Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Finishing the Kindergarten in Ban Dua

It's hard to believe a year has gone by! We have been continuing to work on our projects in Laos. This year the kindergarten at Ban Dua will be completed (it still needs the cement posts and the second room completed). We will also continuing helping teachers to network and share resources through regular meetings. Stay tuned for updates and photos (likely not until February).

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Ban Dua's Kindergarten Gets Walls!

Ban Dua is a small village on an island called Don Beng on a stretch of Mekong River in Southern Laos known as See Phan Done (Four Thousand Islands). In the dry season the river recedes, revealing thousands of islets. In the monsoon, the river covers many of them. The island's only claim to fame is that it still has remnants of the old French trail, which is now a dirt path through this one-path town. Tourists rarely go there. There are no guest houses, and no clean water or electricity. Most of the people who live there come from families that have lived on the island for generations. They grow their own rice and vegetables and catch their own fish. Unfortunately fish have been on the decline for the past 30 years. This situation can only deteriorate with overfishing and the new dam projects being built along the river for hydroelectricity.

Despite the island being small and isolated, a number of the residents are fairly educated (By Laos standards) and believe in the importance of education for their children. The kindergarten school at Ban Dua was first built by an American in the 1960s. In the following 40 years the termites ate most of the wood, creating extensive structural damage. The cement base was still sound however, and some of the wood was salvageable once trimmed of the damaged bits (the wood in Laos is so hard it's like iron--very challenging to hammer nails into).

All of the villagers pitched in to help with putting up the walls. They also prepared lunch (they even made a special vegetarian dish just for Thanou and I). They continued with their previous trend of feeding us fresh coconuts from morning till night (which meant they had to shimmy up the tall trees to get them--and once incurred the wrath of angry red ants to do so). Ah how I love fresh coconuts! They are one of the healthiest foods on the planet, and I'm convinced they are part of the reason why I was never sick during my stay in Laos--a first!) We did try to help with the actual building, but mostly just got in the way.

There were some interesting challenges with putting up the structure (it was all done by human-power with a few long pieces of bamboo) but it was still completed in record time (4 days, though that doesn't include all the running around we did to get the materials at the best prices). Due to limited time and resources, we only did one room of the two-room building. However, this gives them a good solid room with walls and a new roof to protect them through the monsoon, and we'll finish the other side next year. It still needs cement posts, and then the base brickwork for the second room, and a few more pieces of tin for other side of the roof. That said, it looks great as is and is quite functional for now. We also bought the school some basic supplies, such as floormats, blankets for the children when it gets cold, and the usual pencil crayons and notebooks.

We are very happy with the outcome, and especially with all the help we received from the community itself. Bravo to Ban Dua--the small village with a big heart!

People from the community raising the post structure during the kindergarten school room renovation.

Ban Dua's volunteer builders in front of what will be the newly renovated kindergarten room.

The newly renovated kindergarten room in Ban Dua.

A before shot of the inside of the kindergarten. An after shot of the inside of the newly renovated kindergarten room with Shawn and Ban Dua's kindergarten children.

Kindergarten children in front of their newly renovated school room.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Visiting Schools

Unfortunately we won’t have time to visit all 16 schools this year, so we decided to visit two schools based on leadership and need (as well as finishing off our project with the kindergarten we helped last year in Muong Khong).

Khinak Kindergarten: Water Pipe

Phengphanh Philachak (head of kindergarten) with water pipes purchased by Jai Dee.

The first school we visited was Khinak, on the mainland, which serves around 80 children. We were very impressed with the kindergarten principal and her teachers—when we arrived the children were focused on learning shapes, and each child was taking turns at the blackboard. The rooms were clean, orderly with a wash basin area. And she had used old tires to create a play area outside for the children. The only thing they really needed was a waterline from the elementary school next door, and since it was only $50 we decided to do it on the spot. We went to the local hardware store, bought the pipes etc, hired a contractor and left. We shall go back to check on it in a few days.

