Da-Men Mall & Segi College Hope Mural Project

Collective goodwill is powerful! Over the course of the last six weeks, I have benefited from a ton of it – along with talent, enthusiasm, and a desire to make a difference.

Last year, Meng Zhen visited Sip of Hope Cafe in Chicago. Through a series of connections and planning you can read about here or here, we met in Malaysia to determine ways to partner on mental health outreach initiatives.

Six weeks ago, we worked together to provide mental health workshops for his college students and community members. Plus, I was able to participate in a community listening project.

At the end of the workshop, Carolyn Choo, Head of the Faculty of Education said, “We should make a mural here.” In just a few hours, she contacted Da-Men which sits next to the Segi College Subang Jaya campus, and we had a meeting scheduled for the next day.

At this meeting, we informally brainstormed a plan, agreed to work together, and selected a date for my return to Malaysia. Little did I know that the next six weeks would be a flurry of What’s App communication between a growing team that ended with over 20 people who were interested in the project as a means of community building and mental health outreach.

You hear the phrase, “If I could bottle this team, I could…” and there is no truer statement for this group of professionals. Within our group, we had experts in marketing, graphic design, psychology, education, engineering, social media, photography, etc. But, even beyond the expertise, we had strong energy and an attitude that ANYTHING could be accomplished. In fact, one person would suggest an idea, and hours later, the idea for fully implemented beyond what was imagined. Positive energy built momentum and motivated others to take risks for sharing ideas.

It was clear from our communication that everyone understood that this project was about more than creating a mural. There is great power in collaborative artwork. Art not only has a powerful positive mental health impact as a form of self expression, but working together on a common project encourages an essential sense of purpose and belonging for participants. Our conversations always came back to making sure our “WHY” was clear and that our purpose was driven by building a sense of belonging within our community.

Graphic designers from Segi Collage created an amazing Hope Mural Project logo and the Da-Men graphic design team created mental health outreach information to place on a pillar near the mural. We even got our own T-shirts!

As time for our mural event neared, our excitement grew. We changed our original plan to a larger wall which required support from additional team members. On the day before the event, taping the preparation for the mural was more complex than usual because of the huge space. Using a project, and a team of five, we were able to successfully create an outline.

On the day of painting event…we had built so much energy that both planners and volunteers arrived earlier than expected. We did final prep on the mural, created a Kindness Rocks painting center, organized supplies, and did a training for our volunteers on how to make this an engaging and meaningful experience for everyone.

For hours that day, the mall was filled with positivity in the form of painting hands, smiling faces, and meaningful moments. There was a moment when I just stopped to look around the area and thought…”YES, this is what we are going for.” Student volunteers from Segi took their roles as ambassadors seriously as they engaged with participants in bold and meaningful ways. We worked like a well-oiled machine – but with a big heart!

At our closing presentation, the message from Michelle Ng State Assemblywoman of Subang Jaya, and Dr. Lisa Tan Saw Poh, CEO Segi Group of Colleges, and me focused on raising visibility about mental health and reducing the stigma that people feel when addressing this subject.

Follow up has been great. The project continues at Da-Men and Segi College will continue to seek opportunities to create sustainable mental health outreach. The mural is complete, but the work continues.

I am so grateful for the members of this team. They raised the bar for Hope Mural planning, but also set the stage for future projects. Through their work and actions, I could see the value of longterm planning and team collaboration where everyone brings unique elements to the process.

If you visit Malaysia, be sure to stop in and take a collage photo of yourself! We can’t wait to see how HOPE messages spread!

Posted in Da Men Hope Mural, Da Men Mall, Hope for the Day, HopeMural, HopeMuralProject, HopeTravels, Malaysia, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Segi College Subang Jaya, The Kindness Rocks Project, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Cox’s Bazar Bangladesh – Rohingya Camp with HMBD

Like all conflicts, you will hear differing stories of exactly what led to the August 25, 2017 militant attacks on Burmese border posts and the response of Myanmar’s Security Forces. I do not claim to be a historian, and my knowledge of the long-term issues sits on the surface of understanding. For those who are interested in knowing more than I am sharing, there are many online resources offering in-depth insights into Rohingya culture, challenges, and the current conflict leading to over 1,000,000 refugees living in camps near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

What I do know, and what is without debate, is there are two strongly opposing views of what rights should be given to Rohingya people and which country is officially their home. After being brought to this area as a British workforce in the 1800’s, this Muslim minority group has lived in primarily Buddhist Myanmar. They have settled in an area near the border with Bangladesh called the Rakhine State. As you know,, being brought to a country by outside forces is a recipe for resentment and discontent – especially after World War 2 when Rohingyas were loyal to Britain while Buddhists supported Japanese forces.

