By Melanie Langness

Two months ago, I arrived at Warm Heart in the middle of the night after over 30 hours of traveling. Exhausted and delirious, I couldn’t see anything. I only felt the dry evening heat and a wet, slobbering tongue as Evelind’s dog Mickey suddenly appeared to welcome me. I slumped onto a mattress Evelind had prepared for my first night in her yoga room, and as I closed my eyes I knew that I would awake into an entirely new world. The next morning, I groggily sat up when I heard my fellow volunteer Olivia calling my name.

“Melanie, you’ve gotta come see this,” she said. I rolled off my mattress and walked out to her; out onto a previously undiscovered balcony. I gazed out at the lush greenery, realized that I would be working among the foothills of the Himalayas, and knew that these two months were going to be life changing.


View from Evelind’s balcony

I grew up in a small town in rural North Carolina, and I now attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a Morehead-Cain Scholar, studying Political Science and Social and Economic Justice. With my scholarship, I was given the opportunity to do a Public Service summer program anywhere in the world. After a few days of research, I discovered Warm Heart. Morehead scholars have been coming to Warm Heart for years, but what really drew me in was the multifaceted nature of the organization. I’m an indecisive person, and picking just one project area for an entire summer was daunting. With Warm Heart, I saw an opportunity to combine my interests in female empowerment, public health, and public relations. I was brought on as a Public Relations and Fundraising intern, but upon arrival I chose to take my work down a different path.


Some of the girls I forged a close bond with (from top to bottom: Jaew, Prim, Jan)

In rural areas and traditional cultures across the world, female hygiene is considered a taboo subject. Female education rates are directly affected as unfriendly feminine infrastructure and existing societal standards prevent girls from feeling comfortable attending school during their menstrual cycles. In addition to feminine health problems, thorough sexual education in most South and Southeastern Asian countries is rare. Few programs are truly doing enough to combat the high rates of teen pregnancies, date rapes, and unhealthy relationships, or spreading quality information about sexually transmitted diseases. Recently, high schools in Thailand began implementing Health and Sex Ed curriculums, but they are not comprehensive. At Warm Heart, I realized the older (ages twelve and up) girls could really benefit from someone sitting down and teaching them all about their own bodies.


Lalita and Mew, two girls from my class who loved to hang out on the volunteer office couch and take selfies!

I decided to create a Feminine Health curriculum as my main work focus. I met weekly with the Warm Heart girls and moved through lessons on hygiene, female anatomy, reproductive health, menstruation, breast cancer awareness and self-examinations, and sexual education. The menstruation lesson was especially important to me. I explained ways for the girls to combat strong menstrual cramps and other PMS symptoms with natural remedies instead of with expensive pain medicine, hoping that managed symptoms would result in lower numbers of monthly school absences for the girls.

My lessons were designed to be applicable to the social climate of rural Thailand while including some more Westernized dialogues concerning consent and healthy relationships. I worked to create sustainable materials in both Thai and English and left them behind for the class to continue once I leave the country. Hopefully, the girls learned enough to disseminate their new tricks and tips throughout their outside friend groups.


Some of my Feminine Health students showing off a “25 Things to Remember About Sex” sheet I created

In addition to teaching my Feminine Health classes, I also taught a weekly English class at a nearby restaurant for non-Warm Heart children and went out on weekly Public Health visitation runs. I volunteered to be part of the “Tuesday crew” – the volunteers who visited the clients with conditions serious enough to require weekly monitoring. On these visits, I would assist in asking pointed questions to analyze the mental, physical, and financial conditions of our patients. I also tried to be a smiling face and act just as a concerned visiting friend would. The public health program allowed me to feel like I was truly impacting the community in my own small way with every visit.


Tip and Theap, a Public Health couple who never failed to put a smile on my face.

Now, if you decide to come to Warm Heart, don’t expect to be surrounded by modern infrastructure or to have access to luxurious Western amenities. Phrao is a small town surrounded by even tinier village communities. It’s rural, it’s mountainous, and yes, it is breathtakingly beautiful, but it’s in the middle of nowhere. However, for just 80 baht (under $3), you can hop into an air-conditioned van and ride 90 minutes into Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is just like any modern city, but with a Thai flair. Walking down the streets of the Old City, a huge glass shopping center may line one side of the road, but look across to the other and you’re likely to find a bustling traditional market.

I loved going into Chiang Mai, but I did so sparingly. Weekends are a great time to get work done with the kids, so I chose not to leave Warm Heart except for a few luxurious “vacation” trips. During my weekend excursions, I took time to hike 5,500ft up into the Chiang Mai mountains to visit Wat Doi Suthep, a temple that glitters with gold. I had the cheapest traditional Thai massages I could find and splurged on a first-class movie ticket. I ate chicken tenders, avocados and all the Western food I wanted. After sleeping with geckos, rats, and bugs galore for a month, walking into the massive contemporary Maya Lifestyle Center shopping mall felt surreal. While my Chiang Mai visits were always a blast, returning back to Phrao on Sunday nights felt like coming home.


One of my favorite temples in the Old City of Chiang Mai

While I decided to put most of my energy into creating my Feminine Health curriculum, I didn’t completely abandon my Fundraising role. Olivia and I came up with the idea to host two “Warm Heart Art Galas” back in America at our own university and at East Carolina University. We had the kids create an array of art pieces and took some meaningful photos for us to bring home, and hopefully the fundraising parties will prove to be lucrative.


Some Warm Heart boys working hard on art for the US gala

I hope that I left behind my mark on Warm Heart because it definitely left a permanent park on my heart. I encourage anyone thinking of volunteering with an NGO to look into Warm Heart. It’s an experience that you won’t forget with people and kids that you won’t want to leave.

(Melanie Langness  recently completed a two-month stay at Warm Heart)