Ban Dua Kindergarten: A School with No Walls

The second school we visited was Ban Dua, on the little island of Don Baing. During the meeting with all the principals, the principal of Ban Dua’s kindergarten really stood out because of her enthusiasm and initiative. She said that her students attended regularly even though the school had big holes in the walls. They had no money so she made her own educational toys.

Getting to Ban Dua turned out to be an adventure. We rented a motorbike and drove from Muong Khong to the end of the island. Then we parked our bikes in the ferry owner’s backyard and waited for him to come and start the ferry—a couple of dugout-style boats with planks of wood nailed across them. From the other side it was a 20-minute walk across dried up rice fields and through the small village of Ban Dua before we arrived at the kindergarten. The principal had not been exaggerating. The walls were mostly missing and the roof had holes all over it. During storms, the wind whipped through and water would lash the children. Not to mention the fact that you can’t put up posters or store school supplies in such a faulty building. We talked to the government official for the school (both the elementary & kindergarten schools) and were soon joined by a mix of other teachers and locals. We told them we wanted to help but it had to be a partnership. We would provide the materials, but the community would have to pitch in to help. Also, it would need to be done very fast, started within a week.

This created a flurry of planning and measuring. Meanwhile, we were handed fresh coconuts with straws in them. It was many hours later when we took the long walk back to the ferry and headed to the market to order the supplies. Actually getting the supplies (and money changed to pay for the supplies) was another adventure, which included 2 full days of driving around on a rented motorbike from dawn till dusk. But all is on track and we’re excited! This Saturday (Jan 19) we will be up at 5am to go over and help the community put up the bricks, wood, etc. We’ll be buying lunch for all—which means we buy the food here and bring it there to be cooked. They’ll be contributing freshly-caught fish. It should be quite a good, dirty workout!

Left to right: Come-mun Mannivanh (head of kindergarten), Thanou (Jai Dee), Somie Singh-sa-vah (head of education for Ban Dua).

Making Children’s Picture Books for 15 Schools

During the meeting we held with the principals of the 16 kindergarten schools in the district, Nyom showed the other teachers how she had made her own children’s books out of exercise books and pencil crayons. The teachers wanted to make their own, and since we want to encourage creative initiatives we decided to buy the basic materials for them. We had already planned a trip to Pakse to pick up the fencing materials to finish last year’s kindergarten school fence, so it would be easy to pick up the school stuff.

The trip included a dusty 3-hour songthaow (open truck) ride from Muong Khong to Pakse with Nyom (the principal of Muong Khong’s kindergarten). The truck dumps you on the outskirts of Pakse, so we had to catch a tuk-tuk (motorcycle taxi) to the central market, the Dow Hun market. Trying to get work done in Laos is always an adventure! And getting them home was really something—imagine transporting a huge section of steel fence, boxes of school supplies and 6 bags of vegetables on various buses (we had to lug them around ourselves!) But we got the fencing and supplies and they’ll be handed out at the next monthly meeting.
Nyom buying school supplies in Pakse.

Nyom and Shawn try to take a nap on a loaded truck with people and stuff.

This is what the truck looks like. Check out the bananas.

Finishing Last Year’s Fence for the Kindergarten

Last year we built a fence for Muong Khong’s kindergarten to protect the children from the river and keep out the elementary school children and water buffalo. However, we didn’t have enough time to put the bracing on—the pieces along the top that keep the fence straight during the monsoon, and one wall of fencing behind the school. So, we’re doing that this year as quickly as possible. We’ve bought the fencing, the wood as been delivered, and all is on track for that.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Hospital Visit

While we were working on our project (the kindergarten schools) in Khong District, we went on a tour of the local hospital in Muong Khong (following a request from two goodhearted nurses we met from Switzerland--Marie Claire and Evelyn). We met with the chief of office public health, Dr. Soubanh Kangnavong and he showed us around and explained the challenges the hospital is facing. While we are unable to take on this project, we are hoping that other organizations, such as international hospitals, will consider getting involved. Even if you can only mail some old surgical instruments, that would make a big difference in a place like this.