Although Rohingya have lived in this area, which is officially designated within the Myanmar borders, they were defeated in a quest for equal rights when Myanmar was granted independence in 1948.

Since then, they have been denied citizenship and voting rights, not included in official census polls, denied freedom of movement, and blocked access to education. What they did have to survive these conditions was the land they tended for their livelihood and survival.

Feelings of oppression and inequality by Rohingya continued to grow. In Myanmar, a movement grew in the belief that Rohingya people do not respect the Buddhist moral precepts, are aggressive, and have the goal of making Myanmar a Muslim country. There is a spectrum of beliefs related to these viewpoints, with many varying accounts of the growing tensions.

What can be confirmed about August 25, 2017 is the early morning attack by Rohingya militants using knives, clubs, and improvised explosive on Burmese border guards that killed 12. What is also confirmed is the swift and brutal military response that often did not differentiate between civilians and insurgents. Stories include burned villages, brutal killings of Rohingya civilians, and rape of Rohingya women. Thousands were killed, and people fled immediately to Bangladesh by walking for more than a week or crossing the Naf River using wooden fishing boats.

In the early days of this exodus, Rohingya were often welcomed by Bangladeshi citizens and government who provided immediate support for weakened and often dying people. When speaking of this crisis, you will often see startling images of Rohingya desperately climbing from boats where waiting Bangladeshis guided them ashore and in the direction of help.

In the last two years, repatriation to Myanmar has been denied – as many people say they do not want them back – as they did not consider them to be citizens in the first case. Instead, many believe they were illegal and from Bangladesh. Many citizens and government officials have claimed returning is a a viable option, but from what is discussed here, (speculation since the Rakhine State is no longer accessible to media or human rights organizations), is that is some conversation the Rakhine State is currently a valuable area being developed as a seaport by influences from China and India who have diligently supported the government of Myanmar in this conflict.

This is a short summary of a complex issue because I felt like providing some background history was important context for sharing about my visit to the Refugee Camps in Cox’s Bazar. These camps are currently home to over one million Rohingya people. My goal was impartiality, but after spending days in the camp, it is also hard to do so, because it is difficult to imagine circumstances that could displace so many and challenging to be impartial when you listen to stories shared. However, I recognize my thoughts lack other personal perspectives and experiences.

Health Management BD (HMBD) is a nonprofit organization working in the camps and the team who offered to host my time there. Dr. A K M Taifur Rahman coordinated an introduction to their work coordinating health and learning centers within the camp. His team has been working in the camp since the first days of this crisis and have done extensive work to support Rohingya people – in spite of challenges with infrastructure, funding, and acquisition of resources. They are committed to providing physical, educational, and emotional healing opportunities to people until there is a clear end to the need.

On our first day entering the camp, I was not prepared for what I would encounter. An ambulance filled with doctors and team members picked me up in the morning. I knew the camp was near Cox’s Bazar, and the distance on the map looks relatively close. I was not aware we would drive over narrow, bumpy, and underdeveloped roads filled with aide vehicles and workers heading in the same direction. Along the 90+ minute ride, we passed farmers tending land in the already blazing heat while plowing with animals and simple equipment.

As we swerved around cows, motorcycles, Tom Toms, trucks, and people, our ambulance expertly carried us through the lush green land to the camp entrance.

The dedicated team makes this trek back and forth each day, spending almost 4 hour of commute time to serve in the camps. Immediately, the landscape shockingly changes, seemingly out of nowhere, eyes set upon disheveled housing as far as the eye can see. Generally, it looks like a large town, haphazardly designed with available materials and in a rush that denied depth in planning – which is exactly what it initially was.

Bangladesh is a developing country, so while conditions in the camp were challenging, they were not significantly different from much of the housing leading to the camp. What is very different is the sheer mass of humanity piled in the space.

As we drove in, I had a lot of questions. SO many questions. First off, most of the refugees are not provided with access to employment. While many are trying to be resourceful, life in a camp is very different and there is little use for many skills gained tending land at home.

Support from Bangladeshi government, International NGOs, and representatives of many governmental aid organizations from around the world can be found everywhere. As we entered, gas tanks for cooking were being distributed to long lines of people. Large bags of rice were carried by children and adults into home areas. While many people were bustling, there were also many people who seemed to be living without purpose and clarity. Most of the people have suffered personal trauma and violent loss of loved ones – often before their eyes. Some children were somewhat skittish when encountering people as they have first-hand experience in being unable to trust others. Relationship building took place in all kinds of way to make them feel comfortable.

Camps are separated into smaller sections by number. The HMBD team oversees a learning center in Camp 13 and a health center in Camp 17. The learning center has two open-concept classrooms providing daily instruction for children in English and Rohingya language.

