A couple of weekends ago, I visited an orphanage that is new to me (for the last two years, I’ve been volunteering biweekly at a girls’ orphanage in town on rotation with other teachers). From what I understand, the new orphanage usually has 600 kids from babies to young teens. It only had about 100 children when I was there because many of them were on a trip back to the Shan state to see if their parents were still alive; there is an ongoing war there. Check out this article on Aljazeera for more info: Aljazeera on Displaced People from Shan State
Some of the other kids went to visit their grandparents and distant relatives for the holidays. (So that begs the question: are they really orphans then? But the answer to this question may not be important— what matters here is that no one is actively caring for these children outside of the orphanage. Many kids also get sent to local tea shops or other restaurants to work.)
The guy who took me likes to drive around on his motorbike and he just happens upon these needy people and he feels compelled to do something about it. So he does what he can. He’s giving regular English lessons at the orphanages. It was inspiring to watch his work with no materials and minimal shared language with the students. They were incredibly excited and engaged. They were also well behaved. No one made a peep outside of shouting out English words as they repeated the new language of the lesson.
When we visited, we had a casual walk around the facilities. There was a large thatched roof over a grouping of tables. The students had their lesson and their meals both in this shelter. There was another empty hall that they used to eat in, but it was unclear what its current use was. We also saw the kitchen area- outdoors with an enormous pot bubbling over a fire in the dust. They have a nice, though dry, field with two soccer goals, but the local farmers like to sort their crops there. The sleeping area was a collection of wooden boards with some metal trunks between them. The trunks are for the children’s personal belongings, but many of them were busted and bent out of shape. There were no mosquito nets, but a few worn cloth things were in the rooms. We only saw 2 rooms like this so I would guess a lot of the kids squeeze in there together. They don’t have extra clothes, regular schooling, or school supplies to practice what they learn. There was construction going on at the orphanage, but the guy in charge of our visit speculated that the monks residing (and presiding?) at the orphanage will likely move in there and leave the children with their current housing. Our guy said he gave the orphanage a whiteboard to make lessons easier and the monks took it for their own purposes so it’s not unlikely that they will also be drawn to the new building.
On the day we were there, the children had a nice spread for lunch. A family from town had funded the meal as a donation. This happens frequently, but I got the impression that at other times, they lack money for the same caliber of food.
I felt embarrassed about the 50 or so stickers I’d stuffed in my backpack. It wasn’t nearly enough to share with all of the children and it was such a meager effort compared to what they need. This orphanage made our usual orphanage like really nice.
In the last 2 weeks, I have been organizing a clothing/toys/books/other-used-items drive at school. The Myanmar New Year is coming up– Thingyan. In my co-lead teacher’s presentation about the holiday to our class, she said it’s a time for doing good deeds. Also I imagine our typically well-off students will be getting some new things for the occasion so I am hoping that they might also have some old things to get rid of. I wrote a long email to the teachers explaining my cause and made a flyer that my co-lead translated. It took me a long time to find the right words for the email- I wanted to be compelling but not exaggerate, offend or pass judgment about local culture. It also took me an hour and a half to deliver all of the flyers. I couldn’t believe it was such a mission to walk around school! One of the local teachers thanked me for helping his people, adding, “they need it.” I still sort of want to cry thinking about it.
Here is the final loot from the donations. I sorted it into categories and boxed and bagged it with the help of a friend. I will arrange for the Holding Hands Foundation of Mandalay to come collect the goods after the break. They are a small group that visits many orphanages and will help disperse the goods in the best possible way. They also help with skin maladies and other medical issues at the orphanages. I am looking forward to meeting with them at the end of the month to discuss the deliveries and hopefully go along to hand out the goods. I think that giving the things to the children will be a beautiful moment. A few teachers have also expressed interest in joining the meeting and the orphanage trips, which warms me inside out. I am also hopeful that I can help a bit more in my last month living in Myanmar.
Here’s a small miracle: I also have a toilet project that I want to fund- I needed 200,000 kyats (a little under $200). I heard another one of the orphanages has one toilet for about 250 kids. I felt that was an urgent issue and planned to look for solutions. When I was passing out flyers for the donation drive, another teacher offered it right up! He has been fund raising and he has left-over money. He said I can have it for the toilets and asked if there are any other little projects like the toilets that I know about that need funding! I am hopeful that I can bridge the gap between the foundation working with the orphanages and the community of teachers at my school. I think they could do a lot to help.
These projects make me almost wish I was going to be in Myanmar longer to try to help more.