by Emily Kawahara
It is common to meet someone with a passion; it is less common to meet someone who has dedicated his or her life to an unpredictable future in its pursuit.
This is not a story about how to sacrifice. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
The first floor of the Thai Freedom House is the Free Bird Café, and this is where I meet Lisa. It’s a Tuesday, her designated shopping day, which means that at some point she will have to tear herself away from other jobs that come with founding and managing a grass roots organization to buy supplies for the café, the office, and the classrooms. But sipping at an espresso, she assures me that she has time to talk. She says she completed many errands yesterday, Monday, the only day the café is closed, a day most people would take off, but a day Lisa uses to network and prepare for the week. I wonder how many caffeine drinks she needs each day.
I also wonder how she did it. How she made the impossible sounding leap from seeing a need to putting herself at the core of it to help. An impossible leap, I call it. She would disagree.
In 2005, Lisa founded Thai Freedom House, a community learning center for Burmese Refugees in the Chiang Mai area. But this idea was long preceded by a dedication to aid those in need and aid effectively. In her hometown of St. Louis she volunteered in nursing homes, was a friend and resource to Bosnian families in the area, and created and pursued personal projects: in high school traveling to the Caribbean to volunteer and document the progress of an organizations’ funding and after college traveling to a Tibetan Refugee Camp in India as a documentary photographer. Remembering her early encounters with refugees, she describes them as resilient.
“They just don’t have any excuses to fall back on. Their only choice is to make it because they made it that far.”
After returning to St. Louis, she taught in public schools while receiving a Degree in Education at night in order to return, better equipped to the same camp in India to train teachers.
Needless to say, this is an impressive and complex resume. But, when Lisa tells me about her transition from creating personal projects to volunteering for organizations to founding an organization, she describes the process in simple steps: “Identify a problem, identify your skills that could help the problem, come with a plan, and ask the local people for feedback. Spend time. That’s the key element.” She says it as if anyone could do it, because she earnestly believes that anyone can.
She left for Thailand in 2004. “As a volunteer, you should never go in and duplicate what’s already happening. You should know enough about the situation to know that if there’s an organization doing what you want to do or what you can help with, then go in and help them, support them, learn from them before you just pop in and try to open your own project.” After a year of volunteering with a larger organization to observe different project structures and to see what issues were still being missed, she founded Thai Freedom House. That is where Lisa has stayed for the last eight years
Eight years. Remember, spending time is the key element.
“It takes a long time to be effective…You have to spend years to get into a community to realize what people need and want and how to give it to them without being offensive or fulfilling your own agenda and not theirs in the end. And I don’t want to do any project that’s not going to be long term and effective.
And Lisa has been effective, effective in the way she had intended. In larger organizations, the divvying of funds must go through a request process. At Thai Freedom House, Lisa sees where the need is greatest and acts. She tells me that this is Dengue Fever season in Chiang Mai. Dengue Fever is fatal without treatment and refugees do not have the resources or the ID cards that will allow them medical access. On a recent trip to a refugee camp, she saw that there was no protection from mosquitoes. Her solution? Purchase mosquito nets. Just like that.
This is not to say that Thai Freedom House is fully funded. In fact, funding is a constant issue. It’s unclear where funding will come from each month, sometimes restricting or postponing projects, and also fogging long term plans. Ideally, Thai Freedom House does have a two to five year plan. But Lisa takes it a day at a time, focusing on what can be done with what she has now.
The more Lisa tells me about her experience, the more I realize how wrong I’ve been in thinking that there needed to be a push or a leap in her choice to dedicate herself fully to this project. Push and leap assume an embodiment of sacrifice and sacrifice is a concept that Lisa is quick to dismiss. You shouldn’t be sacrificing if you’re pursuing what you really want and believe in.
“Sometimes it’s annoying when you’re totally broke and you want to do something or you need to go home because somebody died. It’s hard, but you can’t look at it as I’ve sacrificed this for these people or for this project because then I think you’re not doing it for the right reasons anymore. You’re doing it out of some martyrdom.”
Lisa downs a second espresso. Before returning to the office upstairs, she greets and welcomes each customer in the café, some seem to be new, others know her by name. She found her interest. Within that interest was a problem and she found a way that she could help. True passions are unwavering, and so is the dedication of the people who have them. So, maybe it is that simple. No excuses.
The full story behind Thai Freedom House, their programs aiding Burmese Refugees and Indigenous Hill Tribe Families, and Lisa’s previous volunteer work can be found on the website: http://thaifreedomhouse.org/.
Rear Curtain intern Emily Kawahara is spending a year in Thailand. To mark the release of our special issue, we asked her to write about some of her experiences. You can purchase the special issue using the link below.