Based on a decision of the Bangladesh government, refugees are not allowed access to Bengali language as people have concerns about how that will impact their long-term employment and repatriation to Myanmar. When visiting, children were repeating days of the week in a sing-song fashion while being led by their peers. The classroom was full for each of the daily sessions with 50+ learning and receiving high energy snack biscuits.

Outside of the classroom areas, there is an open space where children can spend time with assurance they will be safe. Feeling much like a playground, children played marbles, hopscotch games, and soccer. While the children shared characteristics of children around the world, there was also an evident impact of their lives as they often needed redirection about aggression and reminders against hitting, shoving, and pulling hair.

Consistent and necessary medical care is provided by HMBD doctors. They visit the medical center where doctors are staffed six days a week. Many people, because of the living conditions, receive medication and treatment for common camp ailments including respiratory infections, skin conditions, and gastro-intestinal issues.

At the health center, I was also able to visit a women’s training centered on Gender-Based Violence. The training was provided by a teacher and a team of Rohingya volunteers. This group meets regularly to impact as many families as possible in creating a common understanding of safety and support for each other.

It would take a book of many pages to write everything I saw or pondered during this short time in the camp, so I am only going to share key observations and lingering questions.

* While Bangladeshi people willingly opened their arms to refugees, their desire is generally not for citizenship to be a long term solution and they initially believed their support would be a short term response. It is becoming increasingly clear and potentially agitating that this is not the case. In some ways, however, a camp of this size offers opportunities for Bengals as they have become hosts to many international aid workers. Hotels are full in Cox’s Bazar. Prices have increased. New construction is everywhere. All of this leads to people working. However, it also makes many of the local resources inaccessible to local citizens who have watched prices for general needs skyrocket in areas where international workers reside.

*The big questions for me relate to sustainability. As international organizations begin to leave the area, how much of what has been created is realistic for local citizens to maintain and how much government support can or should be used to address camp needs when you have many additional infrastructure and social needs within Bangladesh. It is easy to take the initial aid, but once systems of support are created, and people are dependent upon them, what happens when they are no longer available. In Iraq, we saw schools built by UNHCR that were now in disrepair and left for local governments to maintain – which is not practical or realistic in most cases.

* Bangladesh is not an affluent country – resources are limited for local people. I have to imagine there are growing resentments as refugees are often provided with resources locals are lacking themselves. These types of situations only escalate as time goes on. We often watched truckloads of rice passing laboring farmers who were toiling for the same. Roads were being built out of necessity toward the camp while roads in other villages remain in disrepair. Can goodwill last in these conditions? If so, for how long?

* Camp capacity is a concern as many Rohingya people do not participate in family planning. Lack of knowledge, or also a desire to build a long term identity, may contribute to this, but the reality as described to me is that most families have 8-10 children. While there are NGOs focused on educating families normalizing use of contraceptives, the time it takes to implement this information doesn’t change spaces where physical property is already tight – with tens of thousands of children are being born each year.

* There are environmental concerns about the massive deforestation that took place to create these camps. Pollution is an issue with so many gas containers being used for cooking within this small space. Trash, latrines, construction… there are so many factors impacting this area. Wild elephants were displaced and now must be watched from towers surrounding the camp to avoid re-entry and attacks. There are obvious short term and long term impacts to this type of rapid change and growth.

* Visiting refugee camps leaves me with questions about long term plans. As people leave or are forced from homelands and settle in new locations, with an influx of aid, the conditions can be atrocious. However, they can also become more comfortable than the homes left for people to return to. A common question asked was, “Why would people want to go back to burned-out villages when they have access to everything they need here?” On the flip side, as I mentioned, the questions of, “How long will international organizations stay here?” and “How long can the Bangladesh government sustain their role in helping?” are common too. What will happen when the two timelines do not match?

* The impact of limited education and trauma are definitely serious concerns for everyone. As witnessed in Rwanda, this is a long term challenge that must be addressed head on. As people without a country, how will this happen beyond what is currently offered in camps? When not addressed, and when offered with limited resources, extremist groups have the potential to prosper and recruit. What are the consequences of this for Rohingyas, Bengals, and international citizens?

* For me, I am always going to support the work of organizations who are closest to locals within conflict settings. What I have observed from international aid organizations often leaves me with questions. Often, officials visit camps from fancy cars after nights in 4 star hotels. Cultural knowledge can be lacking and at times, I have seen educational materials that seem incredibly inappropriate in the settings where they are sent. Their work is good and important I know, but we all have choices in how we use the money and resources we have, and mine will always be used to back people who are locally committed to providing support and resolutions where needed.

