the teaching experience, whereas others enjoy learning a new language while in a foreign countries. It is powerful to be able to give the gift of education to a child that would otherwise have limited opportunities.
My own reasons are encompassed in moments: I think about the last day I was at Baan Unrak, walking in the morning mist with my sister to the school gates. We were intercepted by a hug attack from a group of elementary students, all crying out “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!”The joy I felt surrounding us in that moment is one of many things that inspire further volunteering. Volunteers do give freely of their time and money, but what they get in return is immeasurable.
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