As I think about sharing my experience with everyone back home in person, I continue to reflect upon this past year and what I have learned.
I don’t have all of the words to describe my experience thus far, so throughout this blog post, I’m going to borrow some from the book I recently finished: Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.
“Young people often ask us how they can help address issues like sex trafficking or international poverty. Our first recommendation to them is to get out and see the world. If you can’t do that, it’s great to raise money or attention at home. But to tackle an issue effectively, you need to understand it - and it’s impossible to understand an issue by simply reading about it. You need to see it firsthand, even live in its midst.
One of the great failings of the American education system, in our view, is that young people can graduate from university without any understanding of poverty at home or abroad. Study-abroad programs tend to consist of herds of students visiting Oxford or Florence or Paris. We believe that universities should make it a requirement that all graduates spend at least some time in the developing world, either by taking a ‘gap year’ or by studying abroad. If more Americans worked for a summer teaching English at a school like Mukhtar’s in Pakistan or working at a hospital like HEAL Africa in Congo, our entire society would have a richer understanding of the world around us. And the rest of the world might also hold a more positive view of Americans” (p88).
I do feel strongly about this. If you or someone you know has a chance to do something like this (either in the U.S. or abroad), please do. I’m grateful for my time abroad in Europe, visiting my sister and her family in Germany regularly and for my study abroad program in Greece while I was in college. My time traveling to different countries gave me a better global perspective.
However, I don’t think it gave me enough of a perspective. Now that I have spent some time outside the ‘developed’ world, I now have tangible experiences to add depth and understanding to all of the social justice issues that I continue to read and become passionate about. I now profoundly care about people that once would have only been a story or a statistic.
(A side note: I don’t love all of these terms: developed vs. developing, first-world vs. third-world, but I have yet to find a better way to share my meaning.)
I’m grateful for the privilege that I have - for being able to volunteer for a year like this. It is a privilege.
“Any serious effort to reduce maternal mortality likewise requires a public health perspective - reducing unwanted pregnancies and providing prenatal care so that last-minute medical crises are less frequent.
Sometimes the most effect approaches aren't medical at all. For example, one out-of-the-box way to reduce pregnancies is to subsidize school uniforms for girls. That keeps them in school longer, which means they delay marriage and pregnancy until they are better able to deliver babies. A South African study found that giving girls a $6 uniform every eighteen months increased the chance that they would stay in school and consequently significantly reduced the number of pregnancies they experienced” (p103-104).
This reminds me of what the Good Shepherd Sisters try to accomplish here. They really try to address the multi-faceted needs of the people they encounter. For instance, the Sisters have the Children's Sponsorship Program here in Nongkhai, as well as other locations throughout in the world. The program supports the child and his/her family, by offsetting costs associated with uniforms, transportation, health care and nutrition, and supplementing a family’s income if necessary - while also monitoring the child’s progress and reporting progress to generous sponsors.
It’s important to look at the whole picture to influence long-term change. The Sisters renovated or constructed homes for many of my coworkers before Hands of Hope came into existence in 2005. As quality of life improved with regular health care appointments and daily HIV medicine, many aspects of the projects were transformed into providing employment and a community of support. Today, that community exists in the shared workspace of Hands of Hope.
Now the local Outreach team has less local trips to make and travels greater distances to assist people in need - like a nearby province that experiences much poverty.
“Liberals could emulate the willingness of many evangelicals to tithe - to donate 10 percent of their incomes each year to charity. The Index of Global Philanthropy calculates that U.S. religious organizations give $5.4 billion annually to developing countries, more than twice as much as is given by U.S. foundations… Not only do [the one third of Americans who attend worship services at least once a week] donate more…but they also are more likely to volunteer their time for charities… [However], while liberals are less generous with their own money, they are more likely to favor government funding of humanitarian causes.
Both groups might work harder to ensure that their charitable contributions truly go to the needy… It would also be useful if there were better mechanism for people to donate time. The Peace Corps is a valuable program, but it requires an intimidating commitment of twenty-seven months, and the schedule does not follow the academic year to accommodate those who are trying to delay graduated school… We need funding for Teach the world, an international version of Teach for America, to send young people abroad for a year, a term that would then be renewable. That would offer an important new channel of foreign assistance to support girls’ education in poor countries, and it would also offer young Americans a potentially life-changing encounter with the developing world” (p144-145).
At the end of the book, the authors share about various grassroots organizations, how they can help make a difference, and what things you can do to involve yourself. We have seen firsthand the difference made by the Good Shepherd Sisters and their staff here in Nongkhai - and glimpses of their programs across the world. There are more organizations and movements like this out there.
As we have lived more simply this year, my relationship with money has shifted. I think about the power that money has - power that we have as consumers, especially back home. We can choose what we spend our money on and focus on. It reminds me of a documentary that John & I watched this year, called Racing Extinction. What we eat, how we spend our money - this is a reflection of our priorities, and each person has their own little amount of power when it comes to spending their money.
I think about all of the support you, our readers and friends and family, have given me and John - financially and otherwise - which allowed us to have this experience and share our time and talents with this community. I think about how I want to allocate my money in the future. As I consider re-entering life back home in 6 months, I intentionally want to take back my power - and give a higher percentage of my money and time to people who need it - more than I had before I left for Thailand.
I’m sure many of you are familiar with the quote below, but what struck me while reading it this time was the word must. It’s not the word ‘should’ or ‘can’. It is something that must be done.
“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” - Mahatma Gandhi
A final note - as we will be in the U.S. soaking up time with friends and family, I doubt that I will have the time for a blog in the coming weeks. I look forward to be back at it, after our return to Thailand in late August. Much love, and I look forward to seeing many of you in person soon!