I am still a bit overwhelmed by my days there. My days were spent really learning as much as I could about the work of HMBD while playing with kids, reading some children’s stories, and getting to know the staff. Many Rohingya people want their stories to be told. They want the international community to understand what they are facing and to help them to find a place they can safely be at home.

I am grateful to Dr. Taifur for his support in allowing me to see the work they are doing in this difficult situation. Your leadership is valuable to all of the people you meet. The HMBD team is filled with talented people who are striving to improve conditions and provide care for many.

If you would like to learn more about the work of HMBD, Dr. Taifur can be reached at dr.taifur13@gmail.com.

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A Touch of Sri Lankan Hospitality

On Easter Sunday, three churches, three luxury hotels, and housing complexes in Sri Lanka were targets of suicide bombings. Aside from the traumatic grief caused by death and destruction of terroristic attacks, places where bombings occur often suffer significant challenges when tourism comes to a halt. Local owners of shops, private hotels, and restaurants endure immediate loss of business that can last for years.

A visit to Sri Lanka wasn’t in my plans, as I have been there before, and while I have a deep affection for the country, I didn’t plan a return right now. After the attacks, I remembered hearing other stories of how communities are impacted negatively, and, since I was going to be nearby, I thought I would visit as a show of support. Little did I know this would end up as my first transition back to classroom teaching.

A quest for inexpensive accommodations often puts me in the most interesting places in a city. My hotel is Sri Lanka was away from tourist locations and families were primarily Muslim. It felt purposeful as I had read that Muslim businesses were being irrationally targeted in response to the bombings with business boycotts and hateful responses to individuals who were not at all connected to these events. While this is not the norm for everyone, it’s clear terrorism can impact many.

While wandering, everyone – and I mean everyone I met – was kind to me. People greeted me warmly, they shared tea, we sat and chatted as best we could. The area around my hotel soon felt like my neighborhood with favorite food stalls serving daily portions of homemade roti better than I’ve ever tasted before.

After meeting my friend Sameera in front of my hotel, we decided to plan something fun for the nearby kids. With permission from the Hotel Opulence owner, we painted and hosted a Saturday afternoon party for 60+ kids. Shopping with Sameera was so much fun as she got us A LOT for our money – always knowing where to find the cheapest items and then negotiating additional discounts.

Painting was fun as always! The kids were great – and the hotel location offered a unique space in their parking area that is easily viewed by neighbors as they pass by.

After painting, we set up stations with activities like building blocks, drawing, origami, and clay. 60 kids yelling “teacher” at the same time and beaming as they showed their finished work was enough to get me ready to start the school year. I had to laugh at the universal language for “look at me” that kids easily convey.

Volunteers are the heart of every classroom and this party was no different! Parents jumped in to help with set-up, organization, and cleaning. We were a team in motion for the entire afternoon.

Leaving Sri Lanka was hard! Each place has been kind of hard and it always takes me a day or so to recover from missing the comforts established in my homes away from home.

Off to Bangladesh. Then, two more stops before home!

Posted in Hope for the Day, HopeMural, HopeTravels, Self Care, Sri Lanka, Street Art, StreetArt, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Charis Project – Keeping Families Together

With each step of this journey, I have learned from the passions of others and been amazed at the focused commitment they have to make a difference. Some have left traditional comforts behind to live in remote places where they share hope and love through daily actions and innovative programs.

One of the things that has been on my mind a lot during this journey relates to sustainability. While well-intentioned, it is easy to see remnants of projects that were started and never finished. It is also a challenge to know how to be a partner who listens well and doesn’t try to spew ideas that might not be culturally relevant or sensitive to specific local norms. However, I have also learned that it better to fumble and struggle than to sit back at judge from afar.

While I have never visited before, the area along the Thai/Myanmar border is a place near and dear to my heart. Twelve years ago, as a volunteer for World Relief, I became a “friendship partner” for a family who came to live in Aurora after years in Mae La Camp. They are Karen refugees from Burma, so during our years together, I have learned a bit about their culture as we enjoyed celebrations and food together.

Still, I have always been curious about their previous home and interested in supporting people who are working in border areas to support refugees and migrant people living in Thailand. While I wasn’t able to go inside the camp, I felt like traveling outside broadened my understanding of their life before coming the America.

The work of The Charis Project (known at Shade Tree Foundation in Thailand) was especially interesting to me. When I spoke on the phone with Aaron, the Charis Thailand Director, I was immediately struck by the depth of his work and commitment to supporting the growth of families. Essentially, his bottom line is determining how they can help parents who are often illiterate to parent children to become smarter and more successful than they are.

To me, it’s a bold statement. There is an honestly about his purpose that stands without judgement, but instead is the reality for many families who feel ill equipped to support their children. The statement shows that this goal is possible even when parents might feel inclined to give up.

