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.