Overview of Muong Khong Hospital

The hospital serves a community of approximately 50,000. It has 7 doctors and 4 nurses, who were educated in Vientiane, Laos and also in Vietnam and Bangkok. The hospital does approximately 4-5 operations per month, which have an infection rate of 10% (which he says is low for the area). They act as a pharmacy for the area, ordering in antibiotics and other drugs from Vientiane. Patients must pay for the cost of all drugs or medical items used, but the hospital and doctors provide their time for free (paid by the government).

The most common problems for adults are appendicitis, cesarean sections and gall bladder infections. However they also see TB and malaria patients, and a large number of people with diabetes and parasites.

The most common problems for children are lung infections, stomach problems (diarrhea) and parasites.

The equipment at the hospital is extremely old and in very bad condition. They have very little resources. Lives in the area could be saved if you or someone you know could send some second-hand medical equipment.

The following items are desperately needed:

  1. Sterilizer (their sterilizer is broken and they are currently using steam a firewood stove).
  2. Blood separator (theirs is 40 years old and broken. Right now they have no separator).
  3. X-ray machine is broken, so they are unable to diagnose broken bones.
  4. Surgery instruments (they are in dire need of instruments and would be happy to receive old second-hand instruments).
  5. UV lights to sterilize
  6. Sugar level reader for diabetics
  7. Ultrasound equipment
  8. Needle boxes (holders specially for needles)
  9. Anything else you can think they have almost nothing at this hospital.

If you can help in any way it will be of great benefit to this poor community, and will save lives. If you are able, you are welcome to visit the hospital yourself. Unfortunately, we are not able to oversee this project ourselves due to extremely limited resources, but if you would like to get involved you can contact the hospital directly. We will be happy to help with language barriers if we can and whatever else we are able to help with--for example, if the equipment is complex and needs to be properly explained, we can have the documents translated in Lao. Just drop us a line.

Dr. Soubanh Kangnavong,
Chief of Office Public Health
Khong District, Champasack Province
(Phone: 020 2207062)

Top to bottom: broken sterlizer, current needle holders, broken 40 year old blood separator.

Revisiting Muong Khong Anuban Kindergarten

When we first arrived in Muong Khong we visited Muong Khong Anuban to see how many of the changes we had made were still in place. We were very impressed to see that Nyom had remained true to her word and had continued to improve conditions by building stairs and creating gardens. She also created her own children’s books from the notebooks we gave them last year! Very impressive. And pop-up books at that.

Meeting in Muong Khong

We are here in Muong Khong. Today we had our meeting with all the school principals for kindergartens in the Khong District—12 out of 15 attended, which was a good turnout. Government education officials also attended.

What Happened

We asked each principal to share basic info such as number of teachers and students as well as their biggest challenges and immediate needs. Interestingly, the biggest challenge is attendance. Out of 6,500 kindergarten-age children in Khong District, only 300 attend school. The reason is because parents don’t see the value of kindergarten, even though it is where the child is first introduced to the alphabet and basic numbers—necessary for grade 1. However because the kindergarten schools are so poorly equipped—some don’t even have a building, just operate outside in the shade—parents don’t want to send their children.

Possible solutions include educating the community about the importance of kindergarten and also improving the basic facilities of the kindergarten schools, to make them seem more attractive to parents—a safe and useful place to leave their children.

Many schools need help with the most basic of needs. For example, about half of the schools need toilets, and a few have no access to water. A couple don’t even have a building—they are held outside in the shade. They all need teaching supplies, such as chalkboards, crayons, paper, and educational toys. Most don’t have desks or chairs. Quite a few are sharing space with elementary schools, and classes are disrupted by older children.