The feelings of insecurity by parents can be exacerbated by the placement of orphanages opened by foreigners that exist in the area. Sometimes, parents feel that putting their children in an orphanage gives them more of an advantage over living at home. At other times, complexities and crisis in life might lead to parents giving their children up for someone else to raise.

Our conversation lead to a discussion of orphanages in general and asking, “Would I want this for my child?” The Charis Project, along with other influential organizations like Lumas Project (created by Harry Potter author JK Rowling) focus on giving families and communities the resources and skills they need to make orphanages obsolete. People who are living with their families are at least risk of abuse or trafficking.

Are orphanages really a necessary system of support? Should we live under the assumption that they are needed throughout the world – especially in less developed countries? Or, are there specific tools that can be provided to clearly focus on helping families stay together – in spite of financial, educational, and health challenges?

Aaron also discussed mutual exploitation that often exists with nonprofit organizations or orphanages in areas of poverty. Nonprofits can exploit people – keeping them dependent – in order to raise money or show their need. People receiving services can learn helplessness and actually find themselves demotivated by a belief that others will take care of their basic needs.

A belief that the goal of nonprofits should be to not be necessary…to essentially work themselves out of business struck a chord with me as being so practical- but also revolutionary.

So – how is the Charis Project different from other organizations?

Their three-tiered approach to sustainable development for families meets people where they are, while also setting up systems of personal independence, responsibility, and empowerment.

#1 – RESCUE FAMILIES: Charis is committed to providing crisis intervention for the most at-risk families. The family engagement team visits families weekly with food, emotional support, and friendship. They are partners in listening to families and helping them to overcome challenges they face. When life becomes overwhelming, families know they have supportive partners who will stand by them and find ways to keep their families together.

#2 STRENGTHEN FAMILIES: Education empowers families. Charis team members provide specific education opportunities to communities with a strong focus on providing for children and developing strong and successful adults. Training includes women’s health, childcare, nutrition, literacy, family communication, and much more.

Carrien Blue, Family Education Supporter at Charis, noted that classes in communication often change the whole dynamics of a family – especially between husbands and wives. By teaching people to communicate effectively with each other – marital abuse declines, parents support children more effectively, and families grow stronger.

#3# GIVE FAMILIES INDEPENDENCE: Using the Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) model, communities comes together to save and empower each other. Teaching strategies for savings and financial independence are embedded in this model where people save together and provide their own micro loans to members of their group. Even when saving small amounts, people can watch the decisions they make lead to financial gains which inspires increased investment over the course of time. This program can? which changes the overall financial picture for a group can heavily change communities.

I had the opportunity to visit the Charis team and the pleasure of watching them in action. Each person seems passionate about their specific contributions to their work and a desire to create systems of support.

As they noted, it is important not to wait for a crisis, but to focus on being consistent partners who are there to lend support when a crisis arises.

One of their primary goals is the development of local leadership and when possible, team members are former clients who understand culturally appropriate ways to engage people in growth processes.

During my visit, I was able to do something I love. Carrien and I met to review curriculum and discuss strategies for implementation refining their multi-tiered approach. Their leadership team is geared up for clarifying all instructional goals and determining the best ways to provide real-time program evaluation of the courses offered throughout communities.

I also had a day of traveling with Zam and Lydia, friends from Charis who took me to the most beautiful coffee shop I have experienced on this trip. The view and food were fabulous!

One additional highlight was a chance to hang out with the Blue Family to create this Shadetree mural. Their creativity far surpassed my own and I learned a lot from their artistic vision.

The Charis Project is the real deal…an organization that has considered every detail of how to keep families together while empowering parents to strongly support the development of children in their own homes.

If I were in charge of the world, all communities would have a team like Charis, partnering with families on deep levels…inspiring growth every step of the way.

Posted in Charis Project, Hope for the Day, HopeMural, Mae Sot, Mental Health, Shade Tree Foundation, Thailand, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ouch! What to Expect from A Thai Massage – In Thailand

Streets in Thailand are saturated with massage shops. As you walk along steamy summer sidewalks, the cool air bursting from within, and welcoming waves from waiting masseurs invite desirable moments of respite. Each time I pass, I face the internal battle of, “Do I really need another massage?” Signs with prices posted with a cost of approximately $10 US per hour usually convince me the answer is yes!

Thinking of massages might elicit visions of quiet music, soothing touches, and a sense of self-pampering. This is not the case for most Thai Massages in Thailand. The best description I can think of is that they are unpleasantly amazing. Instead of soothing touches, you can expect an interactive process that include a variety of pushes and pulls. While some touches make you wince, it feels good at the same time.

