Global Playground Opens a Library in Northern Thailand

Monday, February 23, 2009 | posted by Global Playground News |
This past January when a Global Playground delegation trekked into the mountains of northern Thailand, they received a pleasant surprise. What they expected to find was Global Playground's library at the Huay Pung Mai school still under construction given that it was scheduled for completion in the spring. Instead, they found a fully-constructed library complete with bookshelves, hundreds of books, and students inside studying math, science, and even English.

The library was constructed in only seven weeks instead of the anticipated three months thanks to the leadership of Khun Noi, Huay Pung Mai's principal, and the dedication of the students and their parents. Many of the students spent their free periods during the school day helping to construct the library, such as by transporting brick to the construction site. Meanwhile, their parents labored day-in and day-out to construct the library in time for the arrival of Global Playground's delegation.

"When we arrived at the library, the parents were putting the finishing touches on the library by painting the school's name on it and fastening the doors. You could tell that the principal, teachers, and parents were so proud to have the library constructed in time for us and to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony when we arrived," said Doug Smith, a Global Playground board member.

The library will serve 280 students living in Thailand's Mae Hong Son province, a mountainous region with a large minority population of ethnic "hill tribe" groups who migrated from China and Tibet during the past few centuries, each bringing their own language and culture. Students at Huay Pung Mai are from two "hill tribes": the Hmong and the Karen. The Karen, numbering more than 400,000, are the largest of the ten "hill tribes" in northern Thailand. Some of the Karen youth attending Huay Pung Mai are from villages as far away as sixteen miles. With their homes so far away, these children must live at the school for months at a time, particularly during the rainy season when dirt roads become impassable. Currently, fifty-four students live at Huay Pung Mai. The school's dormitory can accommodate up to one hundred.

The library will be integral to the students' studies. "With so many children living at school and with the school day more than eight hours long, an additional building for study [was] necessary," said Edward Branagan, Global Playground's executive director. Global Playground hopes that within the next three years the Huay Pung Mai School will be connected through Internet technology to other Global Playground schools around the world. Through such connections, the children at Huay Pung Mai will learn about cultures and parts of the world vastly different from their own.

"I think the library will be one of the tools to enhance the [educational] experience for the kids," and "a way to encourage them to think bigger, to think of the possibilities that are there for them," said Ms. Elen Chen, a software engineer with ACM of Orange County, California who was also part of Global Playground's eight-member delegation.

To construct the library, Global Playground partnered with the Samsara Foundation. Global Playground provided $13,385 for the library and the Samsara Foundation oversaw its construction. "Seeing the library at the school, it looked just like any other library . . . but that was the amazing part, [as] we were in a remote area of Thailand. I think that is a testament to the work of Global Playground and the Samsara Foundation," said Dan Quach, an information technology professional with Acquity Group of Orange County, California who also participated in the trip.

The Samsara Foundation is a nonprofit that focuses on educational development in the remote mountain villages of northern Thailand. It has relationships with more than a hundred different schools in the Mae Hong Son province and in conjunction with the Thai Ministry of Education and local communities has built canteens, schools, dormitories, and libraries. Its projects are managed by Annelie Hendriks, a Dutch national who has relocated to Thailand, and Ratana Keunkeaw, a Thai citizen.

Global Playground discovered Samsara in 2007 when board members Doug Bunch and Edward Branagan traveled throughout southeast Asia meeting with potential partnering organizations and looking for a suitable project site. "We chose to partner with Samsara because it serves some of the poorest children in Thailand, [has] strong relationships with both the local government and local communities, and [has] an impressive track record in completing projects," said Branagan. In addition, we hold the common belief of strong community involvement in our respective initiatives. We really wanted to ensure that the communities whose children will benefit from the new library would contribute their labor and any other special skills that they [could] provide and as we saw that happened."

For Chen, she leapt at the "chance to see what a nonprofit organization is all about." She would recommend visiting a Global Playground project site to anyone interested in seeing first-hand what Global Playground does. When asked if Global Playground is truly serving the children at its project sites, she firmly responded with a yes.

Having returned to her work and family life in Orange County, Chen hopes that the "high" of her trip to Cambodia and Thailand will sustain itself; she aspires to "become more unselfish" with her time. "It's always easier to donate, and not be a participant," she said. But as she rediscovered after spending a couple of days interacting with the children at Huay Pung Mai, becoming a participant and volunteering one's time can be rewarding on an entirely different level.

-Jon Heifetz