To find out who our possible leaders were (principals with initiative) we asked what kinds of things they were doing to try to solve their own challenges. This actually was a very difficult question for them—it had to be asked many times in many ways. It is not in the culture here for people to show initiative because it is has a communist-style gov’t. Initiative is not encouraged. But eventually we were able to get enough answers to find a couple people in the group who are showing initiative—such as making their own educational toys for children and visiting parents to ask why they don’t send their children to school.

Next we will visit a few possible schools to decide which one we can help—where we will have the most impact.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Heading for Laos

Happy New Year! This year, 2008, Shawn and I are feeling so grateful for all of the incredible people and experiences who have passed through and been part of our lives. More and more we feel that service to others is the key to enjoying life to the fullest, because we are all connected when we help each other, we help ourselves. So we are grateful for Jai Dee as a venue for helping others--in this case the small children of Muong Khong, who live in one of the poorest countries in the world, and of course the children in the slums of Howrah near Calcutta, which is our 2nd project run by the amazing and goodhearted Mamoon.

For now, we’re in Bangkok and it’s hot, hot, hot! Tonight we’re taking an overnight train to the Laos border. Then we will take a bus to Pakse and another (mini) bus to Kong Island (where our kindergarten project is located).

On January 9th, we will meet the principals of the 16 kindergarten schools in the district. This meeting will allow us to understand their needs and build relationships. It's very important to us to understand the reality for the children so we can help in a sustainable way. We will follow up this meeting by visiting and documenting some of most needy schools, and doing what we can to help with the funds we raised this year.

We would like to thank our volunteers, the musicians, the donors and sponsors for everything. We’re full of gratitude to you all. You should be very proud of yourselves--helping to change the lives of these children who, otherwise, would be left behind. It's an honour to work with you all in the service of others.

Thanou and Shawn

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

New Year

New Year's Eve

We spent New Year's Eve in Hua Hin (3 hours from Bangkok)--a small city where most of the tourists are Scandinavians and wealthy Thais (and thankfully mostly families--no "party culture"). I'm happy to announce that even though it's hot and sunny I'm healthier than ever. For those of you who don't know, I suffered from a debilitating sun allergy/autoimmune disorder for the past 8 years, which I have turned around with diet and lifestyle changes. I learned a lot of valuable lessons from it--it taught me to value every minute of life, with an understanding that there are no guarantees of tomorrow.

"Letting Go" Lantern Ritual
We brought in the New Year on the beach with a Swedish family who had already made friends with all the locals. We watched as the Thais released sky lanterns (like mini hot air balloons--the flame from the candle heats the air inside the rice paper lantern, causing it to rise). It's a beautiful ritual--they are sending up all the challenges and troubles of the past year. They let them go so they can start over, free of trouble, free of worry. This is so much better than what we tend to do in the West--holding onto all our troubles and worries as though they are part of who we are, when they only hold us back.

I am trying to learn from the Thais--to just let go of the old and welcome in the new! The Thais also know how to have fun. They were shooting fireworks everywhere-the big fancy loud ones. It was a bit crazy trying to dodge them.

Our Projects in Laos
Tomorrow we leave for Bangkok, where we'll shop for some of the items needed at the schools in Laos. Then we'll catch a train to the Laos border, a bus to Pakse and a ferry or longboat to the island of Muong Khong, where we will check on the kindergarten school we helped last year, and begin this year's project.

Getting 17 District Kindergarten School Leaders Together
This year we are doing something exciting. We're having a meeting with the heads of all 17 of the district's kindergarten schools to get to the bottom of what they really need, the real challenges the children face and the best ways to help. We find a lot of charities have good intentions but end up helping in ways that don't have a long-term impact. Our focus in on making sure everything we do helps the children over the long term. After the meeting, we'll be working to help one kindergarten school, in the same way we did last year. We have already earmarked a couple but we are going to tour them and make sure the one we choose has strong leadership and a good long-term outlook. We will keep you updated!

Happy New Year to you all. May you fill this year with joyful experiences and adventures, learning and growing and soaking up LIFE!

All the best,
Shawn and Thanou