While we often think of massages as a form of pampering, I have been told Thai citizens view massages as a form preventive medicine to alleviate stress, boost energy, stimulate circulation, and improve range of motion. Self care and taking time for things you love is also a positive way to support positive mental health. It’s hard to judge whether that is true for me, as there are so many other unusual factors influencing my health, but I definitely value the power of alternatives like massage for positive health.

Here are a few things you can expect when getting a massage in Thailand.

#1 SAFETY

At first, it would be natural to question the safety of massages and wonder if there is a concern about hinky factor. In my experience, I have never felt uncomfortable in any way when getting a massage in Thailand. I did some research on ways to watch for signs people are being exploited, and tried to be aware of work conditions when chooses places. There were some shops we passed that seemed less safe, but instinct, neighborhood, time of day, and communal spaces for massages were some tips I found for choosing a shop safe for everyone involved.

#2 MASSAGE OPTIONS

When you arrive, there are a variety of massage options. I have selected either a traditional Thai body or a foot and leg massage. I’ve noticed there are many options for massages with oil, but have only visited during very warm and humid seasons and felt this option would feel a bit stifling when exploring after the massage. Even when picking a traditional massage, I have found that the technique and amount of pressure vary a bit.

#3 CLOTHING AND CLEANLINESS

You are provided with a set of shorts and a shirt to wear during the massage. The cotton outfit provides full body coverage that allows for easy movement. If you are very concerned about cleanliness, I would look for a more upscale option. In my experience, this also varies from place to place. My standards are generally pretty low, but I know questions about table coverings and lack of cleanliness might be something that bothers others – so you might want to ask to see the massage area before beginning.

#4 ACCOMMODATIONS

Foot massages generally take place in recliner chairs pushed way back and sitting amongst others enjoying the same foot service. Sometimes, during a foot massage, the masseur will use a small stick to increase pressure points and focus on overall body benefits of reflexology. Full body massages are often on thin mattresses placed directly on the floor and separated from others by a curtain hung from the ceiling. While the area is private – you can also hear others close to you. I am guessing more expensive places might offer private rooms – but I have never experienced this in Thailand.

#5 OUCH!

Thai massages – unless specified otherwise – are not soft. They are firm to the point of being somewhat painful at times. Your body is twisted into contortions that stretch beyond typical movement and can at times feel like you are being stretched beyond your comfort zone. Typically, the masseur will use all parts of their body including knees, feet, and elbows to grind into pressure points in places you didn’t know existed. Each touch feels intentional and direct with a pinch to a spot like the wrist eliciting tingles all the way up the arm. It’s not uncommon to be pulled opposite to what you would expect – like having someone stand on your legs from behind while pulling your arms back to lift your head and torso off the ground. It’s almost too difficult to explain – but the best I can say for initial massages is to expect the unexpected.

#6 AFTER THE MASSAGE

Sometimes, you will receive a cup of tea and recommendation to drink a lot of water after the massage. You can expect a bit of discomfort on the days after your first massage. Occasionally, I even have gotten small bruises on my legs. It sounds way worse than it is – because the big benefit is a few days after your massage, you will feel fantastic. Honestly, there is nothing like it. For me, I feel like I can stretch beyond my usually capacity and find that places that usually feel stressed, suddenly feel amazing. Shoulders tend to take the brunt of pressure during a massage, but for weeks afterward, they feel loose and limber.

#7 ONE MORE?

Finally, Thai massages can feel a bit addictive. My friends Emily and Corrine visited Thailand with me for 12 days. Within that time period, we estimate we had seven massages. It sounds so over the top – even to me. There was one day, when we walked home and agreed getting a massage might be too much. Then, we passed the beachfront spot, with reclining chairs facing ocean waves and a glorious breeze and gave eye contact showing agreement that we changed our minds.

Massages can be part of your experience in Thailand. Hopefully, knowing what to expect smooths the process toward deep relief for tight muscles and long term benefits of satisfying stretches.

Posted in HopeTravels, Thai Massage, Thailand, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Elephant Love Project

If you know me, you know I am a bit scared of animals. It’s common knowledge. Yet, I often find myself in areas surrounded by monkeys, nearly hyperventilating to view sea life, or now, sticking my hand in the mouth of an elephant. In most cases, this picture pretty much sums up my first moments of animal exploration.

Having friends visit me throughout this trip has offered wonderful detours from time connecting with nonprofit organizations to promote proactive mental health education through projects focused on HOPE. For the last two weeks, Emily and Corinne were perfect travel partners as we traversed through a bit of Thailand enjoying the country – and so many good laughs.

While visiting Chiang Mai, I met Shayne while visiting Free Bird Cafe. I quickly learned that Shayne is known by others as Chiang Mai Ambassador and is a networker, connector and problem solver. I quickly learned he is also the man at the center of many positive and rewarding human connections.

