By Lauren Fellers
While most students have been recovering from midterms, junior Anne Bannister has spent the last few weeks visiting small villages in northern Thailand with local government officials.
“I might do anything from spending all day re-potting coffee seedlings, reading to kids or to traveling up the mountain to deliver elderly pensions alongside the local government, while at other times I spend days plugged into my computer sorting and posting photos, developing web and print materials or editing video footage,” Bannister said.
It isn’t a vacation. Bannister is volunteering as the official photographer of Warm Heart Worldwide (WHWW), a non-profit organization based in Phrao, Thailand that works to provide clean water, access to education, and a wide range of other services to preserve the local culture while trying to alleviate poverty in the area.
“As corny as it may sound, this has been a life changing experience for me, and I can’t imagine a more rewarding study abroad,” Bannister said. “I had envisioned something more traditional somewhere in Europe but found that I wanted to be engaged in something beyond the classroom and service oriented.”
The organization was founded in 2008 by Director Michael Shafer, Director of Finance and Operations Evelind Schecter, and their friends Chatree Saokaew and Carole Ketnourath. Phrao native and Chief of Staff Prachan Jakeo (PJ) initially suggested that they base themselves out of his hometown.
“Without PJ, Warm Heart’s Chief of Staff, who understands the inter-working of both American and Thai culture, Warm Heart would not have the same level of respect and connection to the local community,” Bannister said.
The paid staff are Thai, and with their help, WHWW serves 55 villages and a population of 54,000.
“The overarching goal of the organization is to offer solutions to the type of poverty that pressures youth from the hill tribe villages to migrate to the city to join brothels or subject themselves to forced labor in factories, construction, commercial fisheries and fish processing, etc.,” Bannister said.
WHWW focuses on helping locals help themselves through education, microenterprise, and public health programs. This includes running a Children’s Home for kids age 8-15 where live at while attending classes, providing hospital visits to those who otherwise wouldn’t have access to health care and training locals in skills such as silk production and weaving or growing coffee.
“The idea is: give villagers the knowledge, skill set, or resources to change their own circumstances and improve the quality of their own life,” Bannister said.
Currently, WHWW is introducing a new program called “Sponsor Me!” through which they hope to get sponsors for all of their kids. Sponsors pay $100 a month ($1200 a year) to provide necessary services such as medical care, food, classes, staff salaries and school supplies for their child.
“When you sponsor, we help pick up the Warm Heart who is most in need of you and send a package full of photos of the child, a personalized journal for you to document your relationship, drawings and a letter from your child and a small gift from us!” Bannister said.
Support for the charity is already beginning to crop up on campus. Bannister is a member of the co-ed service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega, and as a result of her experiences, they researched WHWW and have decided to contribute proceeds from a recent fundraiser to the organization.
“We’ve made just over $300 from Zombie Week, most if not all of which will be donated to WHWW,” Zombie Week organizer and Fundraising Chair Kayla Saenger said.
Bannister asks other on-campus organizations to consider supporting WHWW and encourages students to involve themselves with WHWW through whatever means possible.
“We need money, so a sponsorship or small donation would mean the world, but if you cannot give, spreading the word is contribution enough,” Bannister said.