I mentioned my friends were interested in visiting an elephant sanctuary and wanted to find a place focused on ethical treatment of the majestic creatures. Shayne had an option in mind that proved to be perfect for us, The Elephant Love Project.

When researching ethical elephant centers, there are some things to consider. Practices typical in the past, and some of which I have even seen, are actually very stressful for elephants. When choosing, it’s important to avoid places that advertise shows where they are taught behaviors unnatural for elephants including acrobatic tricks and painting. In nature, elephants don’t let people ride on them. Doing so for the pleasure of humans requires “breaking them in” which can be extremely tortuous. Elephant sanctuaries provide care for ex-working elephants who were held in captive, and are best when they allow elephants to live and wander in big open spaces with other elephants. Visiting smaller sanctuaries that do not service tourists all day is best – especially if part of the plan includes touching the elephants or spending time in water with them. It’s not natural for elephants to bath all day, so it’s important to be cautious about this.

The Elephant Love Project has taken all of these guidelines to heart. During our time there, elephants were treated like extended family members, receiving affection, kindness, and good quality care.

Thanarong is the husband of the Karen family who runs this center. As members of the Karen people, they take their historic role as “caretakers of the elephants” very seriously. Sadly, because of the expensive costs of promotion needed to engage with tourists, and the fees charged by tour companies, many smaller Karen sanctuaries face financial difficulties as larger corporate groups monopolize the tourist industry.

We were picked up in the early morning by Somsak. Happy to say, he was not only friendly and gracious, but a Kenny Rogers fan who happily became a duet partner. Loudly belting out “Oh, Holy Night” while driving through backroads in Thailand may have been one of my trip highlights. As he told us about the sanctuary’s work, he became emotional while sharing the importance for Karen people of continuing their mission of protecting elephants and his desire to help Thanagrong’s family overcome the financial challenges of feeding the elephants (who eat 300-500 pounds of food per day) and their ability to pay annual rental fees to maintain the large roaming land space.

Our day was so much fun! We began by making nutritious snacks for the elephants that serve as daily vitamins. Using a large wooden smoosher (named by me), we mixed bananas with a variety of plants and herbs with specific medicinal benefits to ease digestion and provide important nutrients for elephants.

As we walked through the bright green property filled with foliage, we could hear elephants in the background. Corrine was giddy. I was nervous.

When we first met the elephants, Posit and Karmoo (English name translation), we were able to watch them interacting with each other and hanging out for a bit. The sanctuary team was so gentle with them. I could definitely see a difference from past experiences I have observed with elephants. Posit and Karmoo were former working elephants at the Thai border who were recovering from lifetimes of being overworked. Both had injuries that included one ear scarred from bomb injuries and a foot and leg with longstanding damage from being forced to carry heavy loads.

At “Elephant Love Project,” the elephants live in a place where they receive care for previous injuries while also living in a safe and secure space that closely resembles natural conditions. After living in captivity, both elephants would be unable to survive without the specific care they receive.

Once we warmed up to each other through gentle touches and slowly gained proximity, we were able to share the treats we made by saying “bon bon” and putting the snacks in their waiting mouths. This is when I started to feel a bit freaky, but I loved the way there was no pressure to dive in, but just gentle guidance to encourage interactions with the elephants. Their big wet tongues playfully, but quickly gobbled the snacks that actually smelled quite delicious. I am pretty sure that without a lot of guidance, you would not see me get this close to an elephant on my own.

It was a humid day, so time in the water was desirable for all. These elephants enjoy scheduled water time based on their needs, not only for the purpose of pleasing tourists. The muddy bath “spa” offers a desirable cooling spot and a bit of a rest. The elephants seemed to eat up gentle touches and the cool water poured on their warm backs. I know I enjoyed the quick dip and a few splashes between friends.

Our time with the elephants was interactive, purposeful, and appropriate time wise to not cause stress for anyone.

The sanctuary has a shower space where we rinsed off before enjoyed a few plates of yummy Pad Thai while happily debriefing on our day. Words like surreal, once in a lifetime, and living a dream pretty much summed up our day.

People wanting to visit elephants while maintaining ethical standards can confidently enjoying Elephant Love Project.

If you are interested in visiting or supporting their rehabilitation efforts, be sure to visit their Facebook page.

Posted in Chiang Mai, Elephant Love Project, Elephant Thailand, Ethical Elephant, Free Bird Cafe, HFTD, Hope for the Day, HopeTravels, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Self Care, Self expression, Thailand, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Finding Inspiration at Free Bird Cafe

In the past, when I heard the word entrepreneur, I have always imagined someone who craved money to acquire fancy cars, big houses, and loads of toys for personal satisfaction.

Lisa Nesser, founder of Thai Freedom House and Free Bird Cafe, is a different kind of entrepreneur. As a social entrepreneur, Lisa has all of the talents of a successful business person, being creative, innovative, and full of vision. However, Lisa’s aim is not the acquisition of personal wealth, but instead, her efforts support a full resource center that addresses diverse needs of Burmese refugees and other minority peoples of Thailand.

For years, I have been a long distance fan of Lisa’s innovative efforts connected to the Burmese community I know well from experiences as a World Relief mentor. While I could see challenges refugees faced upon arrival in the US, I admired how Lisa was doing heavy work of creating change directly within communities of displaced people. With limited resources, she used every part of her being to create sustainable systems of support. As years passed, from the distance the internet provides, I watched the evolution of her efforts through many stages of growth. When planning to visit Thailand, I wanted to learn more about their work and see her efforts up close. As I walked down the street and saw this sign in the distance, I was filled with the geeky excitement typically reserved for hotspot tourist destinations.

Meeting Lisa in person, I was drawn to her warm nature, but also her direct style. She knows how to get things accomplished and is always on the move, helping others and making the world a better place. She is a vision-oriented person who can also see the necessary steps needed to fulfill a goal. Mastering the art of being both vision and task-oriented is a gift that changes the world.

Not only does Lisa guide the teams at Thai Freedom House and Free Bird Cafe, but she does so in ways that provide sustainable skill development and education for everyone. Her goal is not to create her best workforce for herself, but to support others in the development of skills leading to their own business success and positively impacting their communities. The sheer number of projects she coordinates is overwhelming – and an example of how much one person can do. She even has her own line of natural products!

Current projects at Thai Freedom House include every aspect of life skills including birth and early childhood development, teen leadership, cultural preservation, specific skill development, and more. One of her main goals is to support entrepreneurial skills in others which can be easily observed by the success of Boo Boo Bamboo Straw company which is helping fill the need for reusable straws both within Thailand and internationally.

Lisa is also passionate about the environment and puts this passion into action through the creation of a Zero Waste Store filled with products that help people to create better habits for themselves and the earth and a “pre-loved charity shop” where clothes are sold to raise funds for project support.

Visiting Free Bird Cafe is a must when visiting Chiang Mai, Thailand. It’s not only a training ground for the hospitality program, it is also a wonderful place to enjoy a healthy meal and do a bit of shopping.

After years in a smaller space, Free Bird Cafe recently moved to an expanded location. The bright colored space has a positive vibe.

Not only is the food delicious, but it is healthy and made with fresh ingredients. Many traditional Thai recipes have been revamped to eliminate unhealthy ingredients while increasing the amount of fresh vegetables.

The presentation of each menu item has been meticulously planned. My favorite snack, the muesli with fruit arrived at my table each time, looking like a work of art.

The lavender limeade is delicious…beyond delicious really.

Outside of the delicious food, Lisa has created a space that offers respite from the steamy weather.

The courtyard space is filled with plants, colorful flowers, and brightly painted decorations. It’s clear that every detail of Free Bird was delicately coordinated to provide a space that uplifts guests.

As I walked through the “My Best Life CNX” zero waste store, I took so many notes of things I wanted to use when I return home. Lisa does that, through her actions, even things like providing zero waste options for standard products used by everyone, makes people think about their own habits and what changes can be made.

The Pre-Loved Charity shop is filled with books, clothing, and household items that have been donated to Thai Freedom House so profits can be used to support outreach programs.

I cannot say enough about the impressive work of Thai Freedom House. You can learn more by by visiting their webpage – or – if you find yourself in Chiang Mai, Thailand – be sure to make a visit to Free Bird Cafe. On the webpage, you can also learn about available volunteer opportunities and others ways to support their work. One of Lisa’s goals is to update the outside garden area. I can’t wait to see how this space develops in her loving hands.

Free Bird Cafe is a perfect spot to enjoy time with friends. Lucky me, I was not only able to visit with my lovely traveling companions, but I was also able to enjoy some time there with a former kindergarten student (from over 20 year ago) and her lovely family who I have known for years.

Thank you, Lisa for being a wonderful partner. I was so touched that we were able to create a collaborate mural in the Free Bird space to represent the LOVE and HOPE you so willingly share with others.

If you visit Free Bird Cafe, be sure to snap a picture of yourself with the Hope and Love murals. It’s one of over 20 #HopeTravels murals found around the world.

Posted in Chiang Mai, Free Bird Cafe, HeartsTravel, HFTD, Hope for the Day, HopeMural, HopeTravels, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Self Care, Self expression, Street Art, Thai Freedom House, Thailand, Travel, Zero Waste | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment